The Minnesota Wild made right with their promise to do more in the post-season than another first round exit. The Wild were able to win a seven game series in thrilling fashion. After going winless on the road at the Pepsi Center, an ever-so resilient Minnesota squad came back from four separate one-goal deficits to win in overtime in a decisive Game 7. The Wild showed that they were indeed an improved team by forcing an extended series with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. In another home team dominated series, the Wild's loss in Game 6 put a damper on an overall very fun and exciting post-season run and regular season.
The season opened up way back in October with two games against Western Conference cup contenders; the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. Minnesota had thoroughly out-possessed and dominated those games, but the result was less than stellar, as the Wild dropped those games in the shootout and in overtime. After another loss to new Central Division rival Nashville, the Wild would rattle off three in a row. October saw a streaky Wild team what would win three row then lose three in a row. Minnesota carried the league's best power play into November.
A big home-and-home series against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, in which each team was able to capture wins in each other's building, the Wild would light the league up with a fantastic first half of November. They were winners of 9-of-11 until injuries piled on just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Josh Harding was the league leader in Goals Against Average and an early Vezina Trophy candidate. The month finished with four straight losses and injuries to Jared Spurgeon and Zach Parise.
The four-game losing streak rolled into a dismal December. The Wild lost 9-of-14 games in the final month of the calendar year, and was capped off with a 6-game losing streak. The Wild were in dire straits as news came out that Parise had to be shut down after fracturing his ankle in a game around Thanksgiving. Josh Harding, the team's first half most valuable player was taking time off to make a scheduled adjustment to his multiple sclerosis regiment. Mike Yeo's seat as head coach was never hotter. In fact, the tension was palpable before the game against the Buffalo Sabres. It was so thick, that you could have cut the tension with a knife.
Big 4-1 and 5-3 wins against Buffalo and the Washington Capitals, respectively, started 2014 off on the right foot. We saw the emergence of rookie goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, take the reins in a dominating goaltending performance as the kid confidently flashed the glove and flung pucks away from his net in a 2-1 shootout win. After Backstrom would start the next game in Phoenix in a big 4-1 win, Kuemper would backstop the Wild and save the Wild's season in the next eight games.
In February, the Wild would string together some wins ahead of the Sochi 2014 winter Olympic break. IN Sochi, Mikael Granlund would make the State of Hockey proud, being named to the Olympics all-star team, and leading his team alongside the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, to a Bronze Medal win against Team USA, while racking up seven points in the two-week tournament. Granlund came back from Sochi on fire, and was teamed up with Parise and Pominville on the first line as Mikko Koivu was recovering from surgery on his fractured ankle.
The Wild meandered through the month of March and it had fans wondering if there was yet another late season collapse in store for their favorite team. Kuemper, the savior of the season in January, suffered a concussion. General Manager Chuck Fletcher was busy at the trade deadline and brought over Ilya Bryzgalov with a trade of a late round pick. The next day, Fletcher made a deal that traded away a couple pick and Torrey Mitchell to the Sabres for goal scorer, Matt Moulson, and grinder, Cody McCormick.
April saw the Wild with insecurities at the goaltending spot and the season winding down with its toughest stretch ahead of them. With six of their last 8 games of season against playoff teams, the Wild wanted to earn their way to the playoffs. They did that by beating some of the best teams in the league. They beat a tough Kings team, lost in a shootout to the defending champs, beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Winnipeg Jets, the Boston Bruins (clinched their playoff berth and secured the top wildcard spot with that victory), beat the hated St. Louis Blues, and in their season finale, dropped a game to the Predators.
The Colorado Avalanche awaited the Wild in the playoffs. The series saw the home team win every game. The Wild won in dominating fashion in St. Paul, but lost some real heart-breakers as they coughed up a late third period lead to eventually fall in overtime...twice. The series went to seven games. Game 7 delivered everything you could ask for - hard hits, lots of goals, high drama, and even overtime. Darcy Kuemper was pulled from the game as he was favoring an injury of some type. Ilya Bryzgalov entered the game for the first time since Game 2. The Wild had traded for Nino Niederreiter in the offseason for fan favorite, Cal Clutterbuck. Niederreiter elevated his game in Game 6 and finished the series off with the overtime game winner in Game 7.
Chicago had beaten the St. Louis Blues in six games by winning four straight after dropping the first two games of the series. After coming off an emotional high in just two days earlier with its first series win in 11 years, the Wild were hoping to catch the Blackhawks off guard in Game 1 one of the Western Conference Semifinals. The Wild were able to control most of the play at the United Center. Unfortunately, Wild killer Bryan Bickell and Patrick Kane were just too good as the Wild failed to steal the series opener in Chicago by a final score of 5-2. The Wild would lose Game 2, and just like in the Avalanche series, would head home down 0-2 in the series. Minnesota held serve in both games, while playing arguably their best game in Game 4 when they controlled possession and the scoreboard to force the series to at least six games. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks's championship pedigree is a difficult one to shut down and the Wild would be on the wrong side of the Win-Loss column yet again on the road. Game 6 was another thrilling game that saw the Blackhawks score early, but the Wild evened the game up with and Erik Haula breakaway goal. The game went into overtime and it took a flukey play that ended up on Patrick Kane's stick to send the fans in St. Paul to the exits to begin a summer-long depression.
Encouraging, to say the least, was the emergence of Charlie Coyle in the last week of the regular season and first games of the playoffs. He became a physical force in the weeks leading up to the playoffs, and the Wild reaped the benefits as he was seen on the score sheet often. Rumors were that he was battling an injury in the Chicago series and may be a factor of why his production fell off.
Mikael Granlund rose above his awful rookie campaign and has become the type of player the Wild expected him to be. He was a storyline all season long and he scored some of the prettiest goals in the playoffs while at the same time blocking shots to will his team to huge wins. He has held his own in the faceoff circle and showed good speed this season; and I haven't even mentioned his on-ice vision.
Nino Niederreiter was known for his "silly hard" shot all season long, but his game winners in Game 7 and Game 7 were absolute snipes. He started to use his size to his advantage and because of his versatility, was able to bounce between all four lines. After being labeled a bust on the Isle, Niederreiter's future has never been brighter.
Erik Haula was a former seventh round picks and found ways to impact big games in the post-season. He shut down Nathan MacKinnon from Game 3 on in the quarterfinal by using his speed and great Hockey I.Q. He scored the lone goal for the Wild in Game 6 and found ways to get on the score sheet throughout the better half of the playoffs.
The season started with lots of promise, and while the final ending was disappointing, the future has lots of promise as well. There will be some roster changes in the offseason as the Wild will look to fill positions in free agency and from within. The NHL Entry Draft on June 27th and 28th will see the Wild improve its crop of young talent as this team keeps building towards a championship. Minnesota gained tons of respect around the league by going toe-to-toe with some of the NHL's elite teams. The coaching staff will stay intact and they will look for ways to get better. Whether that means they tweak the lines, improve special teams, or have a look at personnel, Head Coach Mike Yeo will be more determined than ever to get his team right back to the doorstep to kick the damn thing down.
The Wild and their fans won't be satisfied with the way the season came to an end. If anything, it will leave them ever-so hungry for more. The future is bright, the path may be rocky, but this Wild team will be back and ready for next season.