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As Minnesota's four major men's pro sports teams hit rock bottom as a collective in 2011 -- none of them made the playoffs, and none were particularly close in the end -- we wondered which would be the next of the bunch to make the playoffs.
Now that we are into May of 2013, the times are better. The Vikings and Wild have made the playoffs since that query. The Timberwolves at least have the makings of a nucleus that could challenge for a spot. The Twins have already moved the needle from hopeless to functional and are a few more prospects and Oswaldo Arcia blasts away from being downright intriguing.
As such, we revisit the question with the bar set higher: What will be the next of the four to WIN a playoff series (or, in the Vikings' case, a game)?
This is a bit of a dare-we-dream proposition, considering that from the time immediately after Randy Moss' disgusting act at Lambeau until this very moment -- a span of more than eight calendar years -- the Vikings' playoff victory following the 2009 season is the only example of postseason advancement among the four. But why shouldn't we dream big? Let's set some percentages:
Vikings: 40 percent. A 10-win team added a batch of talent through the draft, found a receiver in Greg Jennings and a functional backup QB who can start if needed in Matt Cassel. A return trip to the postseason is not a lock, but you don't have to squint too much to see it, either. And once there, the NFL is the easiest to advance since it's a one-game proposition. Get a couple of bounces, and the Vikings are the winner.
Wild: 35 percent. Cornerstone players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aren't going anywhere for a LONG time, while more young reinforcements are on the way to join the likes of Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker. A lot of new components were pulled together in a slapdash 48-game season. Minnesota faltered in the final month, or it would have won the division and had a much better chance of advancing. But at least the Wild made the playoffs. Still, there are questions galore. Will Mike Yeo and Chuck Fletcher be back? What will the Wild do at the goalie spot? And will they thrive playing in a tougher realigned division next season? That said, more than half the NHL teams make the playoffs, and seeding often means little once you get there -- unless you have to play a team like Chicago. The Wild took a step this year and could very well take another next year.
Twins: 15 percent. It's probably not happening this year, even with the team's improvement. Even 2014 might be early. But if the Wild and Vikings don't win soon, the Twins will be primed to make a push starting in 2015.
Wolves: 10 percent. Even if the Wolves get the shooting guard they so desperately need ... and get a fully healthy and engaged Kevin Love back ... the West is loaded and could remain that way for a while. Five teams won at least 56 games in the West this year. The Wolves should set their sights on a return to .500 and then start wondering about the playoffs and next steps.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments. But please: Limit this to the four teams mentioned. Of course the Lynx have a great chance of advancing this year. Other pro teams here have won playoff games in the eight-year span as well. But for our purposes, we are dealing with the Wild, Vikings, Twins and Wolves.
A group of players who held their sticks so tightly down the stretch of the regular season that there were likely fingerprints on them through their hockey gloves played with poise. An emergency start by Josh Harding in place of Niklas Backstrom galvanized the team's defensive effort, while Harding was superb. And the mighty Hawks were getting more flustered with every deflected pass and blocked shot.
If Jason Zucker's shot is an inch lower in overtime, into the net instead of off the crossbar ... or if Zach Parise's point-blank attempt hadn't caught a piece of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, the script would have been finished as a fairy tale and a stunner.
Instead, Chicago scored its second pretty goal of the game late in the first overtime, and all the Wild has to show for its effort is a 1-0 series deficit.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
1) Harding can still rise to the occasion. Given Harding's diagnosis and significant rust, what he did Tuesday was nothing short of amazing. He was tremendous, and if he gets the Game 2 start as well there is at least something to build on going in.
2) Zucker belongs. He was the most dangerous forward on the ice for the Wild -- partially because Chicago's top line almost completely neutralized the Wild's top line, and vice-versa -- and created great chances with his speed and quickness.
3) As if we didn't already know this, winning will not be easy. The Wild did the necessary work to create some favorable bounces -- slight deflections that caused Chicago to be off-side numerous times on dangerous chances, for example -- but even playing air-tight for much of the night, the Wild still allowed plenty of opportunities.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO FIND OUT?
1) Can the Wild bounce back mentally from such a tough loss? As encouraged as players must be by the effort, the outcome still stings.
2) Can the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line generate more offense? Coyle's physical play was basically bottled up by good stick work and body work by Chicago in the corners. When that line is clicking, he is controlling plays along the wall while Koivu and Parise are cycling like mad to create chances. The stakes are higher now, and the opponent is better. They must find a way.
3) Will Jason Pominville return? Having Pominville and Heatley out at the same time re-establishes how few natural goal scorers the Wild has. Heatley is out. Pominville, though, would give instant credibility to the second line and add much needed scoring to the lineup.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
So you're saying there's a chance?
Actually, we're saying there's way more than just a chance the Wild makes the playoffs. There's a 97.3 percent chance the Wild makes the playoffs, according to Sports Club Stats, after a 2-1 victory over the Kings last night.
