The Wild took a team photo on the ice before practice Tuesday. The group pose included owner Craig Leipold, General Manager Chuck Fletcher, front-office executives, players, coaches and staffers from various departments.
This is an important moment for that whole group. The organization’s playoff journey begins Wednesday in Winnipeg. The powerful Jets, who posted the second-highest point total in the NHL this season, are heavy favorites.
Probably not too many people outside of Minnesota’s borders are picking the Wild to advance. This will be a tall order, especially with star defenseman Ryan Suter sidelined by injury.
The meter is running for the Wild, though. This is the team’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance. None have extended beyond the second round. The past two trips ended in the first round, including last season in five games against St. Louis, despite the Wild being favored after recording the best regular season in team history.
The cup-half-full view is that the Wild keeps giving itself a chance by becoming a playing regular. The cup-half-empty view is that time is ticking for its nucleus of veterans — and Fletcher’s hand-picked roster — to put it all together for a deep run.
“We can’t just be satisfied with making it,” winger Jason Zucker said. “The first couple of years, it was like, ‘All right, we made the playoffs. This is great.’ Now we have to do something more and make sure that we’re upping the ante every year.”
The Wild posted one of the best regular seasons in its existence with 101 points, its third-highest total in 17 seasons. The team’s 45 wins ranked fourth in the Western Conference.
The record is all the more impressive considering the Wild had at least one player out of the lineup because of injury in 73 of 82 games. Key players primarily, starting with Zach Parise missing the first half of the season. In that regards, the Wild probably squeezed the most out of its regular season.
Since Day 1, a successful regular season has always been an assumption, fair or not, because the Wild is built to be a playoff team.
Things happen throughout a season — Parise’s back injury flares up in training camp, for example — so those 82 games can never be cast as meaningless. But barring a doomsday flop, the Wild possessed enough experience and firepower in the lineup to extend its playoff streak and then what happened after that would determine whether this season qualified as a success. Or at least progress.
The Wild is one of only three teams to qualify for the playoffs for six consecutive seasons. Pittsburgh and Anaheim are the others. That’s largely a credit to Fletcher’s ability to construct a roster with enough depth and talent to emerge as one of the eight best teams through 82 games.
The postseason, however, has presented roadblocks, a conundrum that provides no easy answers. The beauty of the NHL playoffs is that they are fiercely contested and unpredictable, so seeding is often irrelevant. History offers plenty of examples of postseason parity, most recently with the Nashville Predators, who owned the worst record of the 16 playoff teams last season but advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Get hot and anything can happen.
“The discrepancy between one and eight isn’t very big,” Zucker said.
Teams that keep getting into the postseason give themselves a chance to catch fire and make a run. In theory at least. That will be something Leipold must decide if the Wild suffers another early exit.
Does he stick with the plan and hope the team eventually bursts through the door, or would he consider significant changes this offseason?
His team can provide some clarity by how it performs. Not having Suter against a high-powered opponent adds to the challenge, but the Wild has playoff experience and confidence. Being the underdog also can allow them to play free of the pressure they carried last postseason.
“Nobody expects you to do well except yourself,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Maybe they will use that card as a rallying force. Hey, whatever works. To use Zucker’s words, the Wild shouldn’t be content with being here again. It’s about upping the ante.