Optimism exists but so does some questions as Minnesota Wild begin playoffs

Minnesota Wild, Kirill Kaprizov (Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports)
Minnesota Wild, Kirill Kaprizov (Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports) /

Minnesota Wild supporters, and fans of the state’s pro sports teams in general, have been down this road plenty of times before.

One of those franchises will put together a special regular season that invokes the dreams of a long playoff run that ends with a championship parade.

But, instead, postseason heartbreak has typically followed with the Minnesota Lynx being the exception over the past decade.

There’s no need to rehash the painful memories here, but enough of those moments have happened over the years to be chronicled in a 256-page book.

That leads us to this Minnesota Wild team that carries optimism into the start of a first-round NHL playoff series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday afternoon. With the addition of dynamic rookie Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild finished third in the Honda West Division with 75 points and earned a playoff berth for the eighth time in the past nine seasons.

Still, consecutive uninspired losses to St. Louis this week to end the 56-game regular season schedule has allowed  pessimism to creep into some fans minds.  One pulled no punches with his thoughts after the Blues 7-3 win on Thursday.

The Wild clinched a postseason berth on April 24 and then posted a 4-3-2 record over the final nine games of the  schedule,. That included  than a few miraculous third-period rallies and
overtime heroics over that span.

The question with the late stretch is whether this group  still has the ability to be a  Stanley Cup contender, or was it showing the signs of being a pretender?

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The Golden Knights enter the series as favorites. Las Vegas was in contention for the Presidents’ Trophy this year until they were edged by the Colorado Avalanche in a tiebreaker. Both teams finished with 82 points but the Avalanche had more wins in regulation.

Still, there  reason to believe this could be the year the Wild advance beyond the opening round of the playoffs, something that the organization has not done since 2015 when the St. Louis Blues were dispatched in six games.

Minnesota are 11-2-3 since the Knights inaugural season in 2017 and hold a 5-1-2 mark this year.

Vegas does have of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury, a goalie tandem that led the NHL in the fewest goals allowed during the regular season. Fleury had a 1.98 goals against average in 36 starts. The Wild accounted for 14 of the 71 goals scored against him, or 19.72%.

Minnesota has struggled against hot goalies in the postseason before, starting with Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the Western Conference Finals in 2003. That list also includes Chicago’s Corey Crawford, who was a nemesis in 2013-15 postseason matchups, and St. Louis’ Jake Allen in 2017.

The Wild also have had offensive issues this season.  A lack of strong centers on the roster was a season-long frustration along with a constant shuffling of line combinations. In addition, opponents had a 1,705-1,585 shot advantage over the Wild over 56 games, and Minnesota’s power play finished 24th in the league at 17.6%.

The only numbers that mean anything now are playoff wins.

If the Wild make another quick playoff exit. it will show that despite the reconfiguring of the Wild roster by general manager Bill Guerin over the last year, there is still work to be done.

If Minnesota makes a playoff run, or even just extends Vegas to the limit in an exciting and competitive opening-round series, it might show that the franchise is on the right path. It would be something to build off with young players like Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy waiting in the wings. There’s also some chatter of the Wild possibly being a landing destination for a disgruntled Jack Eichel this postseason

It could perhaps being a launching point for the Wild’s championship-contention window. But that picture will start to become clearer starting on Sunday and potentially the coming week and month.

Maybe this year’s Wild team really is a different group.

The Minnesota sports fans certainly hope so.