During the second intermission on April 8, the Minnesota Wild learned that it qualified for the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs—thanks to a Columbus Blue Jackets overtime win against the Phoenix Coyotes. However, that outcome and the postseason were about as far away as Jupiter in the minds of the players in Minnesota’s locker room.
The Wild trailed the Boston Bruins, the team with the National Hockey League’s best regular season record and last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up, by a goal heading into the third. Minnesota could’ve downshifted, put its game into cruise control for the final 20 minutes and coasted into the postseason. But this wasn’t the case, as the Wild would, once again, reach deep into its reserves and mount a third-period comeback.
“The message was, ‘Let's not wait for anything; let's not back our way into anything; let's not come through the back door,’” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “Let's go charging through the front door.”
With under a two minutes remaining, Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara lofted the puck from behind his net, floating it over the heads of the Wild attackers. The puck bounced at the Minnesota blue line and crossed the goal line, for what looked like an icing and faceoff in the Boston end, but the linesman waved it off. Ryan Suter was forced to retrieve it. With 200 feet to go and the Bruins setting up in the neutral zone, the game-tying goal looked like it was out of reach.
Somehow, the puck pin-balled through the neutral zone, and found its way onto Jason Pominville’s stick in the Boston end. He found Suter in the slot, and the defenseman fired it home for the game-tying goal with just 1:05 remaining. The Xcel Energy Center crowd nearly blew the roof off the building as the Wild bench exploded in celebration.
The play was a microcosm of the Wild’s regular season—salvaging a situation from the scrapheap, shaping it with resolve and turning it into a work of art.
The Wild went on to win the game in a shootout, with Mikko Koivu scoring on his patented backhand-top-shelf move and three saves from Ilya Bryzgalov.
The victory locked up the seventh seed in the Western Conference, and Minnesota earned the first wild-card spot on its own terms. For the second-straight year, the Wild were headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The team’s ability to rally season meant it was never out of a game. The club’s 79 third-period goals and plus-14 goal differential in the final period are among the highest marks in the League. The Wild tied for second in the NHL with eight wins despite trailing after 40 minutes.
“The biggest thing is our resiliency,” said forward Matt Cooke, who signed as a free agent in the offseason. “We've battled through some adversity, but I think that it's made this group stronger. It's made each and every one of us believe in each other and that's a good thing heading into the playoffs.”
Playing for More
After missing four-straight postseasons, the Wild signed Suter and Zach Parise to matching 13-year contracts on July 4, 2012. The day marked a new era in the State of Hockey—the postseason was no longer the hope, but the expectation. Even with the addition of two high-profile free agents, two players don’t make a hockey team.
The Wild was on the rise, but there would still be growing pains and lessons to be learned. There is no instant gratification when building a sports franchise. Last year, the Wild made the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08 on the last day of the regular season. A 3-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche gave the Wild the eighth seed in the West, but the club didn’t feel like it was playing its best hockey.
“We got beat at home by some teams we shouldn't have, and we weren't feeling really good about the way we were [playing] going into it,” Parise said.
After punching its postseason ticket on the final day of a lockout-shortened 48-game regular season, the Wild was still gaining experience as a team and trying to find its identity.
“You have to be at the top of your game going in,” Suter said. “We snuck in and we weren't playing that well and it showed.”
In the opening round, the Wild ran into a buzz saw. The Chicago Blackhawks eliminated Minnesota in five games on its way to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
“We ran into a really good Chicago team,” Parise said. “It was a tough first round matchup, but no one was happy about the way it shook out and how we played.”
For many of the players on the team, it was their first taste of the unforgiving force that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But as quickly as the team was knocked from the playoffs, it was a foundation to build upon.
“We learned how hard it is, how hard the games are in the postseason; how it's a different level,” Parise said. “There's so much more on the line. The pace is faster. People don't skate by checks; every hit is finished. The speed of the game increases so much.”
Every possession is magnified, each power play scrutinized and the margin for error is thinner than spring ice on Lake Minnetonka. For the team’s younger players, the first trip was eye opening, but it wasn’t just a case of idle observation.
“Every little bit of experience helps,” second-year forward Charlie Coyle said. “Even though it was a short stint in the playoffs last year, we're still fortunate to gain that experience and witness the atmosphere of playoff hockey and be ready for it this year.”
Continuing to Build
The Wild was happy about gaining playoff experience last season, but the team wouldn’t stand pat after a first round exit.
It started in the offseason when the team inked a veteran forward with Stanley Cup credentials, Matt Cooke. The winger has been a steady force on the ice and a veteran presence to the youngsters in the locker room.
