With the Sochi Olympics now a memory of the past, the NHL regular season resumes on Thursday for the Minnesota Wild. The team sits comfortably in the playoff hunt as the 7th seed in the western conference and prepare for a 23 game homestretch, 19 of which are against “quality” opponents. With a tightly contested playoff race, they will need to be firing on all cylinders if they want to remain in the hunt. A quick look at the Minnesota Wild playoff scenarios reveals that a deep playoff run may be dependent on other teams.
As it stands, the Wild would play the St. Louis Blues in the first round if the playoffs started today, The Blues are a team that look poised for a deep playoff run given the way they played prior to the Olympic break. They are third in the NHL in average goals per game with 3.3, third in goals against with 2.3, and possess one of the most feared powerplay units in the NHL. Combine those stats with having arguably the deepest lineup in the western conference, and you are presented with a juggernaut that no one wants to run into come playoff time.
Tied with the Blues in points but slightly behind them in the standings are the Chicago Blackhawks. While this certainly is not the same team that ripped through the playoffs en route to their second Stanley Cup in four years, they are feared because of their playoff experience. Chicago has the players who know their roles when it comes to playoff time. Simply stated, the grinders will grind, and the scorers will score. Although unlike last season, the Wild have found success against the Blackhawks this year, beating them in three out of four games. When it comes to playoffs, upsetting the Blackhawks may not be as daunting of a task as one would think. They certainly are not the powerhouse that was fielded last year and actually present one of the more favorable playoff scenarios for the Minnesota Wild.
Beyond the two teams the Wild are most likely to face are the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, the teams that seem to present the most favorable matchups. The Sharks are often among the best teams in the league during the regular season, only to make an early exit in the playoffs. On paper, it is a difficult team to play against. But come playoff time, all bets are out the window and some teams just fail to perform to their potential. In years past, the Sharks have been at the top of that list.
As for the Colorado Avalanche, they are a young team that has had the Wild’s number all year. Of the five times they have played this season, Colorado has walked away victors in all but one of those games. Since Patrick Roy’s introduction as the coach, Colorado has far exceeded anyone’s expectations this season, becoming the surprise of the NHL. What works against them is that the majority of their players have little or no playoff experience. It seems unlikely that Minnesota will draw Colorado in the first round, but it is a favorable scenario.
The Wild will need to shake off the rust from the Olympics immediately and start preparing to get into playoff form. The next five games following the break will see teams rise or plummet in the standings. Minnesota has teams nipping at their heels to get into the playoffs and it is imperative that they regain the chemistry that got them to this position prior to the hiatus.