The Wild’s season of grand expectations could reach its finality Thursday night and, by the look of things, the odds of any other conclusion seem fairly remote.
To recap: The Wild has a revolving door at goalie; its best player is a minus-6 for the series and its captain is minus-5; the team uncorked 68 shots in Game 4 and scored zero goals; and the power play is a robust 0-for-15 for the series.
Even more disconcerting, the Chicago Blackhawks returned home with a 3-1 series lead and a chance to close things out, despite receiving zero goals so far from its dazzling top line as a unit.
So other than that ...
As the Wild attempts to extend this series somehow, many of its fans still bemoan the circumstances that brought the team to this point, specifically a 6-1 choke job to Edmonton on the next-to-last day of the regular season. If the Wild doesn’t lay that egg — or another one against Calgary a few days earlier — it would have secured a better seed and avoided the Blackhawks in the opening round after locking up the eighth seed in its final game.
If it had beaten Edmonton or Calgary, the Wild would have drawn the Vancouver Canucks, who went down without much fight in a series sweep by San Jose. That supposition, however, overlooks the fact that there are no guarantees the Wild would have fared any better against a different opponent. Sure, its odds would have been exponentially more favorable, but the Wild hasn’t earned the right to take anything for granted.
If anything, this playoff series has provided the organization a true picture of the gap that still separates itself from the league’s best team and future division rival. Watch the way the Blackhawks move the puck, control possession and are able to find another gear when the situation calls for it (See: Games 2 and 4).
Injuries to Niklas Backstrom, Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley provide some cover and valid discussion about whether the series would be more competitive if the Wild stood at full strength from the start. But the discrepancy in overall talent, speed, skill and depth between these two teams is not difficult to discern.
The Blackhawks are a great team, the Wild is a good team.
Of course, that doesn’t preclude the Wild from being able to have success, because we’ve seen stranger things happen in playoff hockey. The Wild went toe-to-toe with the Hawks in Games 1 and 3.
Chicago’s series lead has nothing to do with effort, either. The Wild is competing hard and playing physical. Nobody appears to be just going through the motions on the ice.
The Hawks simply have better talent, top to bottom. Conversely, the Wild’s best players have either been exposed, disappeared or been unable to execute consistently against a very good opponent.
Chicago has a handful of players blessed with high-end talent. The Wild has two players who fit that description — Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
The Wild needs to continue to make moves that will help close that gap because it joins the Blackhawks in a division next season under the NHL’s new realignment plan. The move should rekindle an old bloodthirsty rivalry of yesteryear, and that’s a good thing.
But Wild owner Craig Leipold and management must find ways to improve this team so that a playoff series against the Blackhawks isn’t categorized as a mismatch before it even begins. Leipold invested a lot of money in signing Parise and Suter last summer. Now the Wild needs to get bigger physically and find more scorers.
Despite its upgrade in talent, the Wild still finished 23rd in the league in scoring and 17th in total shots this season. In other words, this team needs finishers, guys who can put the puck in the net and not just be satisfied with getting scoring chances. It seems almost inconceivable that a team can attempt 68 shots in one game and not score once.
The Wild sounded like a frustrated bunch late Tuesday night, none more so than captain Mikko Koivu, whose image has taken a beating because he’s been a virtual no-show. The Wild’s deficiencies extend beyond one player, but this series should put to rest the team’s insistence that Koivu is an underappreciated star.
Coach Mike Yeo sounded defiant, though, when asked about Koivu and Parise’s struggles after Game 4.