The drama seemingly will not end for Minnesota this season.
After the Wild closed out the year on an 0-5 stretch, yet squeaked into the playoffs for a fourth straight year, news broke of Zach Parise’s back injury (possibly season-ending dependent upon the need for surgery or not per Michael Russo) to go along with an upper body injury that will keep Thomas Vanek out for at least the first round of the playoffs.
Go ahead and add Erik Haula to the list of fractured forwards while you’re at it. He’ll sit for game 1 due to a lower body injury. Good news for him though, he at least flew with the team to the Lone Star state, presumably meaning he could play in game 2 Saturday night.
Everyone is talking about these injuries that will see both guys out for considerable time and the obvious impact it will have. Minnesota is pretty much being counted out before the series even starts, which really shouldn’t be seen as a surprise with the way they’ve played of late. That being said, the playoffs are a fresh start and anything can happen. You can’t forget that the Wild were underdogs in each of the past two years when facing the Central Division champs before, yet were up to the task in knocking off both the Avalanche in 2014 and Blues in 2015.
So what would a successful first round entail for the Wild?
Most will and have said already that the importance of the Wild’s youth is paramount in making this a competitive series with the flashy Stars. Guys like Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle have the opportunity here to prove their ultimate worth while filling in these big holes within the top-six. This is obviously true sure, but the need for the team’s remaining vets to ultimately lead is just as important for the Wild here to keep the composure in the locker room and on the ice. No need for anyone to overcompensate and try to be Parise out there.
After one of his better years statistically over the past four seasons, Captain Mikko Koivu has to view this as a critical playoff year for the franchise. Koivu was very vocal in his postseason remarks about making the playoffs for a franchise best four years in a row, and thought it as a worthy accomplishment for the team considering where they were two months ago in the standings. However, the 33 year-old isn’t getting any younger and should really be attempting to light a fire under the “kids” who are expected to step-up here in the absence of Parise and Vanek. The youth’s success really does start with the leadership among them. Koivu has also been pretty quiet himself production wise over the last couple of seasons worth of playoff series. This is a trend that certainly wouldn’t hurt the Wild’s chances if haulted and reversed when needed most.
Whenever the Wild are brought up in conversation, the first thing discussed usually is their defensive depth. However, this depth that is so often spoken of seemingly took the year off when analyzing their overall play compared to what was expected. They’ve under-performed this season, plain and simple. We all know they’re fully capable sure, but far too often we’ve seen soft checking and poor coverage in their own zone, making them look like a fairly average group. Ryan Suter, who has had a career year offensively, needs to ensure his game is tight for starters while setting the example he was brought in to set for the Dumba’s and Brodin’s of the team. Surely, Suter will see 26+ minutes a night this series so it’ll start with his blue line play to set the tone for the overall effectiveness of this group. They’ll have to remember how to take the body of a fore-checker again, when facing one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL.
Former 30-goal scorer Jason Pominville had an excruciatingly tough season to bear with career lows in every offensive category through a full season. It’s allowed his name to be brought in to the offseason’s “What to Do With” category for fan debate. Tallying only 11 goals and 36 points, what better way and time is there for Pominville to start fresh than to have an explosive playoff series when needed most? Pominville will play alongside Nino Niederreiter and Zac Dalpe for game 1, where he’s had chemistry with Nino since Torchetti took over. The Wild will need his production to increase again, back into the top-six forward he’s proven he is throughout his respected career if they want to have a chance.
Again, the Wild definitely need their youngsters to bring their A-game to Dallas if they are going to have any shot at taking this series, but with that being said, their Veteran players are just as much if not more important to the team’s success throughout their first round match-up with the Dallas Stars, and more than ever without Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek.
While it may be even harder to do so this year in the absence of two prolific scorers, the Wild have proved in recent years that if anyone can succeed as the underdog in the first round, they can.
Jon Nomland is a Journalism student out of Colorado, and currently a Minnesota Wild contributor for The Hockey Writers. When not engaged in Wild hockey, he enjoys following the Philadelphia Flyers due to his Pennsylvania roots.