Coach Bruce Boudreau is well aware of all the possible opponents the Wild could encounter in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs if the team advances.
“At the same time,” he said, “I don’t talk too much about it because it’s [about] getting there and you really just have to worry about yourself, quite frankly.”
It won’t be long, though, until the Wild is confronted with its fate, as only eight games remain on the docket. And with the team hunkered into the third spot in the Central Division, it’s poised to meet the second-place Jets.
But based on what’s already transpired this season, the matchup that looks most favorable for the Wild is lower in the standings against the Golden Knights.
“Playoffs are always a clean slate, but it doesn’t hurt we felt comfortable playing against this team,” center Eric Staal said. “They’ve got a good team. They’ve got good players. They’ve got guys that are having career years. For us, it’s about we know what we need to do.”
As it stands now, the Predators are in position to win the Western Conference, and that ranking comes with a first-round date against the second wild-card team. The leader of the other division, in this case the Pacific, will face off against the first-seeded wild card, while the second and third teams in each division match up.
With a sizable lead for the Pacific Division title, the Golden Knights seem likely to commemorate the most successful expansion season in NHL history with a division crown and although they’ve stymied much of the league, the Wild has been able to solve the Rubik’s Cube that is Vegas — sweeping the three-game season series with wins of 4-2 and 5-2 at Xcel Energy Center and 4-2 in Nevada.
“We’re just trying to play a stingy game, I think,” winger Jason Zucker said. “That’s what it is for us. We’re trying to not let them skate. They are a fast team. They move pucks well. They can make plays, so if you take away their legs and don’t let them skate, it’s going to be hard for them to make plays.”
Add in the Golden Knights’ up-and-down showing of late, and the best story of 2017-18 could be susceptible for a rough resolution.
Nashville and Winnipeg, meanwhile, have ascended to legit contender status.
The Predators recently won 14 out of 15, boast perhaps the NHL’s top goalie this season, have a talented offense and an equally dynamic blue line.
“Once they went to the finals [last year], they grew on that and they’ve been great from the beginning this year,” Boudreau said. “They’re the team to beat.”
Results against Nashville for the Wild have been mixed, with the team winning twice and losing once in the first three tests, but the matchup with the Jets has been less flattering.
The Jets won three of the four games, outscoring the Wild 13-6 in their victories. Winnipeg’s lone loss came in the second half of a back-to-back on the road. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been stellar, winger Patrik Laine is in the running for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer and the team’s power play is potent.
“Another balanced team,” Staal said.
If the playoffs started today, that’s the challenge that would be staring down the Wild.
But they don’t, so the group still must lock down a berth before any scenario is possible.
And once that happens, there’s no guarantee which team will be the first to 16 wins.
“Playoffs are a whole different animal,” Boudreau said.
• The league expects the upper limit of next season’s salary cap to land between $78 million and $82 million. That news came out of the NHL general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., last week. The current ceiling is $75 million and with the Wild up against that parameter, this growth would give the team more flexibility this offseason.
• It looks as if the race for the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point-getter could come down to the last game of the season. Entering action Friday, the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov still led the pack, but he was only one point ahead of the Oilers’ Connor McDavid, three up on the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and four in front of the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin. McDavid and MacKinnon have been the most productive of late, each racking up 10 points in the previous five games.
• Ryan Donato made quite the impression in his NHL debut. Just a day after signing a contract to turn pro following his time at Harvard, where his dad (and former NHLer) Ted Donato coaches, Donato scored a goal and added two assists Monday against the Blue Jackets. This kind of start to Donato’s pro career continued a tremendous season for him. He led Harvard offensively, is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and tied for the lead in goals at the Olympics with the five he had for the U.S. team.
Wild's week ahead
Tuesday: 7 p.m. at Nashville
Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Dallas
Saturday: 7 p.m. at Dallas
Tue. FSN, Thu. NBCSN, Sat. FSN+
Player to watch: Tyler Seguin, Stars
The center has reached the 30-goal mark for the fourth time in his career and is just one of three active NHLers to score a minimum of 30 in at least four of the past five seasons.
“the atmosphere, the energy in the building, every single play is magnified. Every faceoff is magnified. Every moment is just another level. The more comfortable and confident you are in those moments in time, I think the better you’ll be.”
Wild center Eric Staal on what changes from the regular season to the playoffs.