ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Wild's season has been over for a few days but they were still coming to terms with how it ended when players emptied their lockers Friday.
Tied 1-1 in overtime with the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Second Round, Patrick Kane scored the series-clinching goal after a dump-in attempt took a goofy hop off a stanchion behind the Wild net and landed on his stick. Just like that, Minnesota's season was over. Disappointing as the ending was, it was a successful year when the Wild's youngsters made major strides.
"We played some good hockey and it was a great series and it could have gone either way," forward Nino Niederreiter said. "But obviously it's a bitter end."
The Minnesota Wild's top prospects established themselves through their run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo: Bill Smith/NHLI)
One thing is for certain: The Wild took a step forward this season, with its prospects leading the way.
"I believe that there are a lot of positives," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "But I also am realistic that it's really hard [to keep improving]. And so we should look forward to that challenge."
With forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in their second season with Minnesota, the bar was raised. The Wild answered, advancing past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since their reaching the Western Conference Final in 2003.
After being dispatched rather easily by the Blackhawks in five games in 2013, the Wild went toe-to-toe with the defending champs in 2014.
"We took a step, and I'm proud of the step we took," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "This team has really grown by leaps and bounds. I'm really proud of our coaching staff, our players. We were one of the best teams in the League from Jan. 1 on and we carried that strong play into the playoffs."
With established veterans Parise and Suter in the mix for the next decade and a five-year contract for forward Jason Pominville that starts in 2014-15, it was crucial that younger players, Niederreiter and forwards Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, take on larger roles.
All three proved to be valuable parts of the Wild's core moving forward.
Perhaps the most encouraging news of the playoffs was the development of rookie Erik Haula, who was arguably the Wild's best player during the postseason. Tasked with helping to slow the Colorado Avalanche's explosive first line, Haula did his job. Against Chicago, Haula scored Minnesota's final two goals of the series. He finished the postseason with four goals and three assists and was a plus-2. During the regular season, Haula was a plus-14, the highest rating for a rookie in Wild history.
Center - MIN
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 7
SOG: 35 | +/-: 3
"Each one of the young guys, I think we push each other to get better and I feel like that helped a lot," Niederreiter said. "Over the course of the year, each one of us played in different situations. When someone was hurt, there was a young guy ready to step up his game and try to perform at that level. I feel like that was good to be a part of. We pushed each other to be better hockey players in all situations."
Niederreiter scored the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 7 against Colorado and carried that confidence into the second round against Chicago. Yeo said he saw a switch flip with Niederreiter around Game 4 or 5 against the Avalanche, and from that point on he was one of the Wild's best players.
Niederreiter now hopes to carry that momentum into the start of next season.
"That's my goal and that's what I'm looking for," Niederreiter said. "I will do everything it takes to be in that spot next year, and I feel that's great motivation to push myself this summer."
For Granlund, the OT hero in Game 3 against the Avalanche, the postseason was the exclamation point on a breakout season. After injuries and a lengthy adjustment to the North American game kept him primarily in the American Hockey League last season, the Finn took several steps forward in 2013-14. He spent much of the playoffs centering the top line with Parise and Pominville.
Coyle, who shifted between forward positions all season, thrived on right wing during the postseason, scoring three goals and two assists in the Colorado series before separating one shoulder in Game 4 against the Avalanche and separating the other in Game 3 against the Blackhawks. But Coyle didn't miss a game and proved to be effective, assisting on two goals after sustaining the second injury.
"As our young players continue to get better, our team will continue to get better," Yeo said. "Just as it was game-to-game or series-to-series, it has to be season-to-season now."