ST. PAUL, Minn. – NHL hockey was absent from Minnesota for seven years, and the upstart Wild stumbled through two rough seasons in their debut.
Then came 2003, when the fervour of a playoff run came roaring back to a state that’s as tied to the sport as any other in the nation.
“It was a magical time to be playing here in Minnesota,” said former Wild left wing Andrew Brunette, “and I think about that group all the time.”
This Wild team, exactly a decade later, would love to be able to do what Brunette’s did, reaching the Western Conference finals as the sixth seed that year after winning three elimination games in each of their first two series.
Just as in 2003, the Wild are facing a heavy favourite right away.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who breezed through this condensed season with an NHL-best 36-7-5 record, already have a 2-0 lead in this first-round series over the eighth-seeded Wild. Minnesota is back on home ice for Game 3 on Sunday.
The Xcel Energy Center is sure to be buzzing, though the standard for arena atmosphere was set in 2003. The Wild beat Colorado and Vancouver before losing steam and falling to Anaheim.
With savvy coach Jacques Lemaire leading on the bench, gritty guys like Brunette, Wes Walz and Sergei Zholtok supporting budding star Marian Gaborik up front, and a stingy defence helping Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez thrive in the net, the Wild became the surprise story of the league that spring.
Playing a pesky, conservative, fundamentally sound system under Lemaire was a big reason for their success. So was chemistry. Zholtok reminded Brunette of that when a bunch of teammates gathered the following summer, in 2004, at Darby Hendrickson’s cabin. That was the last time Brunette saw Zholtok alive. Zholtok died of a heart problem during a game overseas a few weeks later.
“It was as close-knit of a team as you’ll ever play with,” Brunette said.
The bond to each other and the franchise is still apparent. Brunette and Brad Bombardir work in the front office. Hendrickson is an assistant coach. Walz is a television analyst. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is the only player who remains on the roster from 2003.
Colorado dominated Minnesota back then, so winning that first-round series was about as improbable for the Wild as it would be to beat the deep, talented Blackhawks this time.
“It was a matchup that wasn’t great for us. We were almost scared to death of them,” Brunette said. “We had to play a certain way against them to even have a chance, and that speaks to that group. Everybody knew their role, understood their role and played it to the best of their ability.”
Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and the rest of this year’s team will have to mimic that.
“We weren’t afraid, and we didn’t surrender,” Hendrickson said, recalling 2003. “And I do believe this group has a lot of that.”
The first line of Parise, Koivu and Charlie Coyle has yet to score in the series. Coyle, a rookie, has one assist. They’ve had plenty of prime chances, but the puck hasn’t gone in much. The Blackhawks, after pulling out a 2-1 overtime victory in the opener, won 5-2 in Game 2 on Friday night.
“We haven’t seen our best hockey yet,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said, refusing to rule out the possibility of splitting up Parise and Koivu.
“If we think that’s what we need, then that’s something that we would be willing to do, for sure,” he said.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom practised with the team, but after sustaining a lower-body injury in warm-ups in Game 1, he didn’t sound ready to regain his place that Josh Harding has been filling.
“It’s getting better. It’s something that’s going to take time, but I work on it every day,” Backstrom said after practice Saturday.
The goalie might not matter, as good as these Blackhawks, the 2010 champions, are. Michael Frolik, Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell have two goals apiece. Stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane haven’t scored yet, and that hasn’t made a difference.
“You’re not really out of the series until you lose at home, so we hope to put them in that position,” Kane said before the Blackhawks got on their plane to Minnesota on Saturday. “We’re trying not to think too much about it. Just trying to take it a game at a time. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s the way it is.”