Monday, May 11, 2015

About the Wild and Baby Steps

So the Wild lost in four straight to Chicago and are done. It's probably my fault, since I had them winning it all.

(I was most pleased about my "Wild in six" prediction in the first round, because I know a lot of really smart people who didn't agree. But alas, I blew it big-time when I misunderestimated Chicago.)

Anyway, the Wild lost in six to the Blackhawks last year. Four this year. So it's a step backward, right?

Well, it isn't that simple.

The team's step backward actually took place from Nov. 4 through Jan. 13, a stretch where the Wild went 11-16-5 and blew some great opportunities to make headway in the Western Conference.

See, it was that stretch of average/really bad hockey that led the Wild to trade for Devan Dubnyk on Jan. 14 and start its season-ending tear the next night in Buffalo.

For nearly three months straight, the Wild battled night in and night out to just get a seat at the playoff table. Not many teams can be 13th in the conference after Jan. 1 and still make the eight-team tournament. Especially in a very difficult Western Conference. Just being able to do that -- especially given 1) the very difficult schedule, 2) the fact so many teams in the West were fighting for those seats at the table, and 3) the Wild had to do it almost exclusively by scoring goals five on five because the power play was completely useless -- was a hell of an accomplishment.

It also probably should have foretold the premature end to the season.

Go back and watch Games 2 through 4 against Chicago. And the third period of Game 1.

Then go watch the Wild win race after race and -- more importantly -- battle after battle against St. Louis the series before.

Chicago was dialed in against Minnesota, but the Wild were clearly slowing as the series wore on. Advantages I thought existed going into the series did not. We know the Blackhawks have a ton of scoring punch. Patrick Kane is incredible. Jonathan Toews is Mr. Everything. Their blue line sells out and blocks shots like no other, and Joel Quenneville is great at what he does.

But I thought Minnesota had the edge down the middle, with improved center depth (even if they're not great on draws). Then Brad Richards undressed Marco Scandella in Game 1. And Charlie Coyle didn't score in the series (also didn't finish the series playing center, a real indictment considering how much time the coaching staff invested in Coyle in the middle during the regular season). I was wrong.

I also was surprised at how slow Minnesota's defensemen looked. I knew Chicago had speed to burn up front, but the Blackhawks really made the Wild look silly in their own zone at times.

Offensively, Corey Crawford played well for the 'Hawks. He did. You don't post a near-.950 save percentage, even in a small four-game sample, by accident. But the Wild made it too easy on him. There wasn't enough net drive, and the blue line didn't do a good job creating lanes and getting pucks through traffic, something Chicago was much better at (and Dubnyk's elite puck-tracking ability was sneakily on display throughout).

Chicago also won an inordinate number of races and battles for pucks. Why is that? Did the Wild see a dialed-in adversary and struggle to meet the intensity level? Did the Wild finally succumb to the three-month grind they put themselves through just to get in?

I think it's a little bit of a few things, but the fatigue factor certainly weighs heavily. You're never going to get a team to admit it ran out of gas (though UMD was close in March when Denver won those two games in the NCHC playoffs). But the Wild clearly didn't have as much energy against Chicago as was present against the Blues in the previous round.

Watch Jason Zucker nearly get beat to a loose puck by Marian Hossa. Watch Scandella lose a board battle to Richards. Watch Coyle's effectiveness slip.

Too many guys weren't at their best against Chicago, while the Blackhawks played four very strong games.

So is it a step back.

Decisively, no.

The Wild needed to rip off a hell of a run in the second half of the season. When Dubnyk came on board, Minnesota was 18-19-5, good for 41 points, 13th in the West. As it turns out, making the playoffs required a minimum of 55 points in 40 games, a 70 percent rate that is almost unfathomable against a tough slate of Western foes.

The Wild got 59 points, nearly 74 percent of the available points.

The end result -- loss to Chicago in the second round -- was the same. The end result -- getting swept -- looks worse than a year ago.

But the fact this team was still alive to get swept in the second round is something worth noting, not forgetting.

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