Last season, the Minnesota Wild's first Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in five years was a short one when they lost in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild team that lost in the opening round last season has a different feel to it this time around. So different, in fact, that Minnesota will win its first playoff series since 2003, and the state will host a Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the Minnesota North Stars faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991.
A quick scan of the current roster reveals plenty of world-class talent to lead this team to the 2014 Stanley Cup championship. But, there are certain intangibles that will also assist a Cup run in the State of Hockey.
For starters, Minnesota boasts a top-shelf first wave of talent that can compete with most groups in the NHL. In their first full 82-game seasons with the Wild, forwards Zach Parise and Jason Pominville have led the charge offensively. With five goals in five games to close out the month of March, Parise appears ready for the playoff spotlight.
The emergence of Mikael Granlund complements the more-established Mikko Koivu and gives the Wild two quality playmaking centers. The acquisition of three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson at the NHL Trade Deadline helped complete two strong forward lines that will compete at both ends of the ice.
The anchor for all that talent is defenseman Ryan Suter, who just might be the single-most consistent player in the NHL. That's no small feat considering how heavily the Wild lean on Suter, who led all NHL players in ice time this season, averaging close to 30 minutes a game (29:24).
Despite logging monster minutes, he has still contributed in every situation and will be, along with Parise, the key to Minnesota's Cup run.
Minnesota's top-line talent is easy to spot, but the Wild also offer intangibles which will prove crucial in the playoffs, when every bounce and break is a potential game-changer.
For one thing, the Wild have proven their resilience all season long, particularly when the games are close. By the end of March, Minnesota posted a 22-7-11 record in one-goal games which was among the League's best. That ability to finish close games will come in handy throughout the playoffs. Minnesota's ability in the clutch doesn't end there. When March came to a close, Minnesota had a plus-14 goal differential in the third period. Five teams had a better scoring differential in the third.
Despite injuries that caused a constant state of flux in net, Minnesota's consistent defense has made it a tough team to beat. The 27.6 shots they allowed per game was the fifth-lowest total in the League and defensemen Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon have continued to develop under Suter's tutelage.
The Wild also proved to be among the League's most responsible teams. With six games remaining in their schedule, they had posted 450 giveaways and averaged 9.6 penalty minutes per game, each among the lowest figures in the NHL.
Small details like these sustained across the length of the playoffs can help a team advance. The elite players at the top of Minnesota's depth chart should do the rest.