As the team cleaned out lockers and gave its final interviews of the season, the netminder was asked what it was like to have time off after playing practically every other day since mid-January.
He was blunt, “yeah, it sucked. It still does.”
The disappointment following the Wild’s quick exit from the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs still hung over the locker room like a gray chill, as if the cold spring day had filtered through limestone and concrete right into the underbelly of Xcel Energy Center.
According to captain Mikko Koivu, that lingering feeling was unlike anything he has experienced in the past.
“It’s a lot different than it’s ever been when I finished a season here,” Koivu said. “We’re all still very disappointed. There hasn’t been that many days yet so I think everyone is still trying to figure out what happened and find the reasons, things like that.”
But that dissimilarity also stems from the expectations the team had for itself and its past playoff experiences.
Two years ago, the Wild made the playoffs for the first time in five years. Though it lost in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks — the team that has seemingly become its personal Everest — the club was happy to have at least made it into the postseason.
The following year, Minnesota won a series, and climbed even higher. Though it lost in the second round to the Hawks, there was still a sense of accomplishment for making it to the NHL’s elite eight.
This year, the expectations were higher. They felt they had the guys in the room to push even further into the postseason.
“The fact that we got to where we were is pretty good,” Ryan Suter said. “I think it’s also good knowing that the guys in the room are disappointed with how the year ended. A couple years ago we were excited to be in the playoffs and you lose the first round, you’re excited about that. Last year, you win the first round and you’re happy that you made it to the second round. Then this year, to make it to the second round and then to have the feeling we have now, I think is a good thing. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Though this year may not have ended with a silver chalice there are several linings of the same color. While the lingering disappointment can be viewed as a good thing, the experience itself can only benefit the Wild going forward.
The more time the group spends together and the more they go through, the stronger they’ll be as a unit.
“I believe the more experience you have together over the years, the more you keep that team together, that’s when you’re going to find out how far you’re ready to go,” Koivu said. “If you look at the good teams, they’ve been together for a lot of years. Every team basically has to go through those ups and downs, for sure in one season, but more than just one year. I believe in that.”
Certainly, three straight years of playoff experience can only help and should be viewed a strong positive for the organization. For some players, this year marked their first NHL postseason experience, notably Matt Dumba.
The rookie defenseman made strides in the final stretch of the season, laying down a foundation for his role on the team — one he hopes to keep building on. The blueliner called this season a bit of a personal roller coaster, but he believes he responded well to each situation in which he was placed.
“I feel as if no matter what circumstance I was put in this year, I was resilient, I responded very well. I think I’m confident in myself now that I can play a consistent game and do that over a long period of time,” Dumba said. “Where before this year I was kind of back and forth and never really found that in my game. I’m pretty happy with that. Moving forward, it’s staying with that and being at your best whatever is asked, and that’s every time you come to the rink.”
Going forward, the Wild will try to mimic Dumba’s personal aim: to stay consistent. Many of the players noted that getting into the playoffs was an accomplishment in and of itself given the team was, at one point, so far outside of the playoff picture getting back in seemed unlikely. Ups and downs happen, the Wild simply hope that the lows don’t fall as deep as they were this season.
With the right personnel and a burst of confidence like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, the Wild turned matters around, leading to loftier hopes for what the team could accomplish. Though Minnesota fell short of those expectations, there’s no denying it was made up of a special group of players.
“You can’t sit here and say we didn’t have a great team,” Jason Zucker said. “We had a lot of great guys in this locker room that did a lot of great things. We had great leaders and, all around the board, it was a really good team. You can’t sit here and say you need ten guys from outside or whatever it is. I think we had a great team that could have done a lot of really good things. We didn’t accomplish it this year.”
In Game 2 Zucker suffered a broken thumb. He noted that playing with a numb thumb made it difficult to stickhandle. He wasn't the only injured Wild player. Chris Stewart also had a separated shoulder.
This year wasn’t the year. But the hope and the expectations are already waiting for next season.
“I feel like this group has a lot of good leadership,” Thomas Vanek said. “We’ll make another run at it.”