Two years ago, in the spring of the NHL’s most recent full season, this space was used to point out that the Minnesota Wild, clinging to postseason hopes, were a team that couldn’t shoot straight. It was, it goes without saying, a groundbreaking piece of analysis from a finely tuned hockey mind.
Caught up in the drama and minutia of several 82-game seasons, how many of us could possibly have noticed that Minnesota hadn’t iced a big-time NHL scorer since Marian Gaborik ran away to the big city?
That 2019 Wild team didn’t make the playoffs, of course, but playoff hockey returns to Minnesota on Sunday when the third-seeded Wild play the second-seeded Vegas Golden Knights in a 2 p.m. puck drop in Las Vegas. Minnesota hasn’t won a first-round playoff series since 2015, which actually feels much longer ago because until this year, the Wild had made the postseason only two more times and when they got there, barely fired a shot — straight or otherwise.
Why expect this year to be any different?
That 2019 Wild team was the NHL’s third-worst shooting team, a combined 8.4 percent. This season, the Wild were the league’s second-best shooting team, tied with Washington at 11.4 percent behind Pittsburgh’s 11.5. Two years ago, Matt Dumba (12.9) and Zach Parise (12.23) were the Wild’s best shooters; this year’s team has eight players with at least 40 shots who are shooting better.
Among them is rookie winger Kirill Kaprisov, the kind of player we haven’t seen since Gaborik, on pace for 40 goals and about 76 points in an 82-game season. Second on the team with 157 shots, Kaprizov has scored on 17.2 percent of them.
Gaborik finished the 2002-03 regular season 30-35—65 in 81 games, but he was even better in the postseason with nine goals and eight assists in 18 games as the Wild upset Colorado and Vancouver in the first two rounds before getting shut down in a four-game sweep by goaltender J-S Giguere and the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks.
That now-legendary run — not just a surprise, but the Wild’s only deep playoff run in 20 seasons — tends to be associated with the veterans who joined the expansion franchise and played postseason: Andrew Brunette, Wes Walz, Darby Hendrickson. But it was Gaborik who led the team in postseason scoring.
In Kaprizov, the Wild finally have a guy who can take over a series. Maybe not quite as fast as Gaborik was in his prime, he is better with his stick and a more imaginative scorer.
No one would blame the skeptical. Since making their unexpected run to the Western Conference Final in 2003, the Wild have won three — three! — second-round playoff games. In their past two postseason appearances, they won two — two! — first-round games. So expecting it to be different, even in an anomaly of a season as this 56-game campaign, isn’t wise.
Still, it feels different. The Wild didn’t have to sweat out a playoff spot late, and with early postseason play confined to division opponents they drew their best matchup when Colorado slipped ahead of Vegas in the regular-season finale. Minnesota was 5-1-2 against the Golden Knights this season, and is 11-2-3 against the 2018 Western Conference champions.
More important, the Wild are finally a different team than the one the franchise brass kept insisting was a Stanley Cup contender. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise remain, but it appears Parise will be the odd wing out. And while Joel Erikkson Ek and Jordan Greenway were always part of the plan, gone are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and, most conspicuously, Mikko Koivu, who came to exemplify the Wild’s collective personality as a defensively responsible team that would win with greasy goals.
None of this means a thing if the Wild don’t play well, of course, but at least it feels different this season.