If you’re going to be successful in the playoffs—anytime you see a team who really gets hot in the playoffs, who gets on a run, gets on a roll, whatever you want to say—there’s guys and always storylines in that…There’s always guys who, maybe, exceed the expectations.
- Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo
The Minnesota Wild writes the opening lines of its 2014 Stanley Cup Playoff story tomorrow against the Central Division winning, Colorado Avalanche. While the ending is a mystery, there are plenty of suspects on each side who will make an impact on the outcome of the series.
During the regular season, Minnesota’s goaltending situation read like a drama, but Ilya Bryzgalov is trying to turn the Wild’s Dostoyevskian tragedy into a story of redemption.
Acquired the day before the National Hockey League’s Trade Deadline for a fourth round pick from the Edmonton Oilers, Bryzgalov is set to get the Game 1 start tomorrow against the Avalanche.
After the Philadelphia Flyers used one of its compliance buyouts on him during the offseason, Bryzgalov wasn’t on an NHL roster to start the season. The netminder never seemed to fit in Philadelphia. The much-maligned netminder has found a comfortable spot in the Wild locker room, the proverbial square peg fitting in a round hole.
“You don’t have to have 22 to 25 guys who are all the same,” Yeo said. “I think it’s real important that everybody’s unique and everybody brings their own piece of the puzzle, but everybody’s trying to do the same thing and accomplish the same thing.
“[Bryzgalov has] come in with a different personality, there’s no question, but he’s shown his teammates that he’s committed to them and he has the same goal: to come here and win hockey games.”
Bryzgalov was the first Wild player on the ice today as the team practiced at the University of Denver’s Magness Arena. It was the team’s final chance to run through systems and special teams before facing the Avs in Game 1 tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. State of Hockey Time.
Making his first playoff appearance will be rookie Erik Haula—coincidentally against the team he made his NHL debut against on Nov. 29, 2013. Just a year ago, with the University of Minnesota, Haula was playing against DU at Magness.
The 23-year-old is set to center the Wild’s fourth line between Cody McCormick and Stephane Veilleux, with Mikael Granlund set to return to the second line centering Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson. Haula has used the regular season to gain confidence from his teammates and coaching staff, but also learning the minor details to stay in the lineup and contribute. He’s been like a Playdough sponge (million dollar idea?), soaking up experiences and reforming his game as need be.
“You’ve got to adapt to your role and you’ve got to understand what your role is,” Haula said. “It’s a different role and you’ve got to just realize what it is and go out and execute.”
While he’ll take lessons from his freshman season into Game 1, the playoffs are like a master’s thesis in competition compared to the regular season. Haula is one of four Wild players expected to make their playoff debut (Granlund, Nate Prosser and Nino Niederreiter). The even-keeled rookie hopes to keep his pre-test jitters to a minimum.
“I hope not,” Haula said when asked about the potential for butterflies. “There could be. There will be some kind of excitement or nerves, but I think it will be okay.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Matt Cooke has been around the block a time or two. His style is suited for the playoffs and his experience is one of the reasons that Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher signed him as a free agent in the offseason. Cooke believes he can help influence the younger players.
“That’s the biggest thing that I’ll stress to the guys in our room—one play is one play and one period is one period and one game is only one game,” Cooke said. “It’s a race to four wins and right now it’s zero-zero.”
Cooke and Haula will be asked to provide energy to the lineup and play a solid two-way game. The Wild will be tasked with slowing down the Avalanche’s young skilled forwards, ranking fourth in the League in goals per game (2.99). The Avs have a core of baby-faced forwards without playoff experience. Cooke knows that during a series, emotions run high and looks to use those swings in the Wild’s favor.
“Over the course of a five-six-seven game series, you start to build up that dislike or disdain for guys on the other team,” Cooke said. “Some stuff starts to carry over and you try to take advantage of that the best you can.”
To counter the Avs skill up front, the Wild will rely heavily on Ryan Suter. In Game 1 last season, Suter played just north of 41 minutes in a 2-1 overtime loss against the Chicago Blackhawks. However, the Wild will need contributions from its entire D-corps, especially Suter’s partner, Jared Spurgeon.
“Our game is to be a defensive first team,” Spurgeon said. “They have good speed, so we have to respect them, but not too much and not give them too much space. They have good skill, so good sticks will help as well.”
The Wild has preached, and lived up to, a tight checking, defensively responsible style all year. The Lighthouse thinks there’s an old saying about defense and championships, but is blanking on the adage right now. Regardless, the Wild will need to play its best hockey to pull the upset against the Avs.
“We’re going to have to be at our best. It’s the playoffs and it brings out the best in everybody,” Cooke said. “Nothing short of our best effort is going to be successful.”