CHICAGO – Those July 4 fireworks that shook the Twin Cities seem an eternity ago.
Expectations were gigantic on that balmy summer day when the Wild persuaded Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to spurn other suitors and sign with Minnesota.
That was the boom. On Thursday night at the United Center, the Wild’s season ended with a poof.
The Wild’s first postseason in five years was over in five games after the Chicago Blackhawks, the best team in hockey during the regular season, advanced to the Western Conference semifinals with a 5-1 victory.
“Just the lack of finish killed us,” said Parise, who scored once in five games and was minus-7. “That’s the bottom line. You have to look at yourself first. You look back at some of the opportunities throughout the series that I had and didn’t put them in. That’s going to haunt you the whole summer.”
After earning the final playoff spot in the West on the final night of the regular season, the Wild managed only seven goals in the series, and its power play went 0-for-17. Captain Mikko Koivu did not have a single point, and was a minus-6.
Wild coach Mike Yeo could be on the hot seat after his team’s late-season slump and early playoff exit. Veteran coaches Lindy Ruff and Dave Tippett are conspicuously available. Ruff, the longtime Buffalo Sabres coach who was an assistant coach in Florida when General Manager Chuck Fletcher was assistant GM, was fired during the regular season. Tippett’s contract expires in Phoenix on June 30 and the Coyotes’ future is uncertain.
“I don’t know. I can’t answer that,” Yeo said when asked if he was worried about his job. “If you want to look at it objectively, statistically … properly, there’s been a lot of improvement in our organization, and I feel that we’re going in the right direction.”
On March 30, the Wild led the Northwest Division. On April 27, it needed to win at Colorado to make the playoffs thanks to a 5-8-1 April and failures the final week of the season at home against lowly Calgary and Edmonton. That put the Wild directly in the postseason path of the Blackhawks, who led the league from start to finish.
Chicago’s deep, talented roster exposed the Wild as a team that seems to lack true finishers. After scoring the fewest goals in the NHL since the 2004-05 lockout last season, the Wild finished tied for 22nd this year. Thursday, the Wild proved yet again just how hard it has to work to score goals and just how it easy it often comes to others.
The Wild blew chances while the Blackhawks buried them, with star Marian Hossa scoring twice and Patrick Sharp recording his fifth of the series.
“There’s a lot of good things in place,” said Minnesota native Matt Cullen, who admitted he was concerned he played his last game with the Wild. “Obviously getting Zach and Suts has made a huge difference. The culture has started to change and expectations are rising, but we still have a ways to go.”
The Wild definitely has some excuses. The team lost goal scorer Dany Heatley for the season April 3. Cullen suffered a knee injury that coincided with the Wild’s late slide. Newcomer Jason Pominville missed the first three games of the playoffs because of a head injury. And goalie Niklas Backstrom, after being ridden all year, was lost for the series moments before Game 1 by what he says is a sports hernia that will require surgery.
That meant Josh Harding, who never previously started a playoff game, started all five, with Darcy Kuemper also getting his first action in goal. The Wild also used six defensemen in the series who never previously played a playoff game.
But the Wild’s first line of Parise, Koivu and Charlie Coyle again didn’t produce, and Yeo never juggled lines.
The Wild has missed the playoffs in three of Fletcher’s four years, and the general manager also faces offseason scrutiny. He put together the roster, took a chance by starting the season with untested rookie Mikael Granlund as the No. 2 center and signed veteran Brett Clark to add defensive depth in March. Clark was minus-9 in only eight games played and hindered the Wild’s salary-cap flexibility down the stretch.
At the trade deadline, Fletcher traded prospects Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett, a first-round pick and a second-round pick for Pominville. The Wild went 1-4 the next five games, including three shutouts, after the move broke up the then-buzzing Parise-Koivu-Coyle line.
Still, as disappointing as the season’s finish was, Yeo feels the future is bright.
“There was a lot of progress,” Yeo said. “We’ve changed the culture. We’ve improved a lot of areas of our game. Whether it’s the young players or the other guys, there’s been significant improvement amongst a lot of our players.
“And to get an opportunity to play in the playoffs, not only for the guys who never played there, but the guys who haven’t been there in a long time, this was another important step for us. And even feeling this feeling that we feel right now, this is going to help us.
“We aren’t happy the way it ended, but we’ll be better just for this experience going forward.”