ST. PAUL, Minn. — One of the key factors many used against the Minnesota Wild entering the playoffs was the lack of postseason experience from the young Wild.
With starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom being injured in pregame warmups, the lineup for Game 1 of Minnesota’s series against the Chicago Blackhawks included goaltender Josh Harding and his one career playoff game. The defense included Ryan Suter (39 postseason games) and five players making their NHL playoff debuts. The forward group included another four players making their debut.
The Wild’s experienced players have tried to mentor the young group along the way, such as veteran Matt Cullen, who now has 66 playoff games under his belt and has won a Stanley Cup. Cullen, 36, remembers when he was the one being mentored.
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“You can just say it,” Cullen joked about being old. “You never really think about it. It just happens. It happened so fast. I still remember being a rookie in Anaheim with (Paul) Kariya and (Teemu) Selanne and it goes so fast, but it’s been a fun run.”
Cullen said he learned under Kariya, Selanne and Ted Drury. He said he learned a lot from Rod Brindamour in Carolina, calling Brindamour “probably the best leader I’ve ever played for.”
Now he willingly takes on the role of mentor, such as taking rookie winger Jason Zucker, who scored the overtime goal on Sunday on a feed from Cullen, under his wing.
“I don’t think I can pick out one thing,” Zucker said of learning from Cullen. “There’s a lot of stuff that he’s done to help me.”
The relationship between the veterans like Cullen, Suter, Zach Parise, and Mikko Koivu has been vital to the development of the Wild’s well-regarded rookies like Zucker, Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle.
Zucker, 21, has played with Cullen and Devin Setoguchi for most of his time with Minnesota this season. Brodin, 19, has been a staple on the top defensive pairing with Suter. Coyle, 21, plays on the top line with Parise and Koivu. All three have played important roles for Minnesota, and the mentorship is even more valuable as the young players adjust to their first playoff appearance.
“Zucker’s had Cullen, Coyle’s had Koivu and Parise, and Brodin has had Suter,” coach Mike Yeo said. “These are pretty good mentors and they’ve done a pretty good job of helping these guys prepare, teaching and mentoring and even just making them feel comfortable. That’s a huge part for us.”
The young core of the Wild, which also includes defensemen Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Justin Falk playing in the postseason, so far, is also growing more accustomed as the games continue.
“I think each game you gain some experience, some knowledge that you can take with you for the next game,” Coyle said. “Every little bit helps. Through each game, each day even, you learn something and just take it with you and go from there.”
Chicago cheating: The Wild won 40 faceoffs in Game 3 to Chicago’s 32, and Yeo indicated some of the increased success from past games might have had to do with the Blackhawks not getting away with cheating.
“We talked about a couple of things, but certainly being at home was a bit of a difference,” Yeo said. “I say that because if we’re doing it the right way, then they should have to put their sticks down. And I thought that when we were in Chicago, they did a pretty good job at cheating in some of those situations. I thought we did a better job of at kind of handling that last game. On top of that, if you’re going to have any kind of success in the faceoff circle, then you’re going to need some help from your wingers and from your defensemen and I thought a lot of those loose pucks we did a good job battling for.”
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville declined to respond to the cheating accusations in his post-practice press conference on Monday.
Yeo said he had tried to talk to the on-ice officials.
“I said a couple of things, but it wasn’t much of a conversation,” Yeo said.
Backstrom, Pominville practice: Backstrom, who is dealing with a lower-body injury and has missed all three games, and forward Jason Pominville, who’s been out since April 30 when he took an elbow to the face by Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown, were both participating in Minnesota’s optional practice on Monday.
Yeo wouldn’t say if Backstrom or Pominville might be able to return for Game 4 on Tuesday, but both players being on the ice is a positive sign.
Yeo said he had to talk to both players after practice.
“From what I heard he’s looking good,” Yeo said of Pominville. “We’ll just keep going day to day, but I think today is encouraging . . . I’m not saying that he’s a possibility for tomorrow. I’m not saying that he isn’t. For me, I was just glad that he was on the ice today and then we’ll just see what the plan is going forward.”
Wild recall Dumba, McMillan: With the Houston Aeros season finished in the American Hockey League, Minnesota added two more young players to the growing NHL roster on Monday.
The Wild recalled defenseman Mathew Dumba, the team’s No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, and center Carson McMillan. On Sunday, Minnesota called up forwards Stephane Veilleux, Jake Dowell and Mikael Granlund.
Veilleux played in Game 3, providing a spark, but Yeo didn’t say whether the other players would be active for games and said part of bringing up the young players is to have them experience the postseason.
“Yeah, we want extra people around too,” Yeo said.
Brodin snubbed for Calder: The NHL announced the three finalists for the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie, on Monday and Brodin surprisingly wasn’t one of the finalists.
Brodin is the youngest defensemen in the NHL this season and led all rookies by averaging 23 minutes, 12 seconds of ice time. Brodin finished the regular season with two goals and nine assists and was a plus-3, but might have been hurt as voters often look to point totals.
The three finalists (Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher, Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau and Chicago’s Brandon Saad) all were in the top five in rookie scoring. Huberdeau was tied with Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov with 31 points. Gallagher was second to Yakupov with 15 goals.
“I mean this with the greatest respect to (the finalists), but I’ve coached this guy all year,” Yeo said. “We’re here battling in the playoffs and that’s hard to say that we would be if he was not on our team. This kid is a very, very good hockey player. So, it’s disappointing to me.”