I’m grappling with two possible realities, here. Please help.
The Wild accomplished everything on Tuesday night against Boston. They finally, officially, clinched a playoff spot, and cemented their status as the top Wild Card. It was the culmination of a seven month slog through a bloated Western Conference, and in the league’s deepest division, no less, finishing fourth only to three teams with 105 or more points. They will qualify for the playoffs with their highest point total since their high watermark season of 2006-07. Three points will put them above even their lone title winning season of 2007-08.
They’ve done so with the team’s deepest ever lineup, and they seem to be improving towards the end of the season, unlike last year, when they whiffed their way down the stretch, only to save their season on the final night. By the time they reached Chicago for game one of the playoffs, they were a hollow team. This season, they’ve defeated the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, and ground out a 1-0 victory in Winnipeg, where they have struggled for anything positive since the reiteration of the Jets. And those three games are simply the back end of a six-game stretch in which the Wild have collected points in every game, winning five of those contests. They have won with domination (Pittsburgh), grinding effort (Winnipeg), and third period heroics against playoff rivals (Phoenix) and stingy defenses (Los Angeles, Boston). Even the Chicago game featured a late goal to salvage a point.
It could be said, with reasonable accuracy (though certainly debatable, as everything in sports is), that this is the best Wild team ever. They have a four-man veteran core of All-Stars/Olympians, complimented by a quintet of young players who, unlike last season, have made meaningful statistical contributions to the team’s success. Chuck Fletcher made two astute deadline moves without either mortgaging future first round draft picks or upsetting the chemistry of the team, bringing in Matt Moulson, who has seamlessly transitioned into the Wild lineup, and Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been the savior of the late season with injuries to the three goaltenders who preceded him. The only player shipped out was a disgruntled and highly replaceable Torrey Mitchell.
All of that being said, the Wild actually accomplished nothing on Tuesday night. Yes, they qualified for the playoffs, but anything less would have been a major disaster, correct? Yes, they’ve beaten Pittsburgh and Boston this week, but both teams had nothing to play for and rested key regulars for various reasons. The Penguins were so gouged, they might as well have been a do-wop group called Sidney and the Scrantons by the time they took the ice last Saturday. In addition, they failed to take advantage of a Chicago team that was missing both of its’ generational stars.
Their record this season against the other seven Western Conference playoff teams* is less than stellar 10-11-6, and they have just two combined wins against their three possible playoff opponents – Anaheim, San Jose & St. Louis. Too many times this season they have looked overmatched against the heavyweights, particularly the Blues, who have muscled the Wild off the puck en route to a season sweep, outscoring Minnesota 13-4 (one more game coming).
The list of the Wild’s possible warts is, worth noting. Despite the added depth, they are still 26th in the NHL in goals scored, and it is reasonable to assume that they won’t have a player top 60 points this season (Jason Pominville would get there with three points in the final two games, Zach Parise needs five). While they have received stellar goaltending from three of the four men who have suited up at the position this season, they enter the playoffs with questions at the position. Josh Harding, while practicing again, would likely not be available for the postseason, and if he is, he will not have played in four months, at least, when he suits up. Darcy Kuemper has two games of awful playoff experience to his name, and is currently nursing an injury that has kept him out of the last handful of games. Finally, to describe the presumptive playoff starter, Ilya Bryzgalov, as “mercurial” would be to devalue the term and possibly Roman Mythology as a whole.
So are the Wild actually a good team, and capable of challenging the beasts of the West in a playoff campaign we now know that they will be a part of? Or are they simply the best of the rest, rounding out the field for the second straight season? I’ve been asking myself that question for 80 games now, and I’m right back where I started. I don’t think the final two games are going to change my outlook in any meaningful way.
So, as odd as it seems to say (because it should be a given) the only way to judge this team is by what they do in the postseason. If they really are as good as they seem to be at the best of times, they could still lose a series, but only to a very good team. So what would progress look like? Do they have to win a series in which they will be a heavy underdog? Do they simply have to give a better account of themselves than they did against Chicago last season? Everyone will likely answer these questions differently, and I, for one, can’t make up my mind yet.