Do not be surprised if the Wild fails to win the Stanley Cup this season. Sorry to be a downer. In the first place, there are some teams that are likely to be in their way that actually have a viable defense, unlike Colorado.
But I am still giddy this morning, and here is why:
Granlund, Coyle, Haula, and Kuemper.
You have to lose to learn how to win. Last playoffs the Wild lost alright, but the losing effort began before the playoffs even started with the way they backed into the dance. This year they took a step forward, they learned from that experience and went into the playoffs playing their best hockey of the season. But it wasn't until early in game three that I felt the Wild, as a team, really started playing playoff hockey. That nasty, ugly, growling, spitting, playoff hockey.
They got there - following none other than Matt Cooke, who came out and set a tone early in game three with some hits and grit (unfortunately we all know where Matt took it to, and that sucks, but...) - and they have stayed there. Okay, the goals have not come, but that is even more encouraging: they have not become disheartened or distracted. Indeed they have buckled down even further; applied themselves even more. This collection of players is now fully aware that they are capable of playing playoff hockey. That represents another step in the right direction.
These kids, with the Ninos, and Brodins, and Zuckers, and Folins, and Dumbas, etc. with or behind them, are increasing their appreciation of how they need to play when it counts, and building their confidence that they can perform to that level. That is huge.
So, what if they lose a gut-wrenching game seven? Well, if we accept that they were not going to win the Cup this year anyway, then that becomes the touchstone moment that they can go to in their memory over and over again. "We could have beaten those guys." As they rip off another set in the gym over the summer. Again, and again, and again, until they tear the picture of that loss off the mirror, or finally emerge out of the sewer pipe, a stronger, more-focused group of individuals, laser locked on that goal, and filled with the confidence that they can achieve it. I do not think the Wild is that team yet. But they are becoming that team, and that makes me very happy. The only indication we had that they were on the road to becoming that team under DR was him telling us they could. Actually seeing it, that is considerably more preferable and meaningful.
I have to think this is what got Parise and Suter so jazzed up about signing here. That these kids were but a short distance from becoming the younger element of a core around which true contenders are built. Zach and Ryan signed for 13 years. That tells me they were willing to accept that it might be a couple years of continued growth before they achieved contender status, which is pretty much exactly how it is playing out.
Thinking back to the start of last season, watching Granlund struggle to acclimate to the NHL game - to where he has been the past two games (not to mention the second half of this regular season) - is astonishing. Obviously he had it in him, physically and skill-wise. But confidence can be harder to build up than muscle tissue.
Coyle's personal arc this season has also been remarkable. He struggled this season from the early injury, got bounced around a fair bit, but has ascended out of that to where he is now a bona fide threat in this playoffs. We have been dying for a power forward on this team since Latendresse gave us that one great stretch. Charlie looks like that guy.
Haula gets a little too much love from the provincials for my liking, but that does not take away from what he can do. His speed is a singular weapon on our team. But it is also his nose for the net, and his head for the game that has me thinking he could be our version of a Detroit late-round diamond in the rough.
And Kuemper. From the Toronto game early this season to when he took his turn at saving the season in goal, to how he has come in and played over the past three games against Colorado, is just tremendous. I am not sure I would say the Wild has ever had an elite goalie. They have had average goalies who have played well, and benefited from a goalie-friendly system aplenty. Kuemper might be that elite goalie we have never enjoyed here.
I have said all along that I expected a first-round series win this season, but that I would not necessarily panic if that did not come to fruition - depending on how it played out. Seeing the growth and maturation of our younger players, and the steps the entire team has taken toward contention, I do not have any reason to panic, regardless of how the season ends for the Wild.