Any way you measure it, the Wild comes up short in virtually every category against the Dallas Stars.
The Stars, who won their first division crown since 2003 with their fourth 50-win season, had 12 more wins and 22 more points than the Wild.
While the Wild limps into the playoffs with five consecutive losses, a string of overhauled lineups and with the fewest points (87) of any playoff team in the 11-year shootout era, the Stars won nine of their final 11 games and 12 of the last 16.
The Stars’ top four scorers — captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and John Klingberg — had more points than the Wild’s leading scorer, Mikko Koivu (56). Three Stars topped 30 goals, including Benn, who ranked third in the NHL with 41 goals and second with 89 points.
The Wild’s leading goal scorer was Zach Parise with 25. Nine of those came in three games, and there’s a concern the banged-up leader won’t be ready for Game 1 Thursday. The Wild’s second-leading goal scorer was Charlie Coyle with 21, and he went the final 18 games without a goal.
With Thomas Vanek injured and Erik Haula also a Game 1 question mark, this is why one will be hard-pressed to find anybody nationally giving the inconsistent Wild a prayer of beating the franchise that once called Bloomington home.
The Stars went 4-1 against the Wild this season, and in three games in St. Paul they rallied from three-, two- and one-goal deficits to win.
“Three of [the four losses] were in 3-on-3 [overtime], and they don’t have 3-on-3 in the playoffs, so we don’t have to worry about that,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said, sarcastically. “We know it’s going to be tough. They’re very high flying. But if we can play fast and play tight checking, then we should have a good shot.”
The harder they fall
The Wild savors the underdog role. Minnesota is the only team in the NHL that has upset a division champion in the first round in each of the past two years.
“I think we all truly feel we can play and beat anybody in the league,” Dubnyk said.
The Stars are the highest-scoring team in the NHL (3.23 goals per game) with the most 5-on-5 goals (167), second-most shots per game (32) and fifth-best power play (22.1 percent).
For the Wild to advance to the second round for a third consecutive year, it must rediscover its tight-checking, structured identity. That means not cheating, not getting into a track meet with the high-octane Stars, playing strong defensively and taking care of the puck, all areas of its game that have been erratic this season and particularly the past few weeks.
“We’re a very good checking team in here when we play the right way,” said Jarret Stoll, who has played 93 playoff games and won two Stanley Cups. “A fast team that plays on the right side of the puck, and therefore we get scoring chances because of it. That’s how we’re going to have to play to win.
“Maybe Dallas has more skill than us, but we have to check them, we have to get our opportunities from that, and stay out of the penalty box, be a disciplined team, and keep their power play off the ice.”
Interim coach John Torchetti has also been frustrated by the Wild’s lack of net-front presence recently. After Saturday’s loss, he slapped the Wild hard, saying, “With Chicago, you ask Jonathan Toews to stand in front of the net, he stands in front of the net, bottom line.”
One area where the Wild hopes to expose Dallas is defensively. The Stars ranked 19th in goals against (2.78 per game), gave up a league-high 15 shorthanded goals and split starts between goalies Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, who combined for a subpar .905 save percentage.
“[The Wild’s] a good team, they play with a lot of structure and a lot of the personnel over there are two-way guys,” said Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski, a former Gophers standout. “There’s not going to be a lot of cheat in their game. We’ll be ready for that. We want to concentrate on us and get to our game and use our speed, make them feel some pressure.”
Impact players’ moment
The Stars are a quick-strike team that has the ability to score with every line, especially Spezza’s renaissance 33-goal season and Seguin possibly about to return from an Achilles’ injury. While the Wild’s top players didn’t produce against Dallas this season (Parise, for instance, had no points and was minus-6 in four games), Benn and Seguin combined for five goals and 16 points in five meetings.
“They’re probably the best 1-2 in the league,” Dubnyk said. “You can probably argue Chicago’s pair isn’t so bad either, but they’re guys you have to be aware of, especially in the playoffs. You just don’t want to forget when they’re on the ice and give them too much open ice or too many opportunities, because they don’t miss very often.”
The Stars feel they have quite the opportunity this season. “We’ve got a legitimate team with a legitimate chance,” Spezza said.
But the Wild has been counted out before and has playoff experience littered up and down its lineup.
“I think everyone’s going in with a positive mindset,” Coyle said. “[Dallas is a] team that can be beat obviously, and we’ve been in this position before and we’ve come out on top. We have a good team in here, and it’s up to us how we play and what we do here.
“We have nothing to save it for. It’s playoff hockey, the time is now.”