By Dom Thoemke
This is the greatest NHL regular season in the State of Hockey, almost inarguably, ever. Previous teams to make extended postseason runs have all been as heavy underdogs, and few Minnesota NHL teams have ever won their division. The Wild’s lone division title was in 2007–08. They promptly lost in the first round to Colorado. The North Stars won division titles in 1981–82 and 1982–83. Their only Finals appearances were the year previous: as a 9 seed (When the league was seeded 1–16, not by conference, they lost to a NY Islanders team in the midst of 4 straight Cups); and in the 1990–91 season when they were the 7 seed, where they lost to the burgeoning dynasty of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Wild’s only extended playoff run was in 2002–03, their first playoff appearance as a franchise. They were the first NHL franchise that came back from not one, but two 3–1 series deficits in a single postseason. Those wins came against Colorado and Vancouver, again as 6th seeded underdogs. Eventually, they were swept by the Anaheim Ducks (Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the “hot goalie,” stopping112 of 123 shots in the series). The Wild are in unprecedented territory, as of March 8th, they are in 1st place in the Western Conference, 90 points to Chicago’s 89, with a game in hand. San Jose sits 5 points behind, leading the Pacific Division, having played 65 games to the Wild’s 64.
If the playoffs started today they would open against the St. Louis Blues, who hold a 3–2 lead in the season series. Their remaining schedule has 8 at home and 10 away, with 10 remaining against “quality teams” (As defined by ESPN, teams with more points than games played) relatively easy. Chicago has fewer home games and more against quality opponents. The top seed in the Conference seems very attainable.
Obviously, two the best moves the Wild made this off season were signing Eric Staal at a discount and hiring Bruce Boudreau as head coach. Boudreau brought highly- regarded former defenseman Scott Stevens as an assistant, improving the defense to 4th overall, while maintaining the 2nd overall offense. Staal has been a bargain with 19 goals and 29 assists for 3rd on the team with 48 points.
Other players have stepped up like Mikael Granlund, who leads the team with 21 goals and 39 assists, including some remarkable individual efforts.
Ryan Suter has been his normal steady self, leading the team in +/- at 36 and time on ice, averaging 27:00. Mikko Koivu has excelled as captain, second on the team in scoring with 18 goals and 31 assists. They have relied on a diversified scoring attack and stout defense and goaltending, which started with a 12 game win streak in December.
But, there are a few questions that remain about an extended playoff run. First and foremost, will Devan Dubnyk continue to be the proverbial “hot goalie”? A seemingly immutable law required for successful Stanley Cup playoff runs. He currently (As of 3/8) ranks first in Save % at .933, tied for first in wins with 35, and second in GAA at 2.01. He is the current favorite in Vegas at even odds for the Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie) at the moment, though, Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals is +110 (Defending Vezina winner, bowed out in the 2nd round to Pittsburgh last year. The Capitals happen to be the leaders for the President’s Trophy, (with 95 points) obviously not a runaway, but clearly, the Wild have one of the best, if not the best goalie in the league at the moment.
But that is not always a good sign, here are the Cup-winning goalies from 2006–14, and their Vezina voting results. Only Tim Thomas won the Vezina and the Cup. Obviously, Holtby didn’t win the Cup either, as Pittsburgh won it all last year. And in 2015, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, despite winning the Vezina, Outstanding Player (Ted Lindsay), and regular season MVP (Hart) awards crashed out in the 2nd round to the underdog Tampa Bay Lightning.
The second question is whether the trade deadline pickups of Martin Hanzal and Ryan White were worth it, and will it lead to a Stanley Cup run. The Wild gave up a lot; draft picks each of the next 3 drafts, but signified they are all in this year. But Hanzal is one of the best two-way centers in the league, albeit, like White a pending unrestricted free agent. A big cost for rentals, but I feel like this will pay off in the end, provided they can answer the 3rd and final question: Can we break the Blackhawks hex over us?
The Blackhawks have owned the Wild the last few years, and it’s not even close. Its impressive the Wild went on a 7–0–1 run versus the Blackhawks during the regular season that extended until this past month , but they have defeated us twice in that span. We face them again on March 12th. They ended our season three straight postseasons, 2013–2015. To give a basketball analogy, they are like the Bad Boy Pistons to Jordan’s Bulls, until we get past them, we’ll never see playoff success. This team is deep enough to contend with the Hawks, I really hope to see them do it, as they surely await them in the second round. Let’s hope the Wild can handle being the favorite for the first time, well, ever. I like their chances at an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Exiting times for the state of Hockey.