“It's not a switch you can turn and it happens now,” Cooke said. “It's been a process all year of building and getting our game to where we need it to be, believing in ourselves and knowing that we're a good team.”
The fiery winger was well known in the State of Hockey as an agitator from his days as a Vancouver Canuck. But Cooke reformed his game in Pittsburgh, helping the Penguins to back-to-back Cup Finals, winning in 2009.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher has exhibited that making moves, either through free agency or trade, to improve the team is a top priority. Last season, Minnesota acquired forward Jason Pominville, and then signed him to a five-year extension prior to the season. Pominville adjusted well to his first full season in the State of Hockey, leading the club in scoring (30-30=60).
Minnesota was busy again at the Trade Deadline before making its final playoff push. The Wild acquired noted sniper Matt Moulson along with tough depth forward Cody McCormick from the Buffalo Sabres, and veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers. All three players went from rebuilding franchises to the playoff-bound Wild.
“It’s exciting,” Moulson said. “You dream of lifting that cup over your head and to get a chance at that. You never know how many chances you’ll get, so you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
Playing Through Adversity
The road to the playoffs hasn’t been an easy one for the Wild. The team has seen injuries to key players for large chunks of the season and a revolving door of goaltenders that would make any club dizzy. Regardless of the situation or who was in the lineup, Minnesota has blazed ahead.
At the start of the season, it looked like the Wild would be set in net with a pair of capable starters, Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom. Harding started the season on fire, posting a 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, but has been out of the lineup since Dec. 31 as he continues to battle multiple sclerosis. Harding has returned to practice and his presence has been a boost in the locker room. Backstrom fought through injuries and was finally shut down after having core muscle surgery on March 25.
Two goaltenders going down might’ve crippled a team, but the Wild had an ace up its sleeve. Minnesota looked to Iowa, the club’s American Hockey League affiliate, and Darcy Kuemper. The netminder was a workhorse after the Olympic break, starting 11 of 14 games. The week ending March 2, he was named the NHL’s Third Star after saving 51 of 52 shots in two wins against the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, respectively.
The day that the Wild acquired Bryzgalov, it was announced that Backstrom would be shut down for the remainder of the season. What looked like an insurance move has paid big dividends. Initially it was thought that Bryzgalov would spot in from time to time behind Kuemper, but the young goaltender suffered an upper-body injury on March 31. Bryzgalov took the reigns as the club’s number one netminder. The 33-year-old lost only one game in regulation in a Wild sweater, going 7-1-3, while posting three shutouts.
The injury bug wasn’t limited to the crease. Parise, Koivu and Jared Spurgeon all missed significant time with injuries after blocking shots. However, while they were on the shelf, young players stepped up at critical times, gaining confidence and, more importantly, wins.
Mikael Granlund had a breakout year after a learning the ropes in his rookie season. The former first rounder posted 41 points (8-33=41) in 63 games and established himself as a top-six forward. Granlund suffered an upper body injury on March 31, but the team is hopeful to have him back for Game 1.
Forwards Justin Fontaine, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula all contributed with timely goals and strong two-way play. A former fifth-overall pick by the New York Islanders, Niederreiter was acquired over the summer on draft day and has been rejuvenated with the Wild. Former college standouts, Fontaine and Haula, have used their speed and smarts to make an impact in their first year.
After a strong rookie campaign, Coyle was expected to be a big contributor this season. After an early knee injury that kept him sidelined for more than a month, he took some time to find a groove. After hitting a mid-season slide, Coyle started to play more physically and was rewarded by re-joining the top line with Parise and Koivu. He responded by scoring in eight of nine games (March 22 to April 7) for 10 points (5-5=10).
The Wild’s depth has played a role at every position. On Hockey Day Minnesota, defenseman Nate Prosser became the unlikely hero by scoring the overtime winning goal against the Dallas Stars. Coincidentally, the high school games of the day’s celebration were hosted by Elk River, Prosser’s hometown.
“It's 20 guys and it's going to be a different guy every night,” Cooke said. “And you have to be good with that.”
Minnesota has been good with that, as the club came together nicely down the stretch and was playing its best hockey of the season. In three of its final five games, Minnesota toppled the number one (Boston), three (St. Louis) and five (Pittsburgh) teams in the league, respectively. That bodes well for a team heading into the playoffs, driving for a silver chalice at the end of the road.
“It's the hardest trophy to win and there's a reason for that,” Cooke said. “The intensity is ramped up and every play is amplified. You have to bring it—it's a race to four wins in every series. You have to go out and play against the same guys every night for a seven game series.
“It's the reason why we play.”