ST. LOUIS – As the Wild embarks on the NHL postseason for a third consecutive year, at the conclusion of a turnaround that still seems almost unimaginable, two scenarios feel plausible for the Western Conference’s No. 7 seed.
The Wild looks capable of a deep playoff run.
Or capable of losing in the first round to the big, bad St. Louis Blues.
How’s that for fence-sitting?
That’s the beauty, and unpredictability, of playoff hockey, especially as it pertains to the Wild. This season has been a case of extremes.
The postseason stage shouldn’t make the Wild feel like a kindergartner on the first day of school, the kind of uneasiness one experiences heading into an unfamiliar place.
The team is more complete now and older, no longer a newbie to playoff hockey. The narrative has evolved. Nobody should be content with just getting to the party or winning a series.
The past two postseasons were important steps in the building process. The bar has been raised.
“We’re not going into the locker room saying, ‘OK, this is our year, it’s do or die’ or anything like that,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We have a quiet confidence about us.”
Good luck trying to pick this series with strong conviction. It feels like a coin flip. A reasonable argument can be made either way.
Technically, the Blues are favored as the No. 2 seed, but they also carry a heavy burden to do something special this postseason.
Back-to-back first-round exits the past two seasons have made Blues fans antsy. They expect a better showing. If the Wild can win one of the first two games on the road, the air around the Blues will feel as if it weighs a ton.
Playoff hockey is so incredibly intense and so tightly contested that upsets by definition don’t always feel like upsets. Seedings matter for home-ice advantage, particularly in Game 7s, but they don’t necessarily serve as a road map for how things will proceed.
Success often is predicated on matchups and adjustments, momentum and confidence, a hot goalie. The randomness of hockey bounces also can be a great equalizer.
“You don’t know what to expect,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said. “You can’t predict anything.”
The Blues hold an edge in overall talent and depth. They are a behemoth bunch that wants to pound the Wild into submission. The Blues are good enough to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
So, too, is their opponent.
The Wild brings a boatload of confidence and an MVP candidate in goal into the series. No NHL team played better than the Wild after Devan Dubnyk’s arrival in mid-January.
Experience matters, and Wild players know what playoff hockey feels like and, more important, what it requires. They’ve felt the emotions that surface in a long, testy series. They’ve trailed 2-0 in a series and rallied to advance. They’ve won a Game 7 on the road.
They shouldn’t be blindsided by the unknown.
“We’ve seen resiliency in our group in the past, which will be important,” Yeo said.
The Wild has never had a better collection of talent. This is the organization’s best team, its deepest team, maybe its most confident team, though that plucky 2003 squad felt as if it could move mountains.
The Wild was overmatched in talent and skill against the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago. That shouldn’t be an excuse in this postseason.
“Year by year you expect your team to get better,” Zach Parise said, “and I think we’ve done that.”
The best part of playoff hockey is the ebbs and flows, the different story lines that emerge. Dynamics change as a series unfolds and the pressure and hostility rise.
The Wild-Colorado series last season provided plenty of that drama, which should serve Wild players well in terms of managing their emotions if momentum suddenly shifts, or if they find themselves backed into a tight spot.
“It is a roller-coaster ride,” center Charlie Coyle said. “If you lose a game, it feels like the end of the world. If you win one, it feels like you’re on top of the world. You’ve got to balance that out.”
The Wild is an expert on roller-coaster rides. The regular season felt like a scream machine with its twists and turns.
The Wild enters the playoffs on top of its game. A deep run is entirely conceivable.
To think anything less would ignore everything that we’ve witnessed since mid-January.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com