The Wild hasn’t advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs since 2003, so maybe it’s understandable that everybody seems near hysteria trying to analyze which matchup — Anaheim, Colorado or St. Louis — would be the best for the Wild.
Matt Cooke, one of three Wild players who have hoisted the Stanley Cup, says it means absolutely nothing.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup, not to match up for one team,” said the left winger, who won it all with Pittsburgh in 2009 and has played 97 playoff games, more than any other Wild player. “You’ve got to go through everybody, you’ve got to go through the best.
“One round is only one round, and it’s only the first round. A huge focus of ours the entire season is where we are come playoff time, not in the standings, but where we are as a team, as a group, within our system. We’re in a good place right now, so the matchup means nothing because we’ll have to play them all to get to our ultimate goal.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo, who has also won the Stanley Cup, as have assistant coaches Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor, couldn’t agree more.
“I know one thing: We’re going to play a good team. There’s no way you’re getting around that,” Yeo said. “But we think we’re a pretty good team, too.”
The 43-26-12 Wild has won four in a row and is 6-0-1 in its past seven games heading into Sunday’s finale against the Nashville Predators.
In past few weeks, the Wild has beaten some of the NHL’s elite — Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and St. Louis — and rallied for a point in Chicago.
“I said before the season that we’re going to go through some tough stretches, but the most important thing is how we hit the playoffs,” Cooke said. “We want to hit them running. We’ve proven to ourselves that we can play against anybody, and if we put our battle level where it needs to be and commit to staying within our system and not deviate, then we give ourselves a great chance to win against anybody.”
Not deviating from the system starts with defense. The Wild ranks fifth in goals against.
“Defense is not a dirty word. You’ve got to defend,” Sydor said. “Everybody wants to see offense. Everybody wants to see scoring. We do, too, but we understand, and Mike has a vision of how you create that stuff. We’re defending well, but I think our game has been a lot more aggressive, too. But we’re not going to be something we’re not.”
The Wild ranks 24th offensively but has been near the middle of the pack since Jan. 2 and has earned more points when trailing after two periods (21) than any team in the NHL. In recent games, the Wild has rallied against Detroit, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
“That’s because we’ve been committed to getting pucks deep and wearing down defensemen, especially lately,” left winger Zach Parise said.
Before the season, the Wild talked about being more of a puck-possession team. Slowly but surely, though, teams adjusted by clogging up the neutral zone. When that happens, one solution is to chip pucks into the opponent’s end and chase them down.
Otherwise, turnovers and odd-man rushes will occur.
“You see a lot of teams playing a 1-3-1 now. You’re not going to get through that neutral zone clean,” Sydor said. “I think one thing that has been a lot better for us of late is that we’ve created a lot of stuff off our forecheck, and the only way you can really do that is by being committed to getting pucks behind.”
That’s how the Wild feels it can be successful in the playoffs, too.
“That’s how you win Cups,” Cooke said. “This is why organizations bring guys in that have won. You need to shed light on that situation, you need to talk about it, you need to talk about winning because if you don’t talk about winning, then you’re probably not going to do it.
“I think this group is destined to do a great thing. We have one game left to build for the playoffs. We can’t take it lightly. It’s our last chance to get ready.”