The Wild is two points clear of Columbus and three clear of the Red Wings (who have played one fewer game). Even if the Red Wings win their next game against the Kings, the Wild will still have a 96 percent chance of making it. Any Wild win or any Columbus regulation loss clinches a berth now.
So what does this mean?
Well, plain and simple, it means the math is on Minnesota's side when it comes to brining postseason NHL games back to this state -- heck, postseason winter sports playoffs of any kind, for that matter. The Wolves haven't made it since the 2003-04 season; the Wild hasn't made it since 2007-08. When late April/early May rolls around, and other cities are gearing up for potentially long playoff runs, we have been mere spectators.
Just getting in this year -- and likely being the No. 7 seed and likely playing Anaheim in the first round -- is meaningful in many ways, but the biggest from a fan perspective might be at least participating in these things known as playoffs. It's been too long, and now the Wild is oh-so-close.
On the morning of Feb. 26, the Wild woke up on the outside looking in when it came to the NHL playoff chase. The squad was six points behind Vancouver in the Northwest Division and bunched with a lot of other middling teams. The Wild had "38" in the "goals for" category, and while that also counts 1 for every shootout wins -- and therefore isn't a perfect representation of the offensive output -- it was the lowest mark in the NHL at the time.
That night, Minnesota played Calgary at the X. After two periods, the Wild trailed 1-0. Sometime around the 10 minute mark of the third period, it was still 1-0, and we tweeted this:
Despite @fsnorth's valiant attempt to show us all the near-misses, I am starting to wonder if it's the system. #mnwild.
We mention this as coincidental timing, not to suggest we spurred some sort of turnaround. The Wild scored once near the end of regulation and again early in overtime to take a 2-1 victory.
Since then, Minnesota has scored 34 actual goals in its past 10 games (35 in the goals for because of one shootout win in that span), getting 14 points in that span (seven wins, three losses). The two most recent games were back-to-back road victories at Colorado and, more importantly, 3-1 last night in Vancouver, where the Wild hadn't won since Sid was born (or something like that). The standings show the Wild now in sole possession of an admittedly weak Northwest with 34 points, two more than the hated Canucks. The team's 16-10-2 record is even actually four games over .500 (if a shootout win is a win, a shootout loss is a loss. Sorry Gary Bettman). In a normal season, the Wild would be on pace for about 100 points.
Just as notably, this team is not just winning. It is, in many cases, playing dominant hockey. And it is getting that domination from multiple lines, while Niklas Backstrom has found his form. There are 20 games left in this truncated regular season, and we are going on record to say this: the Wild will make the playoffs and should even win at least one series. Gear up for some May hockey, everyone. It's coming.
In any event, we attended last night's Wild game and sat between two maestros in the press box -- Russo with his kinetic hockey energy and Reusse with his one-line pearls of observational wisdom. Having only casually kept up with the team for the first handful of games, here are our three big thoughts from what we saw against Chicago:
1) The Wild finally got some production from its second and third lines (goals in regulation by second-liner Matt Cullen, pictured during his shootout clincher, and third-liner Cal Clutterbuck). That said, we still aren't crazy about the way the lines shape up -- particularly the second line. Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Mikael Granlund just aren't the right mix. The problem is the first line can't be touched -- those guys are playing at such a high level, even if last night wasn't their best game -- and the third line seems to be developing some nice chemistry. Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard play well together, and Kyle Brodziak is a nice third component. So what do you do? Well, Mike Yeo can be patient and hope the second-liners click on a more consistent basis. He can juggle lines, but again we like the dynamic of the first and third lines. Or the Wild can dip into Houston and see if a forward there can provide a spark. We would be intrigued to see what Charlie Coyle -- a big, power forward -- could bring to the mix. But who would be the odd man out? It's a tough call with no perfect answer.
2) Give Yeo tons of credit for the quick hook on Josh Harding last night. It was clear from the start that he was fighting the puck, giving up a bad-angle goal and getting off the hook when another similar shot rang the crossbar. Yeo pulled him after just two goals allowed -- and the Wild down 2-1, since Minnesota had scored first. The game was still very well in hand at that point. In an 82-game season, we're guessing Harding gets another goal before getting hooked. And maybe the Wild doesn't win that game. But Yeo demonstrated the proper sense of urgency, and Niklas Backstrom rewarded him with a stellar performance that led to two big points.
3) It was not an especially aesthetically pleasing game to watch. The Wild looked gassed about halfway through, playing the second leg of a back-to-back. But there is this: Minnesota overcame a rough start from its goalie, tired legs and a shootout against Chicago's ultra-talented shooters to claim two very important points in a short season. And let's not forget: that was the Blackhawks' first loss of the year after starting 6-0. Very good win.
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