ST. PAUL, Minn. - Throughout this up-and-down season, the Minnesota Wild lagged behind the leaders of the Central Division.
With an extended test against two powers in the playoffs, though, the Wild clearly passed.
Despite a devastating overtime defeat in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild proved they can play with and beat the top teams they'll be competing with for further progress in the future.
"That's as close to a dynasty as you can have right now and they're still building on it," coach Mike Yeo said in complimenting the Blackhawks, "but that said, we thought we were going to win."
The Wild needed seven games to beat Colorado in the first round, but the Avalanche had home-ice advantage and had to stave off defeat twice by pulling their goalie and scoring in the final 75 seconds of regulation to win in overtime.
The Blackhawks posed a greater challenge, but the Wild had a 163-138 shots-on-goal advantage for the series and had that high-octane offence led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews sputtering in front of the roaring Xcel Energy Center crowd during Games 3 and 4. Unlike last year won only one first-round game against the Blackhawks, the Wild had a legitimate chance to advance.
Asked about his team's ability to find a variety of ways to win critical games like that clincher, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was only one sentence and 20 words into his response when he changed the subject to the Wild.
"That's going to be a good hockey team over there, and I commend them on the way they played tonight," Quenneville said. "We were fortunate to win, the way they played this whole series."
So while Chicago, Colorado and St. Louis will remain stiff opposition in the coming years, the Wild served notice they belong, too. General manager Chuck Fletcher's moves have begun to bear success, starting with the hiring of a young head coach in Mike Yeo and staying with him throughout some rough stretches. Yeo's expiring contract is expected to be renewed.
Signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were easy decisions once they picked the Wild, but Fletcher also acquired the star of Game 7 of the first round Nino Niederreiter for Cal Clutterbuck, signed Matt Cooke for some veteran ferocity, re-signed leading scorer Jason Pominville and watched his staff's draft picks like Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin and Erik Haula settle in to key roles.
"I think Chuck's done a really good job of kind of changing the culture here. We expect to win now. We put that pressure on ourselves," Suter said. "The young guys, they show up every night. Everyone shows up every night."
With a strong defensive system as the Wild displayed throughout the playoffs, an elite goalie is less important. Still, determining a stable, dependable tandem in the net will be of utmost importance to Fletcher this summer. Niklas Backstrom, who signed a $10.25 million, three-year contract but posted a career-worst 3.02 goals against average while playing only 21 games, will turn 37 next season coming off his latest midsection surgery.
Josh Harding's future remains murky as he tries to play with multiple sclerosis and deal with the medication required to address the condition. Darcy Kuemper, forced into duty, showed promise with a strong January and February but was injured in late March and again in the playoffs. He'll be a restricted free agent.
Then there's Bryzgalov, who was acquired for a mere fourth-round draft pick at the trade deadline as insurance and helped the Wild wrap up their wild card spot with a 7-1-3 record in 12 games down the stretch.
Bryzgalov struggled in the first two games of both playoff series, but over the last four games against the Blackhawks he gave up only six goals, several of which he could hardly be blamed for.
"I'm really proud of him, what he brought to our group," Yeo said. "You know we all heard stories about Bryz, and all I can say is this guy was an unbelievable teammate and came into some really tough situations, and he was incredibly bought in to our team."
Bryzgalov will be an unrestricted free agent, but he said he'd like to return to what he called the best organization he's been in.
"I've been so happy here, but obviously I wish we can accomplish more," Bryzgalov said, adding: "I like it here. I feel here like home."