Wild Style: ESPN's Jonah Keri previews the Wild's NHL playoff run
The Minnesota Wild’s heading back to the playoffs! After winning the Northwest Division title for the first time in team history, the Wild earned home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, starting Wednesday. In the team’s two prior trips to the post-season, the Wild made it to the conference finals in 2003, then lost in the first round last season.
Can the Wild make it all the way to the Cup finals for the first time in the team’s seven-year history? Let’s take a look at the key factors which could determine their fate.
Biggest Strength: Defense. If you play for Jacques Lemaire, you’re going to be fierce on D. The Wild has been an above-average defensive team in every year of its franchise history but one, playing for the guy who perfected the neutral-zone trap. This season, Minnesota’s 9th in the league this year with a 2.56 GAA. Brent Burns has had a great breakout season in his fourth year in the league, joining veterans like Kim Johnsson on a solid back line. The Wild’s forwards do a reasonable job of forechecking, but an even better job of preventing opponents from gaining the blue line. That’s a hallmark of a Lemaire team, with the equivalent of five defensemen on the ice at any given time.
Biggest Weakness: Scoring at even strength. The Wild rank just 18th in the NHL in goals scored per game. Minnesota has one of the better power plays in the league. The problem has been scoring when both teams are at full strength. Part of that’s by design, as Lemaire preaches conservative play. That makes Minnesota very tough to beat when the team’s ahead. But it also makes it hard for the Wild to come back when behind.
Go-to guy: Marian Gaborik. The highest single-season goals and points totals in Wild history are a great start. But more than sheer numbers, Gaborik is an attention-grabber. As a fan, your eyes are drawn to his ability to mesmerize opposing defenders and score at will. Opponents can also get caught Gaborik-watching. That’s a big reason why Brian Rolston cracked the 30-goal mark for the third straight year, and why anyone who’s on the ice at the same time as Gaborik has a chance to light the lamp.
X-factor: Mikko Koivu. The 25-year-old led the club in face-offs won last year with 583 and is again the Wild’s go-to guy on the draw. In the playoffs, where the value of special teams play grows and free-wheeling styles often get reined in, having a reliable face-off man matters a lot. Koivu does a lot more for the team too. A savvy defender, the third-line center’s +13 mark ranks him second on the club behind Gaborik. He’s the most likely Wild player to match up against a Paul Stastny, Mike Ribeiro or Pavel Datsyuk. Few players are a better fit for the Lemaire style of play.
How they match up with Colorado: The Wild finished the season by winning eight of its final 12 games. If netminder Niklas Backstrom can carry his play from that streak (just nine goals allowed in his last eight games), the Wild could breeze past the Avalanche. Minnesota took five of eight games against the ‘Lanche in the regular season, including a 4-3 shootout loss in the final game of the season Sunday. Two of the Wild’s three losses against the Avalanche came with backup Josh Harding in net, an advantage Colorado won’t be able to exploit in the playoffs.
The Wild’s other big strength lies in its special teams. Minnesota killed penalties at an 85.6% success rate this season, the second-best mark in the league. Its 18.9% success rate on the power play was 8th-best in the NHL. Meanwhile, Colorado ranked 29th on the power play and 20th short-handed. Many teams have gone far in the NHL playoffs largely on the strength of strong special teams play and a hot goalie. If Minnesota does advance, the Wild could present big problems for more skilled, higher-ranked teams too. --Jonah Keri