In January, few would have considered the Minnesota Wild a threat for the post-season, let alone a true Stanley Cup contender. After knocking off the St. Louis Blues in six games, however, it might be time to start wondering just how deep these surprising Wild can go.
Early in the year, aside from some extremely substandard goaltending, the Wild were one of the most impressive teams when it came to controlling the flow of play. That could only take them so far, and with a goaltending duo consisting of Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota was falling well short of playoff contention before they made a move to acquire Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes.
Since Dubnyk’s arrival, the Wild have played inspired hockey. In a first-round series against the Blues that was likely to be won or lost on the play of the competing netminders, Dubnyk stood tall when it was required and outdueled St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen to help Minnesota come out on top.
Moving forward, there isn’t much that needs changing for the Wild. Their offense managed 17 goals in six games, their defense was equal to the high-powered attack of the Blues in three of the final four games of the first-round matchup and Dubnyk, as mentioned, has been steady.
With Chicago standing between them and a trip to the Western Conference final, it’s going to take spectacular play by Minnesota to continue playing into the third round, but if there’s any team capable of beating the Blackhawks, it might just be the Wild. Pre-Dubnyk, the Wild went 0-3 against the Blackhawks, allowing 13 goals in their three regulation losses. But following Dubnyk’s arrival, Minnesota downed Chicago twice, allowing just one goal.
Unlike the Predators, who lost in the first round to the Blackhawks following the loss of star defenseman Shea Weber, the Wild enter the second round at full health. Ryan Suter, the premier blueliner on Minnesota’s roster, was consistent if not remarkable against the Blues, logging 26:05 average ice time over the course of the series.
Having their stars be their stars – Suter played outstanding defense and Zach Parise led the team in scoring – was what helped the Wild get by the Blues, and it will be the same thing in the second round. Parise led the way with three goals and seven points, but Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and Mikko Koivu all registered at least three points in the six-game series.
For the Blues, none of their depth players stepped up. Outside of Vladimir Tarasenko (six goals) and Patrik Berglund (two), no St. Louis player had more than a single goal over the course of the series. And while Tarasenko paced forwards with seven points, Kevin Shattenkirk was the only other player to net more than four points in the series, getting on the board with eight helpers. Without secondary scoring – without Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie, Paul Stastny and David Backes finding the score sheet with regularity over the course of six games – the Blues were doomed, no matter how weak their goaltending may have been.
Now in St. Louis the questions begin once again. After three consecutive first-round exits and the failure to win more than a single round in the past four seasons, does the team change its direction? Do they ditch some of their current roster in exchange for goaltending help? Does Ken Hitchcock remain?
For Minnesota, the questions are more immediate. Does Dubnyk continue to step up? Are the depth players going to continue to roll? Will the defense be able to stifle the Blackhawks’ stars? If the Wild keep playing like they have since February, there could be much more to celebrate in the State of Hockey.