If you paid any attention to last night’s Game Seven matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, you are keenly aware that it was filled with a lot of highs and a lot of lows.
Wild fans fell into the pit of despair with every Colorado goal, and climbed the tallest mountain as Minnesota tied the game again, and again, and again and again. There was just no quit on the Wild bench, and perfectly timed third period goals by Nino Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon helped Minnesota force overtime, knowing neither team had won on the road yet in the series. That all changed when Niederreiter sniped his second goal of the night over Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov’s glove top shelf for the series clinching tally just 5:02 into the extra session.
For the first time in 11 years, the Minnesota Wild have won a playoff series. It’s about time, too. The Wild brass, management, coaching staff and fan base expected big things when GM Chuck Fletcher signed Zach Parise–the top free agent forward–and Ryan Suter–the top free agent defenseman–to identical 13-year $98 Million contracts on July 4th, 2012. Two years later, we’re finding out how truly liberating that day was for everyone involved.
After years of no playoffs and no top-end talent from the 2004-07 drafts to replenish the team, several years of successful drafting and savvy signings under the Fletcher Era have Minnesota back within spitting distance of the NHL’s elite. As the second GM in franchise history, Fletcher has brought in talented vets in Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson and Matt Cooke and hit home runs in the Parise/Suter twin signings. His Assistant GM, Brent Flahr, has also had a knack for drafting high-end talent with the picks given to him. Key youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin, Darcy Kuemper and Erik Haula have all been selected under Flahr’s watch, with Fletcher also adding a few more to the arsenal in Charlie Coyle and Niederreiter via trade. All but Zucker–who will miss the rest of the season after being last season’s playoff hero–have played expanded roles in Minnesota’s 2013-14 postseason performance.
Minnesota’s success hasn’t been the result of one player carrying the team on his back. It’s been a complete team effort. All four offensive lines are contributing, the never-ending goalie carrousel never seems to lack a talented netminder and the defensive corps seems to be maturing on a nightly basis. The young guns have played a big role, no question, but the “$98 Million Men” have lived up to the moniker. Parise is tied for the league lead in playoff point scoring with three goals and seven assists for 10 points and an even plus-minus rating in seven games, while Suter may have singlehandedly saved his team’s season with an amazing breakup of a Colorado two-on-one deep in Minnesota’s zone shortly before Niederreiter’s series winner.
Simply put, the Wild are really fun to watch, and you don’t have to be a Minnesota fan to see it. They may not win the next series against the defending Stanley Cup champs, but they’ve given everyone around the league good reason to believe they’ll be back year after year as they chase the ultimate goal of hoisting the Cup. The Wild have made the final eight teams–four of which are the last five league champions. That’s some lofty company. So, in a sense, yes–Minnesota has made it. But they’ve got a long way to go yet. I just can’t wait to see what this team is like in a few years when the young guns begin to fully reach their potential. Now that’s when they’ll be downright scary.