The Wild enters the playoffs Tuesday night as a decided underdog, a long shot to upset the uber-skilled Chicago Blackhawks. Many in the hockey world are predicting a nice, clean tuneup for the NHL’s best team.
“That’s beautiful,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “Are you kidding me? There’s no pressure on us. Everybody thinks it’s going to be a short series. Well you know something, those guys on the ice, they like this position.”
Of course, what is Leipold supposed to say? That his high-priced team put itself in the worst possible situation after floundering the final month of the regular season?
That’s the Wild’s reality though. The team drew this dance card by virtue of waiting until the final day of the regular season to secure a playoff berth. Rather than jockeying for better seeding, the Wild spent the past few weeks hanging on for dear life.
“We made it harder on ourselves to get here,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “We expected to get to the playoffs. Once you’re in the playoffs, you can’t be satisfied. There’s a lot of teams that make the playoffs. It’s the special teams that can go far and get a good run.”
That’s the mindset Wild players should embrace now. They can’t undo April. Their season ultimately will be defined by what happens next.
Any postseason qualifies as an important accomplishment — especially for an organization that has experienced it only four times overall and none since 2008 — but this should not be viewed as the finish line. For this team, reaching the playoffs was merely the minimum expectation.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of guys who are relaxing now and exhaling and just being satisfied that we’re here,” Zach Parise said. “We’re not just happy that we made it.”
Team officials sure look relieved though. The anxiety that engulfed the organization last week made everyone act tighter than Ebenezer Scrooge. Nobody wanted to venture down that other dark path.
“A lot of stress,” Leipold said.
Weighty expectations followed the Wild the moment Leipold ignited a Fourth of July boomer that showed his organization was no longer a middling franchise governed more by patience than ruthless ambition. Tired of watching the playoffs at home every spring, Leipold executed a $196 million power play to sign Parise and Suter last summer and bankrolled one of the highest-paid rosters in the NHL this season.
Like any businessman, Leipold wants to see a return on his investment and a playoff series that includes three home games should result in a profit between $4 million and $5 million. In terms of its on-ice trajectory, Leipold believes the organization has a five-year window to maximize the talents of his core group.
“I think we all believed that we had a team that was built to be in the playoffs,” Leipold said. “It’s fair to say, our expectation is that we would make the playoffs. We’ve done that. Now let’s see where it goes.”
The Wild banged the underdog drum loudly on the eve of Game 1, which came as an abrupt shift from the nervousness that festered last week. It’s impossible to predict anything with this team because we’ve seen the Wild at its best and its worst, and you could fit a canyon between those two extremes.
Wild coaches and players are fond of saying that they make life hard on themselves, to the degree that it has become their unofficial motto. In other words, this team is incredibly inconsistent.
But then again, anything can happen in playoff hockey. A goalie gets hot, a team gains (or loses) confidence, a puck goes off a player’s rear end for a goal in a close game. Playoff hockey is different from any other sport that way. It’s more unpredictable and seeding often becomes less relevant. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last season as an eighth seed.
“We’re using that as our model,” Leipold said.
The 2003 Wild team serves as an another example. In the eyes of many, that team had less than zero chance of upsetting the big, bad Colorado Avalanche. But the Wild executed its game plan perfectly, started to believe and hopped a magic carpet ride all the way to the Western Conference finals.
Can history repeat itself? The odds say no, but at least the Wild has a chance. This challenge is not mission impossible. It’s merely the toughest road possible.