The year was 2003 and spring fever was definitely in the air. The Minnesota Wild, in just their third year, had not only crashed the Western Conference playoffs, but Jacques Lemaire has somehow guided his team of mostly has-beens and thank-their-lucky-stars-for-expansion players past the favored Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks and into the Western Conference Final.
Wild fans, who had sold out the Xcel Energy Center on a nightly basis following seven long years without NHL hockey, were now being rewarded for their patronage while also being reminded of how just much better spring is when it also involves playoff hockey.
Year 3 had been good to the Wild. They started 8-1-2 out of the gates in October, and never looked back. They made the playoffs for the first time ever with a record of 49-29-10-1, which landed them in third place in the Northwest Division.
Bringing Down an Avalanche
The Wild’s reward for grossly overachieving was a first-round matchup against the heavily favored Avalanche. After the Wild fell behind 3-1 in the series, they rallied to win in Game 7 when Andrew Brunette beat Patrick Roy in overtime to eliminate the Avalanche.
The second round followed a familiar script. This time the Wild spotted the Vancouver Canucks a similar 3-1 series advantage before getting up off the mat to win Games 5 and 6, sending the series to a seventh and deciding game in Vancouver.
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In Game 7, the Wild fell behind the Canucks 2-0 before rattling off four unanswered goals to become the first NHL team to ever rally from 3-1 deficits twice in the same postseason.
Running On Empty
It was at this point that Wild fans became convinced that this motley crew had somehow been transformed into a team of destiny. The only thing standing between the Wild and the State of Hockey’s first trip back to the Stanley Cup Final since 1991 was another team trying to write their own Cinderella story.
The then-Anaheim Mighty Ducks has entered the Western Conference playoffs seeded seventh among eight teams, one spot lower than the Wild. However, it was at this point that the toll of playing back-to-back seven-game series caught up with the Wild in a big way.
JSG Plays Big
Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who was described by one Minnesota sportswriter as “essentially wearing a picnic table for equipment,” shut out the suddenly punchless Wild in not one, not two, but three consecutive games and surrendered just one goal in an eventual Anaheim four-game sweep. (from ‘Giguere’s Pads Are at Issue Again,’ LA Times, 11/24/2003)
Still, Wild fans were optimistic. With a budding star in third-year forward Marian Gaborik, they figured the team was poised to make the playoffs an annual rite of spring. They were wrong.
Living On the Edge
Since the Wild’s unlikely run to the Conference Final in Year 3 the team has never managed to venture that far into playoff territory. Since that run, the Wild have only managed to make the playoffs 8 times in 15 seasons, and they’ve only been able to get past the first round twice, losing in the Conference Semifinals in both 2013-14 and 2014-15.
What has become a tradition for the Wild, regardless of the head coach or general manager, is the habit of loitering near the bottom of the playoff contenders before managing to slide in at the last minute, only to slide right back out before the ice is even off the lakes.
Same Old Story
Heading into this season, the Wild had made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons. The lone exception was 2019 when they were eliminated from contention on April 2, with just two games left in the regular season.
While Wild fans may not be familiar with postseason success, they’ve had more than enough of this franchise toying with their emotions every March. From Chuck Fletcher to Paul Fenton and Bill Guerin, from Lemaire to Mike Yeo to Bruce Boudreau and to Dean Evason, the roster changes but the song remains the same. Come March you can find the Wild, flirting the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the west, with a handful of games to go.
This year is no different. In an effort to salvage the season, first-year general manager Billy Guerin sacked head coach Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 14, and since then, interim head coach Dean Evason has posted an 8-4 record while the Wild have played better hockey at both ends of the ice.
Speaking of ice, ice houses have already been removed from Minnesota’s southern inland waters, and those on northern inland waters have to go by March 16. You know what that means, playoff time is coming, and once again Wild fans are starting to get excited.
Really? Haven’t we learned our lesson by now? While I’m as excited as anybody about Kevin Fiala, this current Wild team is fool’s gold, destined to break your heart. Again.
But gosh, how I’d really like to be wrong for once.