Wild's season-ending emptiness will be filled by pride
MAY 14, 2014 3:40p ET
There was little reflection on the part of the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night.
The spirit, adrenaline and competitive fire from a thrilling Game 6 and second-round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions had been swept away by an awkward bounce off the end boards that led to Patrick Kane's overtime, series-clinching goal.
A void was left, emptiness and raw emotion the only remnants of Tuesday's loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It's tough to be up here right now like this the way it played out," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said at the podium for his postgame press conference. "It hurts to lose, and we really believe that we were capable of doing more than just winning this game tonight, so, yeah."
Yeo's confidence in his team, in some ways, stems from a season of growth and an unwavering fight as the Wild scratched and clawed every time they seemed backed into a corner.
Eventually, the Wild will be able to look back fondly on this season, as much as Tuesday's loss hurts and Kane's goal will stick with them. The emptiness will be filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment for a team demonstrating how it's matured.
"It's going to take a while to kind of understand that," captain Mikko Koivu said. "We get more hungry the further we go. I thought we had our chances and that's why it really sucks right now. It's been a great run. It's been the best time of my NHL career and when it ends like that it's an empty feeling right now."
The longest-tenured member of the Wild, Koivu was the only player left from the 2008 playoffs to play in the postseason this year -- goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding were with the team in 2008 but missed the playoffs this year.
The captain has come full circle with Minnesota.
Two years ago, the Wild were floundering and had missed the postseason four straight years.
Then Wild owner Craig Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher altered the organization's course by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to blockbuster 13-year contracts as the top free agents available.
Steps were being taken. Minnesota ended its playoff drought last year before losing to the Blackhawks in the first round. This year, the Wild moved up a spot in the Western Conference during the regular season and beat the favored Colorado Avalanche in seven games in the first round.
And as Yeo had talked about for much of the past month, this season was different against Chicago. The Wild had given the defending champions all they could handle, only to be undone by one bad bounce and a nifty play by one of the league's most talented players.
"What it's done for me is make me realize this group and what they're made of," Yeo said of the series against the Blackhawks.
Suter was asked if Minnesota had opened eyes around the league with its performance and ability to stick around as one of the final eight teams playing.
"I think so," Suter said. "I think Chuck's done a really good job of kind of changing the culture here. We expect to win now. We put that pressure on ourselves. The young guys, they show up every night. Everyone shows up every night.
"It says a lot about 'Yeosie' and the GM, just the way that they handled this year. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of dark days and we would always come out of it. It just says a lot about those guys and us about the group of guys in here."
The dark days included a stretch of eight losses in 10 games, which plummeted the Wild from a tie for second in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference to fifth in the Central and 10th in the West. There were rumors of Yeo's job status being in jeopardy.
The calendar turned to January and Minnesota was without Parise and Harding. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon was lost to an injury. Koivu went out the following game.
Yet, as they did all season, the Wild responded when the outlook appeared its bleakest. Behind rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper and production from Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund and rookie Erik Haula, Minnesota climbed back to as high as sixth in the West.
Clinching the top wild card spot in the conference, the Wild came back from a 2-0 deficit and won two elimination games against the Avalanche. Minnesota rallied from a 2-0 deficit against Chicago, as well.
"We knew going into it, playing against Colorado, that they were going to get all the hype," Parise said. "That was no surprise to us. The same thing coming in here playing Chicago, no one is going to pick us. We felt like we were right there with them. The opportunities were there to win games, to force a Game 7, to beat these guys. The most important thing is how we feel internally, not what analysts think. It's more of how we feel and we felt like we had a chance. We're just as good as anybody."
And once the disappointment subsides, the Wild will be able to reflect back on that fact and this season with pride.
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