The Blackhawks visited Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night and for once there was no angst in the air, at least not before the game. The Wild did not need to win, did not need to reverse a midseason collapse, did not need to prove toughness, ambition or viability.
This was an unusual atmosphere for a game against the scourge from the South. Entering a “bye” week, the Wild has earned the calm confidence that pervaded the arena before the game, even if Chicago’s eventual prison-break scoring led to a 5-3 victory in front of a very large and loud crowd.
For once, the Blackhawks won a game against Minnesota and could feel they proved something, because this is the best Wild team in history.
Entering Tuesday’s game, the Wild was earning 72.4 percent of possible points, and had reached 84 points on the season.
Two seasons in franchise history have contended to be considered the best. In 2003, the Miracle Wild earned 95 points (57.9 percent) in the regular season before advancing to the conference finals. That was a quality team that got hot at the right time but is no match for the current team when it comes to regular-season dominance.
The 2016-17 Wild is comfortably residing in first place in the Western Conference; the 2003 team finished sixth.
Previously, the best regular-season performance in Wild history was produced by the 2006-07 team, back when Pavol Demitra was throwing the hockey alley-oops to Marian Gaborik.
That team produced a team-record 104 points. That team also finished seventh in the conference.
Before this season, the Wild has finished higher than sixth in the Western Conference exactly once: a third-place finish in 2007-08, when the team earned 98 points (59.8 percent).
This year’s team is in the process of whipping past its predecessors so quickly Jacques Lemaire and Gaborik may be feeling windburned.
During the first two periods on Tuesday night, the Blackhawks provided a reminder of why the Wild has been unable to beat them in the playoffs this decade, and why the Blackhawks remain the team of the decade.
Asked if the Wild matches up with Chicago, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said: “We didn’t for a period tonight. Look back and we deserved to win the game in Chicago. We certainly, I thought, outplayed them in the overtime game that we lost. They outplayed us today, but what would make me think that we couldn’t play with them? They’re a great team. But we’re right there.”
The Wild’s surprising regular-season success only heightens the pressure on General Manager Chuck Fletcher. Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise were among the Wild players who performed as if this game were being played in May; Tyler Graovac, Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba were among those who looked overmatched for a night, and among the three only Dumba had the excuse of returning from an injury.
Fletcher needs one more useful forward, perhaps one more experienced defenseman. You can imagine his conversation with Boudreau after the game: “You think we can go back to playing Ryan Suter 40 minutes every night?”
Chicago proved again that it can turn an opponent’s mistake into a score as fast as any NBA team, and the Wild were given reason for at least one night to wonder if their depth will hold up against quality opponents.
Boudreau preferred a big picture bolstered by a large point total.
“What kind of message can you really give them?” Boudreau said. “They’re 39-14.”
Then Boudreau answered his own question: “You’ve got something special going on, potentially.”
Granlund, Parise, Jared Spurgeon, Suter (who hit a post late in the third period on what would have been the tying goal) and plenty of their teammates again looked quite comfortable against the team of the decade.
If Fletcher can improve the bottom of the roster, he should. The best team in Wild history may need a little help if it’s going to make the best playoff run in Wild history.