A thrilling trek to the Western Conference finals in 2003 is the closest the Wild has come to vying for the Stanley Cup, a quest led by gutsy rallies, overtime triumphs and still-unmatched success for the franchise.
Since then, the team has had other chances — extending its season eight more times — but none of those versions was able to duplicate that run or advance even further.
But one looked like it had the potential for another memorable spring.
Although its bid ultimately ended in the second round with a Game 6 loss to the Blackhawks, the 2013-14 Wild might have avoided that fate if it didn’t drop Game 5 in Chicago — a switcheroo that could have steered the franchise in an entirely different direction.
After overcoming a two-game deficit and prevailing in overtime during Game 7 in Colorado, the Wild didn’t just move on to the second round for only the second time in franchise history.
It seemed primed to do more damage, having proven it could weather adversity and win on the road in the playoffs.
“Those are the fun memories of playing the game,” defenseman Ryan Suter recalled last week. “You play a big game in Colorado, Game 7. The emotions are so high, and everyone’s feeling good and you come home, and you have to prepare for Chicago.”
Despite leading 1-0 in Game 5 and being tied 1-1 in the third period, the Wild fell 2-1 on a Jonathan Toews game-winner before Patrick Kane eliminated the Wild in Game 6 in overtime.
If it were the Wild, however, that took a 3-2 series lead and not Chicago, it’s easy to see how it would have been the Wild that moved on to the Western Conference finals.
At that point, the Wild was 5-0 at home in the playoffs — domination that suggested the team would use the momentum from Game 5 and its home-ice advantage to dispatch the Blackhawks in six games.
Up next would have been a date in the conference finals with the Kings, who were in the midst of an elite tear. Although it’s likely Los Angeles would have still advanced to collect its second Stanley Cup in three years, even getting that far would have had a meaningful effect on the Wild.
On the heels of a final-four appearance, the Wild could have been more aggressive in free agency that summer to try to build off its progress from the playoffs — perhaps working to bring in not only Thomas Vanek but also Jarome Iginla, the other forward it coveted that offseason.
Then-coach Mike Yeo still received a contract extension after the series loss, but if it came after a trip to the Western Conference finals, he perhaps would have earned a longer leash instead of getting fired two seasons later.
Giving Yeo the chance to finish out that three-year deal would have become even more a possibility if the Wild again reached the Western Conference finals in 2015; the Blackhawks claimed the Cup that year after another second-round meeting with the Wild, but if the Wild had won in 2014, maybe it would have had the confidence to do it again instead of getting swept.
Regardless of what happened next, whether the Wild faded again in the conference finals or finally reached the Stanley Cup Final, the ripple effects would have been significant.
Being among the last teams playing in back-to-back years would been a massive stride for a franchise targeting that echelon ever since it acquired Suter and Zach Parise in 2012.
Even if the Wild still fell short of its goal to lift the Stanley Cup, the team’s ensuing results would have been graded against those accomplishments — softening the blow of any future shortcomings and making that next step feel more attainable.
Editor’s note: Do you have any suggestions for great “what-if” moments in Minnesota sports history? Send them to Michael Rand at firstname.lastname@example.org.