Let’s just start this article with a big ol’ caveat: the Minnesota Wild haven’t yet clinched a playoff berth so this article is by definition counting the Wild’s chicks before they hatch. That being said, they still have a slight lead over the Colorado Avalanche for third in the Central Division. Close behind the Avs are the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings, dueling for the last remaining wild card slot. It’s a tight race for the privilege of facing either the Western Conference championship-winning Nashville Predators, the odds-defying Vegas Golden Knights, or the rolling Winnipeg Jets. The Wild are in the best place compared to their other playoff hopefuls, but nothing is guaranteed at this point. So read the rest of this piece with a big serving of “If” and a heaping side of uncertainty.
Now, if the Minnesota Wild make it to the playoffs, what will it take for them to have a successful playoffs. First we should probably define what a successful playoffs even looks like for them. Winning a Stanley Cup is obviously under that heading. Even reaching the Stanley Cup Finals would qualify. Just look at what last year’s appearance has done to bolster the reputation and excitement surrounding Nashville. I would argue that even failing to reach the Finals but playing in the Western Conference Championship would qualify as a successful playoffs for the Wild. That’s as far as this franchise has ever gotten. It would involve winning a second round playoff series, something the Wild haven’t done in the Zach Parise - Ryan Suter era., and given the teams they’d likely be facing, it would probably include winning a Game 7 which would be a nice personal victory for head coach Bruce Boudreau.
So how can the Wild reach the Western Conference Championship? The Wild’s only previous appearance was back in 2003. While that series did not end well for the Wild (swept in four and scoring only a single goal throughout), the road to reach it is pretty informative. Taking those lessons combined with more general observations about teams that make it to their conference final, here is what the Wild need to have happen to have a successful playoff run.
Devan Dubnyk Needs to Carry His Team
Exactly no one is surprised by this. Behind every team that has reached a conference final was strong goaltending. In some cases, a team has rolled out two different goalies either due to injury or because one faltered (Pittsburgh Penguins). In others, a single netminder got hot at the right time and carried the load (Predators). For the Wild, it’s almost certainly going to have to be the latter. Credit to Alex Stalock where it’s due. He has been a good backup this season, but Devan Dubnyk has shown the ability to steal games for his team and handle sustained pressure, both during a game and more broadly. If the Wild are to make a run, it will be because Dubnyk is giving them a chance every night to win.
Eric Staal has to Stay Hot
When two teams are playing intense, focused, largely mistake-free hockey, that is when the star offensive talents have to break the game. Last year, the Wild executed a system that forced the Blues almost completely out of the high danger scoring area. The ice was tilted against the Blues for huge stretches of every game. Despite this, goalie Jake Allen managed to keep his team in the games, turning aside shot after shot from the Wild. Locked up in games where it nearly always felt the next goal would be the winning one, it was players like Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz that found ways to score despite the Wild’s area denial defense.
The Wild need Eric Staal to be this player for them. He won’t have to shoulder the goal-scoring load by himself with Jason Zucker around, but he undoubtedly needs to remain the driving engine behind the Wild’s scoring. Opposing teams are going to key in on his line with Zucker and Mikael Granlund (the Wild’s top three scorers), so he’s going to have to find ways to score in spite of the extra attention. So far this season, that hasn’t been a problem. That needs to continue in the playoffs.
Playoff Heroics from Depth Players
Staal might be the MVP (at least for Minnesota), but that doesn’t mean the Wild won’t need others to step into the light. In 2003, the Wild were on the cusp of elimination in the quarterfinals against Colorado. In Game Six, the Avalanche managed to force overtime with under two minutes left in the game. The Wild’s playoffs would be over if the Avs found a way to score just one more goal. Instead, Richard Park, who was seventh on the team for goals, scored his second goal of the game, forcing a Game Seven. Marian Gaborik may have been the Wild’s leading offensive threat, but in that game Park was the hero.
There is going to be at least one game in which the Wild’s opponent finds a way to keep the Staal line quiet. When that happens, it is going to be up to players like Matt Cullen and Charlie Coyle to step up and score. The good news for the Wild is that Cullen and Coyle have reputations for finding another level during the playoffs.
(Re)discover a Never-Say-Never Attitude
Things are not going to go the Wild’s way during the playoffs. A call is going to get blown, an offside missed, an unlucky bounce will break, or some other cruel twist (the hockey gods are nothing if not creative). The Wild can’t let it get to them. They might fall behind in the series or during the game. The Wild can’t let it get to them. The Wild might be on the verge of elimination. The Wild can’t let it get to them.
In 2003, the Wild came back from being down 3-1 in the series twice. In 2014, the Wild were down 2-0 to Colorado. In all three cases, the Wild found a way to come back and win. The Wild have shown an ability to score in bunches, so even spotting the other team a couple goals doesn’t have to mean a game is lost. Spotting the other team a couple games, while not advisable, also doesn’t have to mean the series is lost. It’s one thing to intellectually understand this though, and another to play like it. The Wild have shown that kind of gumption before, but they’ve also shown a non-competitive, just-happy-to-be-here attitude as well in recent years. As just making the playoffs has ceased to impress the fans, it seems like it has stopped being good enough for the team as well. If the Wild are going to impress this year, it’s going to require them to embrace the attitude of every game is theirs to win.
Get Comfortable with Tight Low-Scoring Games
Last season’s Stanley Cup Final saw the goal differential between the winning and losing teams reach 20. Two of the six games were decided by two goals, but the rest saw the winner outscore their opponent by at least three. That level of offensive output is remarkable, but looks to be the outlier. If you look at the playoff series that lead to that high scoring frenzy in the Final, you’ll find an abundance of one goal games. In the conference finals, the series goal differential for the winning team totaled 14 in the East (skewed heavily by a 7-0 blowout) and nine in the West (only one game saw a team win by more than two). The second round is very similar, with rare blowout single game victories surrounded by a sea of one-goal victories.
Basically, the Wild need to be prepared for games played on a razor’s edge. Playing to prevent mistakes is the dominant convention in the playoffs, and whether that causes the close games or is in reaction to it, the Wild need to be focused and ready to deliver in that style of game. When a mistake is made, players need to help erase them with good help (especially Dubnyk). Maintaining composure, like the Wild did against the Blues in 2015, will be crucial to coming out on top.