EDMONTON – The Minnesota Wild are trapped in a narrative.
I know, aren’t we all?
But the impression of the Wild and the reality of the National Hockey League team conflict sharply.
The Wild were a defensive, grinding, plodding, dull team for so many seasons, they still mostly carry that reputation into their Stanley Cup qualifying series against the Vancouver Canucks. But rejuvenated by a February coaching change that saw Dean Evason replace Bruce Boudreau, the Wild have more speed and skill throughout their lineup than most people realize. They are also more combative.
Their hub city exhibition game Wednesday against the powerful, dynamic and sexy Colorado Avalanche was an example of what the Wild do surprisingly well. It also illustrated their key weaknesses: average special teams and sub-par goaltending.
Nathan MacKinnon’s Avalanche won 3-2 at Rogers Place in the only dress rehearsal the teams will have for this summer’s Stanley Cup tournament.
The Wild not only skated with the Avalanche, Minnesota outshot Colorado 24-16 at five-on-five.
But the Minnesota power play, which was the stronger half of its special teams during the regular season, went only 1-for-8 and generated just five shots on target in 13:15 of advantage time. And starting goalie Alex Stalock, a career backup who lifted the No. 1 job this season from the failing hands of Devan Dubnyk, was beaten three times on 17 shots, serving up a bespoke-tailored rebound to Joonas Donskoi just 1:25 after the start and looked leaden when MacKinnon whipped a shot past him from the top of the faceoff circle at 4:47.
The goal crease is where the Canucks appear to have their biggest advantage. If you removed Jacob Markstrom from Vancouver and put him behind the Minnesota defence, which has one of the best top-fours in the NHL, the Wild would be a heavy favourite in the five-game series.
Even with Stalock and Dubnyk, who stopped the 12 shots he faced in relief on Wednesday, Wild-Canucks is almost too close to call. But everyone has to call something, and 16 of 18 Sportsnet insiders have predicted a Vancouver victory.
Half of these television and print reporters are predicting a five-game series and nobody called for a sweep, so it’s expected to be a tight series. But it’s surprising how few people think the Wild will actually win it. (I picked the Canucks in five).
“I don’t read a lot of clippings,” Evason told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “I basically don’t read any of them. I honestly don’t know who’s picking who. We’re just worried about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to play against Vancouver.”
About his team, the former Kamloops junior star and Vancouver Giants coach said: “I think that they’re really playing for each other. That’s one of the biggest things we talked about before the pause. Certainly our commitment to the team game and to playing for each other. . . and working with each other through (training camp). . . has been a real good feel. We saw a lot of that today. They were sticking together, they were playing hard together. When you do that, you feed off each other. You push each other, but you have each other’s back. I think our group has done that.”
The Wild went 8-4 under Evason, and their 8-3-0 sprint to the abrupt finish of the regular season in March began with a 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver on Feb. 19.
“I guess you would say, we play a little more free,” veteran centre Eric Staal said of the Wild’s transformation. “I think we’re a little bit more up-tempo pace. We’ve got weapons. . . these young guys that have pace, that have speed, that have skill. I think we’re just utilizing it a lot more. I think it has changed our game and our confidence has grown.”
The guys Staal named, by nickname, were Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato, Joel Eriksson Ek and Kevin Fiala.
Fiala has been a revelation, a talented player who suddenly seems to have figured things out at age 24 and on his second NHL team. In his final 18 games, he had 14 goals and 26 points. Only Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl and New York Ranger Mika Zibanejad outscored Fiala after Feb. 3.
On Wednesday, Fiala buzzed around the Avalanche zone like he buzzed around the NHL the last five weeks of the regular season. The Swiss winger had 16 shots attempts. No other player on either team took more than six shots.
It’s a small sample, but Fiala looks like the most dynamic and dominant Minnesota forward since Marian Gaborik was a young man. If only the Wild had Gaborik’s old teammate, Dwayne Roloson, in net.
Evason isn’t naming his starter for Game 1 Sunday against the Canucks, but it’s likely to be Stalock, whose 20 wins this year matched his total from the last four seasons as a backup in Minnesota and San Jose.
“There’s some catchup, obviously, with four months off,” Stalock said Wednesday of his performance. “It took a little while to get adjusted, but overall I felt good. You go back and look at the tape and see that maybe you had more time in spots where you felt rushed. Obviously, one game, it goes quick, and all of a sudden the real deal starts.”
Goaltending questions aside, the Wild look like a real deal.