ST. PAUL, Minn. — Four days later, the Wild’s season-ending sweep at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks wasn’t any easier to stomach.
The playoffs continued last weekend, a fact not lost on Minnesota. The promise of this season deteriorated in another second-round playoff exit to its playoff nemesis. The pleasantries don’t erase the disappointment.
"It sucked; it still does," Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk said Monday. "I was just saying over the weekend, everybody says ‘great job this season and good year,’ and it’s nice, but it still feels like we should be playing. It was a good season, but we certainly feel like we had a special group in here and like we’d like to still be playing.
"It’s tough to watch games on TV when you feel like you should still be playing; certainly some motivation for us going forward."
Minnesota reconvened at the Xcel Energy Center on Monday. But instead of preparing for another game against the Blackhawks, such as last season when the Wild took Chicago to six games in the second round, players were meeting with coaches and management, collecting their sticks and personal belongings.
No one with Minnesota expected to be saying goodbye this week. The suddenness of the playoff exit left an air of uncertainty as players, head coach Mike Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher began to search for answers.
"I’ve been trying to think about the last few days and certainly take a few more weeks to digest everything and analyze everything," Fletcher said. "I would say it’s a disappointing end to a good season. I think any time you get 100 points, you make the playoffs and you win a round, you get to the final eight, to me that’s a good season. Having said that, I think we wanted to have better than a good season. I think this team had the depth and the components and the coaching to keep playing."
Two years ago, the Wild might have been happy with snapping their playoff drought, even though the postseason ended in a quick five-game loss to the Blackhawks. Last year, Minnesota was pleased with taking another step, advancing to the second round where it, inevitably, ran into Chicago again and lost in six games.
A four-game sweep, to the Blackhawks in the second round again, was followed by regret and frustration. There was no sense of accomplishment this time around.
"It’s a lot different than it’s ever been when I finished a season here," captain Mikko Koivu said of the mood of the team. "I think we’re all still very disappointed. It hasn’t been that many days yet, so I think everyone’s just trying to almost like figure out what happened, and find the reasons and things like that."
Fletcher and Yeo both noticed the same of their players.
"The bar is raised both internally and externally," Fletcher said. "We understand that. I think if you spoke to our players, they’ll tell you last year was probably a better feeling losing in the second round than this year. I don’t think anybody’s jumping up and down right now, and we’re disappointed and, really, a little stunned it ended so quickly."
Minnesota entered this season with talk of taking another step and trying to join the league’s elite teams following last year’s playoffs.
For two years, the Wild had taken steps, first the playoffs and then the second round. But there was no advancement this season, at least in terms of results. Minnesota recovered from a December to January swoon to post the league’s best second-half record.
The final push to the playoffs was exhilarating — and maybe exhausting.
"I don’t think physically it would’ve been a problem but maybe emotionally, maybe the grind," Yeo said. "I’m not going to sit up here and say that we lost because of fatigue, but I do think that that’s something that we have to learn from in the regular season — kind of setting yourself up maybe a little bit better going into the playoffs."
The Wild, full of confidence entering the playoffs, outlasted St. Louis in the first round. For the second straight year they had beat the Central Division champions in the first round. But Chicago, the playoff-tested and talented team, stood in Minnesota’s way again.
"I don’t look at it as we got swept by them this year that we took a step backward," forward Zach Parise. "A game or two that could have gone one way or another, and all of a sudden you lose four in a row, there’s a fine line. I still just don’t think as a whole against Chicago we played well enough to beat them. With how well they were playing, it just didn’t seem like we were playing well enough to be able to beat them."
The Wild didn’t take a step forward, which leads to months of reflection and evaluation.
"We just have to find a way to get better, and I know we lost in four but we’re not that far away," Fletcher said. "It’s incumbent on me. Really, this is on me to find a way to make the team better. I like our coaching staff. I think Mike and his staff, they’re hard-working, they’re smart people, they make adjustments. I like our players. I like the character of our group. Devan came in and provided some outstanding goaltending. But there’s no question we’re going to have to keep looking at ways to get better. It’ll be a new challenge next year."