The Wild has reason to believe three times can be a charm.
Yet again facing the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that ended the Wild’s season in each of the past two years, might seem like another daunting challenge, but the Wild feels it has grown up an awful lot the past few years.
Let’s just take the 2013 Wild team that ended a four-year playoff drought. That group was immature, inexperienced and almost happy to be there, and the Blackhawks treated them that way by easily overwhelming the Wild in the first round en route to a second Stanley Cup in four years.
“You almost needed two pucks in that series,” Wild leading scorer Zach Parise said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
Last year, the Wild, a still-growing group, played well in large chunks of the series and could have forced a Game 7 had not been for 35 saves by Corey Crawford and one perfectly placed dump-in off a stanchion by Brent Seabrook that Patrick Kane buried to send the Wild reeling into the offseason.
This year, though, since trading for Devan Dubnyk on Jan. 14, the Wild was the NHL’s best team in the second half, best road team in the second half and for the first time enters a playoff round against the Blackhawks with no goalie drama and a ton of goalie stability.
Two years ago, Niklas Backstrom got hurt in warmups minutes before Game 1. Josh Harding, sidelined the previous two months by multiple sclerosis, had to take over the reins unexpectedly. Last year, Ilya Bryz- galov started the Colorado series, struggled and Darcy Kuemper took over. Naturally, Kuemper got hurt in Game 7 against the Avalanche and Bryzgalov was back between the pipes in the Chicago series.
So just having Dubnyk in goal gives the Wild confidence going up against the firepower of Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad and Duncan Keith.
“They’re a great team and they’re always the team you’ve got to beat if you want to get out of the West,” Parise said. “These guys are, every year, they’re Cup contenders. For us to want to get in that conversation with them, we’ve got to beat them.
“It’s good for us to get another crack at them. I thought we had a good series with them last year. You want to go down and get one in Chicago and have a good start to the series.”
The Wild, which had a franchise-record 50 road points this season and went 16-2-2 in its final 20 road games (including 12 consecutive wins), split Games 1 and 2 of the first round in St. Louis and won Game 5 in St. Louis.
The Wild, which clinched a playoff spot in Chicago on April 7, is 0-6 against the Blackhawks on the road in the past two postseasons.
That obviously must change, Wild players say.
“We’ve had to be ready for a little while now just to get in,” veteran Jason Pominville said. “We got in feeling good about our game, and it kind of snowballed through the first round. Now that we’re past the first one, we’ve got to look at what’s ahead of us.
“But knowing that we’ve played these guys the last couple of years, it’s not going to be easy. They’re a good team. They’re an elite team. They’ve proven it. We’ve got to be up for the task.”
Still young guns
Pominville pointed to the Blackhawks’ Game 6 comeback from 3-1 down to advance past the Nashville Predators.
“They’ve got a lot of firepower. They can defend. They do a lot of good things. It’s not going to be easy, but obviously taking notes on what we did last year,” Pominville said. “It’s a different year, but we know we can play with those guys. Hopefully, this is the year.”
One big reason to be optimistic is the Wild’s “kids” aren’t kids in the playoffs anymore. The experience the past two years has been invaluable.
Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon have each played 24 playoff games and Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter 19.
“It goes a long way,” Parise said. “I think sometimes with the experience they have and the games they’ve played, you can forget how young they still are. But from my standpoint, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year from my rookie year on.
“For them to get it the first couple of years, it means a lot for our organization and for them to play well in pressure times and in crunch times, it really helps them out going forward.”
The Blackhawks will be a different challenge than the Blues because their speed and counterattack and ability to defend matches up well with the fast, well-balanced Wild. Also, the Blackhawks know how to win in the playoffs as opposed to the Blues, who have been eliminated in the first round three years in a row.
The Wild will have to figure out a way to beat Crawford. He has been leaky in the playoffs (1-1 in three games with a 4.19 goals-against average and .850 save percentage), losing his gig temporarily to Scott Darling before winning in relief in Game 6.
But, Crawford has been great against the Wild, going 8-3 in the playoffs with a 1.66 goals-against average and .937 save percentage.
The Blackhawks don’t appear to be taking the Wild lightly. From coach Joel Quenneville to player after player, they all raved about the Wild’s complete game Monday, the Wild’s ability to defend but also stun teams with speed.
Toews said it will be the “toughest test we’ve seen in a long time.”
“They’re coming in hot,” Toews said. “They’re playing great hockey. They just beat a really, really good team. Obviously, [people] want to say that we’ve beat them the last two years, but I don’t think there’s any favorite in this series.”