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5 Keys to the Cup

03/08/2017, 3:30pm CST
By Michael Russo

There’s no doubt this is a different hockey club, but can the Wild make a deep postseason run?

For the sake of you, the fan, it sure would be nice if the Wild can follow its exceptional run to start the season with an exceptional run to end the season.

            By early February, Wild fans were all aboard. As much as Wild players had bought in to Bruce Boudreau and his fun way of doing things, Wild fans seemed to be buying in to the fact that this very well could be a special team.

            The best example was Jan. 21—Hockey Day Minnesota—when the Wild stormed back for three goals in less than two minutes of the third period to stun Boudreau’s former team, the Anaheim Ducks. Not only were fans engaged every second of that game even when the Wild trailed, Xcel Energy Center was the loudest anybody around the team had heard it during a regular season game … ever.

            Besides the wins—lots of wins—in the first half, the best part of this season is the Wild’s actually a fun, entertaining team to watch. The team doesn’t need to eke out 2-1 hockey games nightly anymore.

            The Wild has the ingredients for a long playoff run. It can score, defend, and, maybe most importantly, turn pucks aside with goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

5 Differences This Season

1. Boudreau:

Not only has the veteran coach with eight division titles under his belt brought an expectation of success—who would have predicted the Wild would be leading the Western Conference and Central Division at the All-Star break?—Boudreau has brought accountability to a franchise that desperately needed it.

In years past, the veterans seemed to have carte blanche. Even if they weren’t playing well, the same cast of characters would be on the ice late in a one-goal lead or deficit. Even if the No. 1 power play wasn’t scoring, they’d be thrown out there to start every power play with little personnel tinkering.

            Now?

            “It doesn’t matter if it’s me, Zach, Staalzy, Mikko, Granny, whoever he wants to put out, he puts out,” veteran defenseman Ryan Suter said, before laughing. “I don’t know how he picks it. Maybe he closes his eyes, but … everybody’s buying in.”

These guys we have can all just skate and they get in everybody’s way, and they’re like little gnats. But they’re very, very effective gnats. –BRUCE BOUDREAU

2. Addition of Staal:

When the Wild signed the now 32-year-old veteran on July 1 to a three-year, $10.5 million deal, the Wild knew it was getting a star and proven winner. Staal, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, is the second-leading goal scorer (322) and point producer (775) in Whalers/Hurricanes history behind Hall of Famer Ron Francis. He has been to four All-Star Games, was MVP of one and led the NHL in playoff scoring in 2006.

            He has scored 45 goals and 100 points in the NHL. But last year, Staal was coming off his toughest season since his rookie year, scoring 13 goals and 39 points in 83 games for the Hurricanes and New York Rangers.

            By the All-Star break, Staal had already surpassed both marks with the Wild. He is a true professional who is supremely respected in the Wild room. As importantly, Staal’s addition has provided more depth up the middle and taken a lot of pressure off Koivu, who’s enjoying one of his best seasons in years.

3. Younger core taking big steps:

In years past, the Wild only went where Parise, Suter and Koivu took the team. But the growth of the Wild always depended on the younger core like Granlund, Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba.

            Up front, Granlund, Zucker, Niederreiter and Coyle were all having career years by the All-Star break, especially Granlund, who had arguably been Minnesota’s most consistent player and was leading the team in scoring. The lightning-fast Zucker is complementing perfectly on the Koivu-Granlund line with clutch goals and quality defense, an area where he has made the biggest improvement.

            Niederreiter, by all analytics metrics, has been one of the Wild’s best forwards and he was thriving with a top-line role with Staal and Coyle and power-play time. Brodin was vastly improved until breaking a finger on his right hand, and while Dumba sometimes can be a wildcard defensively, he has the ability with one pass or shot to change a game.

The best example was Jan. 21—Hockey Day Minnesota. … Xcel Energy Center was the loudest anybody around the team had heard it during a regular season game … ever.

4. Tenaciousness, speed and work ethic:

Through the All-Star break, there arguably wasn’t a more consistent team in the NHL. The Wild had only lost consecutive games in regulation once and lost by more than one goal three times. It was superb at home and the league’s best road team. And frankly, the reason is the Wild routinely outworked almost every opponent it played. They score so much because of relentlessness and tenaciousness, which makes for fast, exciting hockey.

            “These guys we have can all just skate and they get in everybody’s way, and they’re like little gnats,” Boudreau said. “But they’re very, very effective gnats.”

5. Hiring of Scott Stevens:

Other than Boudreau and Staal, the Wild’s next great pickup was Stevens, named in January as of one of the NHL’s greatest 100 players in history.

            The Hall of Fame defenseman, who captained the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup championships and four Finals in a nine-year span, played 22 years for the Capitals, St. Louis Blues and Devils. A Norris Trophy finalist multiple times, Stevens was the 2000 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP and played in 13 All-Star Games. He was one of the heaviest hitters of his era and his knowledge of defense is unsurpassed.

            He immediately commanded respect in the Wild locker room and has done wonders for defensemen like Brodin and the Wild’s penalty kill. He absolutely adores a Wild blue line led by Suter and Jared Spurgeon.

            “I don’t think there’s an awful lot of egos on our team,” Boudreau said. “It’s pretty hard to have an ego when you’ve got a Hall of Fame defenseman with no ego behind the bench working just as hard as any of the players.”

  5 Keys to the Cup

1. Health:

This is paramount. No matter how good the Wild has been this year, injuries can derail everything. Because of the compressed schedule this season due to the World Cup of Hockey before the season and the implementation of “bye weeks,” the Wild play 20 games in the season’s final 35 says.

            That’s a nutty schedule that can cause injuries and fatigue going into the postseason. The Wild must avoid that. Just look at how Parise and Thomas Vanek missing last season’s playoff round against Dallas altered things.

2. Dubnyk:

As good as Dubnyk has been this regular season, teams cannot travel four playoff rounds without exceptional goaltending. Playing with a broken finger, Dubnyk wasn’t great against the Stars last season and he gave up some tough goals the year before that in the second round to Chicago. The Wild will need stingy goaltending.

3. Balanced scoring:

What has made the Wild so tough to play against this season is the Wild can get scoring from any player and any line. At the All-Star break, the Wild led the league with eight double-digit goal scorers and seven 30-point scorers. That must continue in the postseason.

4. Getting over the Game 7 hump:

If the Wild gets to a Game 7 in any round, Boudreau and the team will have to ignore all the Game 7 talk that will follow Boudreau around until one of his teams gets over the hump. His undoing in Washington and Anaheim was Game 7s. He has lost seven in his career, including four straight with the Ducks.

            The good news? The Wild has never lost a Game 7 in franchise history, several Wild players were part of the Wild’s Game 7 win in 2014 in Colorado, Staal’s biggest win in history was in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final and Stevens has been part of several.

5. Overcome the Chicago demons:

From 2013-15, the Wild was eliminated by the Blackhawks in the playoffs. The Wild is 0-7 in Chicago in the postseason. Its best players seem to have a mental block going up against Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.

            If the Wild wants to get to where it wants to get to this season, it almost surely will have to face the Blackhawks at some point. That’s when we’ll know if there’s really something special going on with this exciting team.

 

Michael Russo covers the Wild and National Hockey League for the Star Tribune. He co-hosts a podcast on mnspn.com and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3-FM) and seen throughout the hockey season on Fox Sports North. Follow him on Twitter at @russostrib.

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