The Wild’s playoff victory over Colorado in 2014 felt like a miracle, in terms of talent disparity as well as timing. The Avalanche won the first two games and went up 3-2 in the series before the Wild won it in overtime of Game 7.
Colorado was younger, faster and more skilled, and the aura of coach Patrick Roy gave the Avs the feel of a rising power.
Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild whipped Colorado 2-0 and if you hadn’t watched hockey since their 2014 series, you might have been surprised.
But you probably have, so you probably know the Avs have embarrassed themselves ever since the playoff collapse against the Wild. Colorado finished last in the Central Division the next season, next-to-last last season, and resided in last place again when it arrived in St. Paul this week.
Roy quit. Nathan MacKinnon failed to become the next Mario Lemieux. The Avs continue to play defense as if it, like pickles or onions, can be left out as a matter of choice.
Meanwhile the Wild, long desperate for a talent such as MacKinnon, has surged toward the top of the Western Conference by winning eight in a row.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher has tried and failed for years to find and develop pure scorers. He has this year’s team on the rise because of three of his best and most important decisions, none of which included the addition of a pure, in-his-prime scorer.
He traded for Devan Dubnyk.
He hired Bruce Boudreau.
He signed Eric Staal.
Dubnyk’s excellence has given the Wild a puncher’s chance in any game. Boudreau’s coaching has made the Wild’s lack of flashiness temporarily irrelevant. Staal, who signed a reprove-it contract, leads the team in points.
Those who like their sports heroes to be personable are in luck. Dubnyk is one of the most gracious of local athletes, Boudreau is an amusing yet credible character, and Staal is a hockey lifer straight from central casting.
The day before the season began, someone asked Boudreau about his success and he volunteered the words “Game 7.” It was Boudreau and not a reporter who made the point that his sterling record is marred only by Game 7 playoff losses.
Boudreau not only loves movies, he brings back the cardboard container on each trip to save money on popcorn. The coaching millionaire also has been known to show off for his wife by taking her for drinks and dinner at the local TGI Friday’s.
Boudreau gave this roster a fresh start, and it has returned the favor.
Dubnyk is the rare goalie who is friendly and talkative on gameday, and is a willing and thoughtful interview subject. So is Staal.
Their personalities matter, though, only because they have been successes. And their successes have been dramatic.
Dubnyk owns the NHL’s best save percentage. Boudreau has won eight division titles in nine NHL seasons. Staal has revived his career.
“I think with a new coach and a new way of playing for some guys, and different people in different spots, it was going to take some time to get comfortable, but you could see our game coming for a little while there,” Staal said. “Now we feel like we’ve got a good thing going and when you have that, you want to ride it as long as you can.”
Dubnyk’s goaltending and Boudreau’s inclination to use four lines have emphasized the roster’s strengths — depth at forward and discipline on defense — and Staal’s two-way play has complemented Mikko Koivu’s.
Staal has compensated for Zach Parise’s struggles. Dubnyk has rewarded strong blue-line play. And Boudreau’s history of regular-season success suggests the Wild’s traditional winter swoon might be a thing of the past.
“We have been pretty consistent over 31 games right now, I think,” Boudreau said. “When we’re playing like this, like we have been in the last eight games, and not allowing a lot, and the special teams is doing a good job … we get the success that we’re getting right now.”