Wild still adjusting after being eliminated by Blackhawks

Published 12:46 pm Saturday, May 9, 2015

ST. PAUL — For the third straight year, the Minnesota Wild were forced out of the playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks.

This defeat felt as bad as ever.

“Right now, we’re a good team,” coach Mike Yeo said, “and we have to find a way to be the best team.”

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Given the way the Wild played in the second half of the regular season and in the first round against the St. Louis Blues, getting swept in four games by the Blackhawks was tough to take.

“It’s going to take a while. This was a special year and a special group,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said after the 4-3 defeat in Game 4 on Thursday night. “Again, it just doesn’t feel right that we’re done playing now.”

This was their opportunity to show the progress they’ve made after losing in five games in the first round to Chicago in 2013 and falling in six games in the second round last year. Instead, this looked like a regression, despite outshooting the Blackhawks a combined 131-113 for the series.

“Give them a little credit, too. They’re a team that’s offensively skilled and makes you pay when you make a mistake,” Wild right wing Jason Pominville said.

With more wins in November and December, the Wild would have been a higher seed and started this series at home. With the recent divisional realignment and postseason reformatting, though, the Blackhawks were still going to be in their path no matter who finished where.

Yeo said he thought the Wild might have been a bit too caught up in their own resilience, emboldened by their rise from 12th place in the Western Conference at the time of Dubnyk’s acquisition on Jan. 14 to the first wild-card spot with an NHL record-tying 12-game winning streak on the road.

“It’s a learning experience,” Yeo said. “Certainly we felt good about the game we were playing, felt good about the way things went in the first round. Probably needed to take a little step back and realize the next one, it’s not just going to carry over to that. We seemed to have a tough time adjusting, and we were chasing every game.”

The Wild never had the lead against the Blackhawks, who deftly locked down the passing and shooting lanes once they scored the first goal and used their swift transition game to turn loose pucks into odd-man rushes they converted into goals at opportune times. The Wild, except for their flat performance in Game 2, generated a greater volume of chances to score than the Blackhawks.

The difference, then, was that finishing touch by the players who are paid to produce it.

Patrick Kane had five goals in the series, and seven other forwards scored once, including the entire first line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad. For the Wild, only six forwards had a goal, all with one each.

Thomas Vanek went scoreless in the 10 playoff games. Mikko Koivu finished with a minus-4 rating for the postseason. The only goal by the Wild during a stretch of 177 minutes and 11 seconds from the second period of Game 1 until the second period of Game 4 was scored by defenseman Matt Dumba.

“We might not have a guy that’s going to get 100 points a year for us right now, but we have guys who are going to contribute offensively,” Yeo said. “They play the game a certain way, and that allows us to be successful as a team.”

With the addition of Vanek last summer, the acquisition of Chris Stewart before the trade deadline and the return from injury of Jason Zucker, this was the deepest team the Wild put together. The fourth line changed often as Yeo used the luxury of extra capable forwards to try to maximize the matchups. In the end, though, they were still missing that piece or two to the Stanley Cup title puzzle.

The majority of the Wild’s core players have been previously signed to multi-year contracts, so other than locking up Dubnyk for the long term there aren’t any major issues on the Wild’s summer to-do list.

“Obviously when you’re swept, you feel like you need to change something, but with the teams I’ve been around, I really thought we had something special going,” Vanek said. “We have a lot of character in here and had a great run. Obviously that’s not the way we wanted to end it.”