Minnesota has overcome a lot this season in reaching the playoffs and knocking out St. Louis. Now comes another challenge: facing a Chicago team which has ousted the Wild from the postseason the last two years.
Inscribed in golden-tan and all caps, it arches across the back of goalie Devan Dubnyk’s team-issued, black Wild shirt he wears under his game uniform. Zach Parise sported the same dry-fit tee after an optional skate Tuesday. Defenseman Matt Dumba and other players have been spotted sporting them in Minnesota’s dressing room, too, and they’ve apparently sworn to secrecy regarding the garb’s origin.
"I don’t know," Dumba said cheekily when asked about the team’s screen-printed playoff mantra. "You might have to crack someone else with this. You’re not getting anything from me."
How about Parise, the team’s leader, an alternate captain in official roster designation only?
"You’re better off not asking."
That’s OK. The collective pliability of Parise, Dubnyk and the rest of a tight-knit pucks fraternity explains everything.
Truth is, Minnesota earned a third crack at Chicago in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs via its resilience — the paradoxical kind that comes from never admitting its presence in the first place, head coach Mike Yeo says.
"Probably not looking back on too many things and feeling too satisfied with too many things," said Yeo, who has overseen back-to-back, stretch-run playoff pushes that bled into first-round postseason success, the latest a 4-2 series victory over St. Louis in the first round. "It would be a big mistake on our part to sit around and say, ‘Well, we’re really resilient’ and start feeling good about that."
Especially against the mighty Blackhawks, who tyrannized an inexperienced Wild group in the first round of the 2013 playoffs and eked out a tightly-contested, 4-2 series win in last season’s Western Conference semifinals. The rematch thereof begins at 8:30 p.m. CT Friday at the United Center, and to reflect on the journey now would be to completely neglect its potential climax.
"We need to stay in the moment," veteran grinder Matt Cooke said after Minnesota’s 4-1 clincher Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center. "There’ll be lots of time in July to think back and (dwell) on the year that was."
But when the golf clubs are out and the pontoons gassed up, they’ll recall a group that developed an imperturbable identity as the season went on, a "quiet confidence," as Yeo likes to call it. That’s something the current core didn’t quite possess during its first two go-rounds against Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford and a seasoned group that’s won the Cup two of the past five seasons, and reached the postseason every year since 2009.
It didn’t come from nowhere.
The heart and the soul
The commonly accepted narrative of Minnesota’s rise from well outside the playoff race to the thick of it goes like this: Wild disappoint, Wild trade for Dubnyk on Jan. 14, Wild concoct a torrential run thanks to their finally-reliable goaltending and the confidence it infuses throughout the lineup. That’s indeed at the heart of it, as the Vezina finalist’s 1.78 goals-against average carried Minnesota to a league-best winning percentage (.738, 28-9-3) following his migration from Arizona.
But that leaves out the injuries, illness and deaths in the family that all sideswiped the franchise during the season’s first half.
"Everyone forgets we were playing a lot of time with three of our top four D-men out," said Parise, the opening-round hero with a team-high seven points including two goals Sunday in Game 6. "It’s tough to win like that. People forget about that, and they forget about the injuries we had. We had guys sick. A lot of stuff happened at the beginning of the year that it was hard for us to play. That’s no excuse — we didn’t compete hard, we didn’t play well — but there’s a lot of stuff going on that’s easy to forget about."
Parise knows better than most. His father, former North Star J.P Parise, died Jan. 7 after a yearlong battle with lung cancer. Defenseman Ryan Suter’s father, "Miracle On Ice" team member Bob Suter, had died Sept. 9 after suffering an apparent heart attack.
The entire team attended both funerals.
It pales in big-picture comparison, but the Wild also fell victim to a league-wide mumps outbreak and a slew of injuries. Illnesses sidelined defensemen Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, forwards Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker and goalie Darcy Kuemper. An early-December concussion may have ended Keith Ballard’s career (he’s yet to return and considering retirement), and Parise, Cooke, Granlund and Ryan Carter all showed up on the injury report before the New Year, too.
