ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the Minnesota Wild went on their summer shopping spree to land big-name free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, fans of the team envisioned long playoff runs, Stanley Cups and parades down the streets of St. Paul.
All of the hype surrounding Parise and Suter overshadowed one important fact: The first step for Minnesota is getting back into the playoffs, after going four years since its last postseason appearance.
While the Wild have been basking in the spotlight created by the additions of Parise and Suter, perennial playoff teams like the Chicago Blackhawks were setting themselves up for another Cup run. Only 12 days into this sprint of a season, Chicago had raced out to a 6-0-0 record and established themselves among a trio of dominating teams in the Western Conference along with the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues.
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Minnesota, still adjusting somewhat to its new mix, entered Wednesday night leading the Northwest Division with a 3-2-1 record.
The Wild are still trying to meet the expectations set when Parise and Suter arrived, but Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout win against the Blackhawks shows Minnesota might just have the pieces to match up with the West’s best.
“That’s a team who won the Cup a couple years ago,” said goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who came on in relief Wednesday and saved all 28 shots he faced and stopped two of Chicago’s three attempts in the shootout. “(Chicago is) a playoff team every year. We’re not a playoff team. We want to be a playoff team. You measure yourself against the best. You see what they do. We know there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us and for sure it gives us confidence you can play against these guys. But there’s still some areas that we need to be better in and work on that.”
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back while Chicago was in town waiting for the Wild, Minnesota received scoring from its second and third lines — a year-long struggle — and outlasted the Blackhawks after Parise and Matt Cullen scored shootout goals. In the shootout, Backstrom stopped an attempt by Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp fired the final shot off the goal post to give the Wild consecutive wins.
In two of the past three games, Minnesota has gone to overtime against Chicago and St. Louis. Sunday in St. Louis, the Wild lost in overtime to the Blues, who haven’t lost at home this season. Wednesday was another overtime affair against the Blackhawks, who entered Wednesday tied with San Jose for most points (12) in the NHL.
Winning early against Chicago, on national TV, gives Minnesota even more reason to believe in what has been built.
“We have high expectations for this team and there’s a difference between expectations and results,” Cullen said. “So for us to come out on the second night of a back-to-back and get a win against a very good team, who’s playing extremely well, it’s important for us.
“Games like this are how you build confidence in what you’re doing as a team and start getting that belief that, you know what, we can be a good team. It’s not just talk. It’s not just on paper. It’s getting some results.”
The Wild feel they’ve been tested early. After opening the season with consecutive home wins, Minnesota lost at home against Nashville and then went to Detroit for the first road game and lost an intense 5-3 penalty-filled game.
After Sunday’s overtime loss at St. Louis, the Wild returned home winless in the past three games. Parise’s line with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley had scored 10 of the team’s 13 goals.
Consecutive wins and balanced efforts have changed the tone. Taking two of the league’s top teams to overtime, one on the road, and pulling out a win against Chicago has maybe made an early-season statement.
“We’re not there yet by any means, but this team has shown that when we’re playing our game we can play with anybody,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Scratch that: We can beat anybody”
If Minnesota can prove that, maybe parades are on the way after all.