The Minnesota Wild would have to do something terribly catastrophic to not make the playoffs at this point. Even though there are teams hot on their tail, or actually even with them in points, within the Central Division, there are enough spots for this to work out and to achieve at least one of the main goals of playing in a professional hockey league. Unless they lose out and the rest of the devilish teams win out — I have not checked whether this is possible or not, I am not good at that stuff — the Wild are entering the post-season.
Now who will they face in the all-important first round? There are still some options up in the air, and while the likelihood of facing some opponents are far greater than others, we should truly weigh up every option.
So here is a ranking of every potential opponents (again, have not checked if they can still play one another in real life, but this feels possible) from the top being a push over baby series, to breaking out in nervous sweats every time the puck is touched.
1. Dallas Stars
The Stars might be a weird choice as the easiest opponent, considering the Wild are 1-2-0 against them so far this season, but that was before they solidified their blue line, added some more scoring depth, and got the best goaltender available at the trade deadline. Considering that in those two losses, the Stars were not even able to crack the 30-shot mark against this team, those concerns about recent history should be settled. And even diving deeper into those losses, one of them was when Joel Eriksson Ek got injured mid-game and only played eight minutes, Jared Spurgeon was absent, and Matt Boldy wasn’t even on the team yet. It was a different part of the season and I will certainly drum up any excuse to feel this out.
By some calculations, the Wild have only an eight percent chance of facing the Stars, but it is still the third-highest; now only if the Predators and Blues can start sucking so we can enjoy some time in Dallas.
I’m not even sure if this is possible (wow what a theme to this blog). The Flames will certainly be finishing in the top spot of the Pacific Division, and that would mean the Wild slipping down to the first wild card spot, which as of Saturday, is six points below where they currently are. With 12 games still remaining, it’s certainly possible, even if it would feel downright terrible to do that in the final stretch of the season, but facing the Flames instead of some other options, might be worth it in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, Calgary has suddenly turned into a possession powerhouse that will work you to the bone and then they have one of the better goaltenders in between the pipes, for the rare chances their blue line gets beat. But, similar to Nashville, Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov are playing a lot of damn minutes and both of those guys might not be able to handle the north-south intensity that the Wild forecheck possesses.
A whole lot of the Flames’ offense has come from their top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk. Like, an overwhelming amount. They outscore their opponents by over 70 percent, and they have both an expected goals share and a shot attempt share over 60 percent. That just sounds like a job for The GREEF Line to do and completely make their one significant offensive weapon null and void.
The Predators are a tough call. In theory, if we want to accept the only evidence that we have of competitions between these two teams this season, then the Wild are going to be swept since they have not earned a win against this pesky roster. We can hem and haw through any excuse we want to — absences due to injuries, terrible performances from certain players, etc. — but there is just something about playing against a team that depends so heavily on a player like Roman Josi to provide any amount of offense, that could be exposed in the playoffs.
Every little detail gets spotlighted and picked apart in the post-season, so considering that Nashville head coach John Hynes is giving real-life minutes to players like Ben Harpur, Jeremy Lauzon, and Matt Benning, that means at least 10 to 15 minutes when Minnesota will have the heavy favor in every single matchup. That means a little bit more at that time. They’re annoying, but easy to expose.
I cannot even begin to imagine a scenario where the Wild finish in the second wild card spot and have to face the dreaded Avalanche. Is there any realistic way that the Blues, Predators, and Stars, would all finish above our favorite hockey club? Maybe, but I do not want to envision it.
If that does happen, then, like anyone rightfully is, I would be scared to be in a seven-game series with that damn team. Could the Wild have a fighting chance? Hell yes. They probably have the best chance out of any other team in the Central to knock off the Avalanche. They can at least silence one line of their wondrous offense, but there will be Nazem Kadri (if healthy), Artturi Lehkonen, Valeri Nichushkin, or Alex Newhook, will be justifiably relied upon to score some goals. Oh, and they also have fourth-overall pick Bowen Byram back to full health after his concussion and head coach Jared Bednar has him playing with Norris favorite Cale Makar to create even more offense. Because the defenseman that currently has 25 goals needs to generate more of that.
The most likely opponent is also the more fearsome, for me, personally. There is just something about how eerie similar these two teams are that makes them bash heads together and whoever gets the luckier streak — whether it is penalty calls, goaltending, or just bounces of some pucks — ends up winning the game. The Winter Classic game doesn’t really count, so all we have to realistically tell between these two teams this season is Friday’s 4-3 overtime loss where the Wild held a 3-1 lead and just fell on their asses.
And predictably, Minnesota held an advantage in most underlying metrics, but just slightly. If it wasn’t for a few gaffs, then the result would be entirely different; but those things also happen in the play-offs, so we can’t wash them away completely.
Both the Blues and Wild are deep at forward with a bounty of two-way players, have very stable defensemen that can play in all situations, and some exciting young talent that will provide them with some sort of boost beyond the established stars. All that might be different is the players in between the pipes at either end. Jordan Binnington is approaching Officially Washed territory and Ville Husso is having an incredible first full season in the NHL, but is ultimately unproven. The Wild are completely different. They were not getting any Husso-like magic from their two netminders, so they got one of the most experienced names they could get in Marc-Andre Fleury and will depend on his three-rings worth of ability to put in a strong post-season performance. Whether it works out is still to be seen, but I would be much more comfortable with the future Hall-of-Famer that has shown to be still very good in the few appearances he’s had.
If this ends up being a series, it will be a bloodbath and not even on the ice, as I will be pulling chunks of hair off my scalp in a fit of anxiety.
Maybe I’m wrong, so let’s hear your ranking, if you’re so smart.