Parise and Suter began playing to honor the memories of their fathers. Yeo’s systems never changed, but his players began executing them better. They got healthier. They became more confident. A team nearly maxed out under the salary cap after signing Thomas Vanek and locking up a handful of in-house free agents last summer dug down and played up to its worth.
"Everything came together at the same time," Parise said, "and I think that’s when it took off."
For a team dizzy from a goaltending carousel of Kuemper, Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom the past two years, Dubnyk’s contributions can’t be overstated. But there’s more to it, the soul of the solution lying in the group’s composite lack of flappability.
Next shift, next play
It was needed in the first round. St. Louis spent much of the time trying to goad the Wild into silly penalties; they committed 11 infractions the entire series. And after a 6-1 flub in which Dubnyk wasn’t anywhere near his best, he and his teammates rallied for a pair of 4-1 wins.
"We’ve got this next-shift, next-play mentality," Yeo said. "It’s nice that we’ve done some good things, and maybe we have been resilient, but we’ve got to keep marching forward. We’ve got to concentrate on what’s in front of us, and I think that’s been why we can look back and say those things right now."
Yeo admitted some concern over Dubnyk’s bounce-back capabilities; after all, the coach had never seen his prized acquisition in such a situation before late last week. But after yielding six goals on 17 shots last Wednesday, Dubnyk made 36 saves in Game 5 two days later and had 29 in Game 6.
"There were reasons why we could believe that he would bounce back from that, but you never fully know until you’re faced with that," Yeo said. "Especially because there are more emotions in the playoffs, you’re dealing with a lot more. But the way he got through that was extremely impressive."
Said Dubnyk: "What you can do is go out and win the games after that. We knew we were still in a good spot, and to get that win in St. Louis and come back here and give ourselves a chance to win it at home, nobody in here wanted to squander that opportunity."
Thanks in large part to Dubnyk’s resoluteness, the Wild have been particularly composed away from the X this season, posting a 16-2-0 road record after the Dubnyk trade and winning two of three games at the Scottrade Center. Now, with the third-seeded Blackhawks holding home-ice advantage, Minnesota will need at least one win at the Madhouse on Madison, where it’s 0-6 the past two postseasons. It’ll be facing a goaltender in Corey Crawford who’s 8-3 with a 1.66 goals-against average against the Wild during postseason play.
But key centermen Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund aren’t rookies like they were in 2013, when Parise said his team didn’t stand a chance against the eventual Cup champs. And after a year of overcoming, a more experienced bunch claims it’s fire-tested and thus amply prepared.
"We were just happy to be in the playoffs" two years ago, Coyle said. But two years later, after first-round advancements past Colorado last season and the Blues last weekend, "I don’t think we’re surprised by the way we beat St. Louis; we were pretty confident. They’re obviously a great team and finished the year in a great position, but the second half of the year, we were one of the top teams in the league, if not the best. I think we just kind of carried that with us."
No arguments from the next obstacle. After ending the Wild’s season in overtime — on a strange bounce off a stanchion behind Ilya Bryzgalov — last year, the Blackhawks expect an evenly pitted, open-ice affray.
Chicago’s skill against Minnesota’s speed. The Blackhawks’ puck possession against the Wild’s sound defense. Toews and Kane against Parise and Suter in what’s become a classic series of matchups.
Chicago won the regular-season series 3-2. But Dubnyk went 2-0 against it, including a 2-1 win April 7 that clinched Minnesota’s playoff berth.
"I feel like they’re getting better and better in a lot of ways every year," said Hawks captain Toews, who led his team with eight points in its 4-2, first-round series win against Nashville, "so it’s going to be the toughest test I think we’ve seen in a long time."
What players on both sides call a budding rivalry is founded more upon mutual respect than vitriol and post-whistle skirmishes. But, Yeo grinned, "I don’t think that we love them. They knocked us out a couple years in a row here."
That’s fuel. But so is the moxie that comes with conquering encumbrances.
Even if stoking it requires ignoring what’s already been eclipsed.
"We’re looking to do more, and we know we have more to give," Coyle said. "That’s the scary part."