ST. PAUL, Minn. — Listening to Mike Rupp speak about winning the Stanley Cup, it’s easy to see why the road to the championship is at once rewarding and agonizing.
Getting the chance to lift the cup after surviving the playoffs is special. Even 10 years since Rupp won the Stanley Cup for the only time so far in his career, the scenes of the playoffs gone by can run through Rupp’s head.
“Every round is its own little movie in your head,” Rupp said Monday, on the verge of his first playoff run with the Minnesota Wild. “I can tell you the turning points, the ups and downs from playoff series from five, six years ago and you know what those things look like, you know what they felt like. Every round you get closer and closer, this is the time of year where everything just stops in our minds. You just dig in even more with what’s going on and we become closer each round. It’s something we’ll look to do.”
Rupp’s only goal in the NHL finals was the game-winner for New Jersey in Game 7 in 2003. He had a goal and two assists in the game. He brings that experience, which includes 63 career playoff games, to Minnesota this year, one of a small handful of players on the young Wild that have had the chance to experience the playoffs. Veterans Rupp and teammate Matt Cullen are Stanley Cup winners and along with Zach Parise and Dany Heatley are the only Minnesota players to have reached the finals.
With their experience, they will look to lead a Wild team that advanced to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Minnesota, by virtue of a 3-1 win in Colorado on Saturday, earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference finals and faces the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks starting Tuesday in Chicago.
Rupp, Parise and the others will try to explain what playoff hockey is like. The Wild have just four homegrown players with playoff experience. Forwards Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and goaltenders Josh Harding are the only players left from Minnesota’s last playoff round in 2008.
“You just try and reflect on the experience that you’ve had,” said Parise, who lost in the finals last season with New Jersey. “You have an idea what it’s about, but we don’t know everything. You got to experience it to know what it’s all about. I think the biggest thing, and I’ve said it before, that we can try and relay is we’re going to lose games and we’re going to win games and it doesn’t matter. You have to stay on an even-keel the whole way through, you can’t get yourself too excited or yourself too down about a win or loss. Things can snowball in a hurry and I think the better you can respond, the better off you’re going to be.”
For players like Koivu, the captain, winning Saturday to clinch a playoff berth was rewarding. It’s been 333 regular-season games between playoff appearances for Koivu.
“It felt very good,” Koivu said. “It wasn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. But now we’re here…When you have a chance to be a part of that, you want to be back in there again. Now we’re here and we’re going to enjoy it and just prepare ourselves. What happened in the past doesn’t really matter anymore.”
Cal Clutterbuck was a rookie in 2007-08, playing in just two games during the regular season for the Wild. But he’s been an integral part of the team the past five seasons. With 346 career games under his belt, he still hasn’t suited up in the playoffs.
“It was a long one,” Clutterbuck said of the wait. “It’s tough when you go through one season and you say, ‘We’ll just get better with some young guy,’ or whatever it is. I think once you hit the second and the third year, it kind of becomes a little bit of the same result and you can start to get frustrated. At the same time, it’s a great league and I think the four years makes you really realize it’s a special thing when you get to the playoffs and you’ve really got to take advantage of the opportunity. Because once you’re out, you’ve got to play another 82 games to get here and it’s a long road. It’s just a good feeling.”
For some players, they won’t watch the playoffs if they aren’t in them. Backstrom never shied away from watching, but it did make the wait even tougher.
“It’s tough every spring sitting home and watching on TV, other teams fighting for the cup and just wishing for yourself to get a chance to get back there,” Backstrom said. “On the other hand, at that time you realize how tough and how hard it is to get into the playoffs, and when you get there you have to take advantage of it and enjoy it.”
Minnesota knows it’s the underdog against Chicago, the Presidents’ Trophy winners for the league’s best record. The Blackhawks are deep, talented and have experience themselves from winning the cup in 2010.Parise acknowledged Monday the atmosphere in the playoffs “ramps up quite a bit.” After basically fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch, the Wild hope to take the momentum from Sunday into postseason.
“I think we expected ourselves to be in this situation, to be in the playoffs,” Parise said. “I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of guys that are relaxing now and exhaling, and just being satisfied that we’re here. We want to win and we’re not just happy that we made it. We want to keep playing and we think we’re capable of it. But, again, we understand the challenge that we have ahead of us. We’re playing the best team in the league. No one’s going to pick us to win and we know that, but I think that’s going to make it fun for us.”