As the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs draws nearer to a close, Minnesota Wild fans have a lot to be excited about when looking at the National Hockey League’s leading playoff point scorers. Sitting at the very top of the list with three goals and seven assists for 10 points and a plus-1 rating in six games is Wild assistant captain, and top line left winger, Zach Parise.
After scoring a goal and five assists in the previous five games, Parise had a banner night last night in Game Six of the Wild’s quarterfinal series with the Colorado Avalanche, scoring two goals–including the game-winner–and adding two assists for four points in clinching a Game Seven opportunity for his club and the league’s second star of the night. It may have taken a while for things to come to fruition, but Minnesota fans certainly don’t have difficulty seeing why GM Chuck Fletcher had no problem cutting the winger a hefty paycheck for his services.
In 115 regular season games since jumping ship from the New Jersey Devils, Parise has scored 47 goals and 47 assists for 94 points and a plus-12 rating. If it wasn’t for last year’s half-season lockout, his numbers might look even better. When Parise and his buddy, defenseman Ryan Suter, joined the team two summers ago, Wild fans were ready to start planning the parade route. Minnesota had the right mix of All Star veteran talent, a plethora of high-end talent developing in the prospect pool and great goaltending. Things definitely didn’t go as planned, however.
The lockout delayed everything, Wild goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding continually battled injury and illness, and Parise wasn’t quite living up to expectations. In fact, it was Suter that stole the 2012-13 show with a Norris-worthy season on Minnesota’s blue line. An eastern conference bias among the PHWA ensured Montreal Canadiens defender P.K. Subban would walk away with the trophy. Subban is amazing in his own right, but it appears dynamic offensive-minded defenders trump the positionally sound defensive-minded blue liners every time. Sex sells and scoring is sexy, it’s as simple as that. But that’s a different article entirely.
Even though the season didn’t go as planned, Minnesota would stumble into a 2013 first round series with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks by virtue of a tie-breaker with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Wild had chances, but it was evident that the time wasn’t quite right for a deep playoff run. Parise got on the board once, scoring the second Minnesota goal in his team’s lone win of the series–a thrilling Game Three that was decided in overtime by rookie Jason Zucker. It may have been the Wild’s only win of the series, but the first home playoff game in five years was epic nonetheless. In five games, Parise had one goal and a negative-7 rating–not exactly what Minnesota fans were expecting when he signed on July 4th, 2012.
This year, the fans’ patience has been rewarded. Not only did Minnesota make the playoffs, they clinched with a few games to spare. Parise had a rebound year as well, scoring 29 goals and 27 assists for 56 points and a plus-10 rating in 67 games. In addition, his 14 power play tallies were good enough for fourth-best in the league. Perhaps what has been so helpful for Parise is that the Wild is no longer a “one-center” team.
Like past years, Minnesota has had to deal with injuries to key players. Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Parise, Mikael Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, Keith Ballard, Marco Scandella, Harding and Backstrom all missed significant time with injuries. Fortunately, others within the lineup were able to rise to the occasion and fill holes in the roster. Koivu has been one of the team’s best playmakers, and it was a huge blow when he missed nearly two months after undergoing successful ankle surgery. Fortunately, Granlund was able to step up to the plate and ensure the Wild would carry on. Parise developed excellent chemistry with Granlund and right winger Jason Pominville, giving Minnesota a dangerous combination that still sees plenty of time together with Koivu now healthy and back in the lineup again.
On a team where Parise no longer has to be “the guy”, it’s exactly what he’s doing. Not only has his game taken another step from the regular season, but he’s shown himself to be a huge player when the series is on the line. He proved it last night. On Granlund’s goal, Parise passed the puck to Pominville before driving towards the crease, drawing an Avalanche defender with him. That enabled Pommer to make a crisp, precise pass to Granlund above the right wing circle, who slung the puck through Semyon Varlamov’s wickets and into the back of the net for his second goal of the series. On the game-winning goal, he camped out right in front of Varlamov, reading Wild captain Koivu’s point shot perfectly for a deflection past the Colorado netminder to take the lead.
This series has given us a glimpse of several potential Conn Smythe candidates for Minnesota. Granlund has been huge with clutch goals, plays and blocked shots. Rookie goalie Darcy Kuemper deserves huge credit for bailing this team out of an early 2-0 series deficit. Parise, however, has outshone them all. There’s no question $98 Million is a lot of money to pay one player let alone two, but you can bet the Wild brass cuts each check with a big ol’ grin. Parise and Suter have been worth every penny.