A dynamic offense, well-rounded defense and prolific power play didn’t just culminate in 52 wins and 114 points for the Jets.
Those traits have also positioned Winnipeg as a bonafide threat to win the Stanley Cup.
And the Wild helped fuel the Jets’ firepower, falling to them three times in four games by a combined margin of 13-6.
But on the brink of a reunion in the first round of the playoffs that begins Wednesday in Winnipeg, the Wild isn’t discouraged by those regular-season results and is eager to flex the improvement it’s experienced since their previous meetings.
“It’s irrelevant,” winger Jason Zucker said. “I think we feel we’re a much different team. We haven’t played them in a while, too. I can’t remember the last time we played them. We had a couple tough games in that building, but I think the playoffs are a whole different animal. It’s a whole different ballgame when you get to playoffs and the way things work. We’re excited for the challenge.”
These Central Division rivals met early and often in the first half of the season, with two dates in October. The first was a 4-3 loss for the Wild on the road Oct. 20, a game in which the Wild fell into an early hole only to erase that deficit and sport a lead late in the second period. But it couldn’t hold on and surrendered a pair of goals.
Another one-goal loss ensued Oct. 31 on home ice, a 2-1 slip-up in which an errant drop pass by defenseman Matt Dumba led to the clincher for the Jets.
But it got worse for the Wild, as it was overwhelmed 7-2 Nov. 27 back in Winnipeg — one of the team’s most egregious losses of the season.
“The blowout in Winnipeg was a pretty good example of why you gotta be careful with that team,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “We were a different team then. I think that was a long time ago. We weren’t playing the same way as we are now, but I think we were up 2-0 in that game. We just constantly were giving pucks back to them, and when that happens, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.”
In the regular-season series finale, the Wild finally solved the Jets, who were completing the second half of a back-to-back on the road. The 4-1 finish Jan. 13, however, was indicative of a formula of how to frustrate the Jets — pummel the net with shots (the Wild had a franchise-record 23 in the first period) and keep them off the power play as much as possible; Winnipeg did convert once but had only two chances.
“Last time we played them at home was the right result,” Dubnyk said. “So those are the feelings we gotta go off of. I think the most [important] thing is you just can’t turn pucks over. You can’t let them go because that whole lineup wants to be flying up the ice on odd-man rushes. Whether they score or not, that’s going to get them feeling good and momentum. So we gotta try to limit that.”
After that victory, the Wild closed out the season 21-9-6 — a groove that lifted it to a 45-26-11 overall record, 101 points and a sixth straight trip to the postseason, matching the Penguins and Ducks for the league’s longest current streak.
That second-half surge does suggest the Wild has cleaned up its play since those letdowns against the Jets, but that’s not the only change.
The Wild will be without top defenseman Ryan Suter, as he heals a right ankle fracture, and the lineup has added more youth with three active players currently on the roster with less than 25 NHL games of experience each.
This reconfigured team will have two days to prepare for a 6 p.m. start Wednesday at Bell MTS Place.
“At this point, everyone’s back to zeroes now,” winger Zach Parise said. “I don’t put too much emphasis [on the regular season]. Of course, you have to look back at those games. Are there certain areas that they really beat us up on or are there things that we didn’t exploit that we can? I think you put way more stock into that than the outcome of the game.”