The Wild are relying on a core group of veterans supplemented with a bunch of young 20-somethings in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone that picked the Wild to win the Cup this year, especially when moving into the toughest division in hockey, the Central Division. We've been told that this team is working towards a goal and that it is a process to develop into Cup contending team. The core group of kids like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and now Darcy Kuemper are only gaining more experience of what the style of play is in the post-season. It's also not illegal to surprise everyone and win a series or two while still respecting the "process."
The Wild coughed up a late two goal lead in Game 1, a game in which the took over in the second and third periods, only to scramble around their own end for the final 10 minutes of the game and lose in overtime. In Game 2, Minnesota jumped on the Avalanche early, but Semyon Varlamov was superb and stymied any of the Wild's opportunities to even the score.
Charlie Coyle has come to play. He has been the best forward on the ice for the Wild in this series. With two goals in two games, he has brought the kind of physicality you need in the post season. From being the F-2, or second forward in the zone to support the forecheck, to dumping players that try to stand over him, the month of April has been good to Coyle and he's been go for the Wild.
Mike Yeo has done a lot of line juggling, especially in Game 2, as the Wild were looking to find ways to score on Varlamov. Nino Niederreiter hasn't seen the NHL playoffs prior to this season. He was moved to the 2nd line to start the game, hoping that his physicality will help the line consisting of Granlund and Jason Pominville. Niederreiter has been anything but good just two games into his post-season appearance. By taking a bad penalty, he hurt the Wild in Game 2 by killing momentum after MacKinnon scored to even the game at one goal apiece. His only positive was his second assist on Kyle Brodziak's goal in Game 1, when he was the first one in on the forecheck that allowed Matt Cooke to put the puck out front to a wide open Brodziak. It's not against the rules for him to show up and get on the scoreboard, even when he's played 3rd line minutes more often.
The Finnish Baby Jesus is key to the Wild's success because he can make that 2nd line work. His speed, creativity, and vision all benefit him and that line as a real scoring threat. This is his first post-season appearance in the NHL. Mikael Granlund's line has not shown up on the score sheet yet, and have yet to really make a difference on the ice. Sure, he was concussed and had just returned to the line-up just in time for Game 1, but he looked tentative all game long as the Avs were hitting him any chance they got. Granlund also passed up a glaring shooting chance in favor of a backdoor pass to a covered Pominville. Had Granlund instead of hesitating and looking to pass, whether or not he would have scored, the Game 1 narrative could be very different. There's no doubt that this experience will be invaluable to him and his teammates, but I think we were all hoping to see more from him and his linemates.
Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise have three points each, but have yet to find the back of the net. For this team to take that next step, the Wild need their leadership group to contribute. Sure, assists are important because that means that someone is scoring. However, you'd like to see the vets be the scoring leaders on the team. Koivu and Parise all but disappeared in the series versus the Blackhawks last season as they kept the high flying line featuring Jonathon Toews in check. They've spoken all year about how they want to be a team that makes waves in the playoffs, yet here they are and they are unable to find the twine...again.
Darcy Kuemper played 14 minutes in relief of Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2 and shut the door. He said he, "shook the rust off," in the pregame skate prior to Game 2, and he looked the part. He made some incredibly tough saves upon entering the game and showed that little puck flip an flare that we've come to love from him when he's on his game. If he can play that same style of game that carried the Wild through January, he could be the very thing that turns this series around. His performance in these playoff games could help solidify himself as a front-runner for starting goaltender next season, but he could choose to perform now and will this Wild team through the first round.
The biggest key for a player's development is to play in meaningful games in which they are relied upon to make plays. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are as meaningful as you get. The Wild want to stress the continued development of its youth, but it should not be an excuse for a first round exit. Minnesota should want to see the kids flourish now while being led by the veterans every step of the way. Moral victories don't exist for this team anymore. It's time for Wild to put their money where their mouth is.