WINNIPEG – Hype started to swirl early, and rightfully so.
There was the 12-game win streak in December, an offense that regularly produced three-to-five goals a night and then a point total that ranked near the top of the league.
It was the best showing the Wild ever had and by the time it reached the playoffs, the team was a full-blown contender — and it had acted like one, beefing up at the trade deadline like juggernauts tend to do.
Ultimately, though, the Wild shriveled under the spotlight — fizzling in five games to the Blues a year ago to abruptly siphon the hope out of a season that once held so much promise.
But the Wild isn’t wearing the favorite label any more.
It has passed that off to first-round Stanley Cup playoff opponent Winnipeg, which earned the distinction after the most successful season in franchise history — a climb that included 52 wins and 114 points spurred on by an impressive offense and top-tier goaltending.
And the Jets have home-ice advantage in the series, which begins Wednesday, and that leaves the visitors only one possible title:
And the Wild is ready to embrace the role.
“The greatest feeling of success is when people say you can’t do something and you do it,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “That’s where we’re at.”
This isn’t the first time the Wild had to persevere amid a tough outlook.
Actually, that’s been the theme of the entire season, with the team being forced to swerve around each setback like a pothole in the road.
And the first bump of the journey came before the season started. Salary-cap restraints and the expansion draft purged the Wild of some key players, and the ensuing roster included unknowns — youth, unproven pieces and aging stars. It was a look uncharacteristic of a group whose window of opportunity was believed to still be propped open.
A makeover quickly followed, but an even more untested design took over after injuries sidelined forwards Charlie Coyle (fractured fibula), Nino Niederreiter (ankle sprain) and Mikael Granlund (groin injury) — this after winger Zach Parise was already out, dealing with a herniated disc that would eventually require back surgery and cost him the first half of the season.
By early November, the Wild was loitering near the bottom of the standings. But then it pushed back.
Center Eric Staal emerged as one of the best goal scorers in the NHL, racking up 42, which tied the franchise record for most in a season.
“The playoffs are always more difficult,” Staal said. “You’ve got to fight even harder. You got to work for every single inch. You got to get ugly in front of the net, but I’ve scored my fair share of ugly ones this year. So I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
The defense settled in, with Ryan Suter assembling one of his best seasons in Minnesota and Matt Dumba maturing into a career year, and goalie Devan Dubnyk hunkered into a rhythm that still ranks him as one of the game’s most talented.
It took everyone, and the catalysts shifted — from winger Jason Zucker and his personal-best 33 goals and Parise’s surge once healthy to an undeniable prowess on home ice and an eye-popping 200 points courtesy the blue line.
“Eric had 28 goals last year, and a lot of people didn’t think he could duplicate that,” Boudreau said. “And he was getting older. Mikko [Koivu] was getting older. Zach didn’t even know if he was going to play. Eight guys at 30 years old [or older] in a young man’s league. Would we be able to compete?
“All of these were questions if you ever listened to the NHL Network, they’re just saying, ‘No chance. Minnesota’s out. Done. Gone.’ And we sort of showed them wrong.”
There was one common thread, though. Success didn’t come easy.
“We’ve had to scratch and claw and kind of grind it out all year,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We worked hard to get to this point. Our players deserve a lot of credit.”
Loss on the blue line
More than half of Wild games (48) have been decided by one or two goals, with the Wild going 25-12-11. The team didn’t just get accustomed to operating under a slim margin of error; it seemed to thrive amid the pressure, and that experience shaped its style as a plucky bunch who focuses on the forecheck, doesn’t surrender high-quality chances and overall is a difficult out.
“We have found what works best for us with the makeup of our team right now,” center Matt Cullen said. “Come playoff time, that can be a real successful type of hockey if you commit to it and I think as a group, we’ve bought into the idea that that’s how we have to play to be successful.”
Adhering to that approach may be the Wild’s key to survival because the most recent blow was a doozy.
Suter is inactive, on the mend after suffering a right ankle fracture March 31. Jared Spurgeon should return from a right hamstring tear, but that still doesn’t patch the hole on the blue line.
Youngsters Nick Seeler and Carson Soucy will be asked to fill in, while Dumba and Jonas Brodin have formed the new No. 1 pairing. The plan will be to keep it simple and conservative to slow down a Jets offense that scored the second-most goals in the NHL — just like the Wild did last season.
“Me and [Brodin] have found our chemistry, and we’ve been playing some real solid hockey and good defensively against the top lines,” Dumba said. “So we’re ready for it.”
At the other end, peppering Winnipeg’s net with shots and bodies will be necessary to get a stable Jets defense scrambling out of its structure — havoc Dubnyk felt the Wild could have done a better job at instigating a year ago against the Blues.
“That kind of culminates a feeling of chaos, and it’s not a nice feeling when you’re in that spot,” Dubnyk said.
A strategy is vital, but it’s not the only ingredient — not when players like Cullen and Staal lifted the Stanley Cup during previous triumphs. They circled hunger, internal confidence and resiliency as the traits that separated those teams they celebrated with rather than numbers, scouting reports or what was drawn on the whiteboard.
There should be no shortage of motivation with unlikely options pushed into significant positions and despite all the drawbacks, belief is palpable.
“We expect to win, and we plan on winning and I think that’s kind of the mentality that we’re going to take regardless,” Dubnyk said. “We take it into every game, and we’re going to continue to take it into the playoffs.”
If any team is equipped to bounce back, it would appear to be the Wild after staring down as many curveballs as it has this season.
“So often a team struggles to find an identity,” said Cullen, a three-time champion coming off back-to-back Cup wins with the Penguins. “Through that adversity, we’ve found an identity.”
So call the Wild underdogs, unheralded or under the radar.
Players expect that, and they’re OK with it.
“It’s fair to say a little more pressure on them than us as far as what the outside perception is going to be,” Staal said. “That doesn’t bother me. I don’t really care what anyone thinks.”
After all, the ticker tape from last year’s regular-season parade led to a dead end.
Taking the more rigorous route may end up suiting the Wild.
It has so far.
“There were circumstances that kind of led us down this path,” Fletcher said. “But nonetheless, it’s still a path we feel can lead us to where we want to get to.”