ST. PAUL, Minn. — Five straight appearances in the playoffs for the Minnesota Wild have produced just two series victories and a high volume of frustration.
This year, a loss in the first round to the St. Louis Blues marked the maddening peak of these spring letdowns.
“Sure, we felt good coming in,” captain Mikko Koivu said, alluding to the franchise-best 106 points compiled during the regular season that gave the Wild the second-best record in the Western Conference. “I thought we had a great year coming into the playoffs, and we played well. Just not good enough.”
For all the excitement the Wild created, from hiring regular-season expert Bruce Boudreau as the new coach to winning 12 straight games in December to finishing second in the NHL with a plus-58 goal differential, their dedicated fan base was left with another disappointment.
“Usually you remember what you last saw so, unfortunately, you’re going to remember getting knocked out in five games,” said left wing Zach Parise, who had two of the team’s eight goals in the series.
There’s not really a common theme in these early exits, either, other than the core of the roster remaining the same throughout the run since Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter signed their landmark 13-year contracts worth $98 million apiece in 2012.
Goalie injuries and the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks got in the way in 2013 after a 5-8-1 finish nearly kept the Wild out of the postseason. An upset of the Colorado Avalanche in a thrilling seven-game first round in 2014 led to a rematch with Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks and a six-game defeat.
The only series-clinching win the Wild have ever recorded at home came in 2015 against the Blues, but the Blackhawks were waiting again on their way to another title. The defense was overwhelmed by Jamie Benn and the Dallas Stars in 2016.
Then the Blues exacted their revenge on Saturday for the loss in 2015, this time with former Wild coach Mike Yeo directing the bruising bunch and goalie Jake Allen performing like a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate.
Despite leading the league in penalty killing, faceoff draws and shots allowed during the playoffs and posting the second-most shots on goal among the 16 teams, the Wild were left with yet another bitter loss.
“This year definitely has a different feel: the feel of disappointment, the feel of having a team that could’ve gone far,” Suter said. “It’s extremely disappointing.”
Here are some relevant angles to watch with the Wild moving forward:
IF NOT HAWKS, THEN BLUES?
With the NHL’s current postseason format that funnels division foes into the same bracket, the Wild have been bracing for the challenge of having to beat the Blackhawks early in the playoffs as long as they’re both in it. It was ironic, then, that the Blackhawks were being swept by the Nashville Predators while the Wild were instead losing to Yeo and the Blues. There just aren’t any favorable draws to be had in the Western Conference these days.
NOT QUITE GOOD ENOUGH
Goalie Devan Dubnyk had a fine year with a franchise-most 40 wins, but his 7-14 record and .903 save percentage in the playoffs leave room for improvement. After playing in 67 and 65 games over the last two regular seasons, Dubnyk could benefit from more rest down the stretch. Alex Stalock is in line to replace Darcy Kuemper as the backup.
Mikael Granlund thrived at right wing after shifting from center and tallied career highs with 26 goals and 43 assists, becoming one of the NHL’s three Lady Byng Memorial Trophy finalists for the combination of sportsmanship, conduct and ability. He was bottled up by the bigger Blues during the playoffs, though, with only two assists in the five games. Granlund will be a restricted free agent, so the Wild brass must decide how much and how long to invest in the former first-round draft pick.
WHAT TO DO ON DEFENSE?
Suter and Jared Spurgeon have been a formidable duo on the blue line, but as good as the Wild were in stretches of both the regular season and the playoffs they could use another proven pair on defense. Marco Scandella had an exceptional series against the Blues. Matt Dumba had a career-high 11 goals. Jonas Brodin has been a fixture for the last four years. Someone must be left unprotected in the expansion draft.