EDMONTON, ALBERTA — The Wild won’t get to flex its home-ice advantage at Xcel Energy Center.
Players are away from their families, rooming in the same hotel as the competition and barricaded inside a few city blocks fenced off from the public.
Their quest for the Stanley Cup is also longer than normal, with 19 wins instead of the typical 16 required to hoist this season’s chalice.
And yet this unusual, never-been-done-before, quirky setup may actually be the Wild’s best chance in years to claim a championship when it returns after a four-month absence Sunday with a best-of-five series against Vancouver.
“It’s up for grabs, absolutely up for grabs,” coach Dean Evason said. “You’re so optimistic because everybody’s on the same page. Nobody’s coming into the playoffs really hot. Nobody’s coming in not playing so well. Nobody’s coming in beat up. Everybody’s coming in the same, so we are in the same boat as everybody else in the National Hockey League.
“That gives us hope that we have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.”
After the pandemic interrupted the season on March 12, the NHL waited and waited until the time was right to relaunch with a 24-team tournament split into two hub cities.
The top four teams in each conference received byes to the first round, and the remaining eight clubs are squaring off in qualifying matchups before the traditional four-round, best-of-seven format takes over.
Since the regular season ended prematurely, playoff standings were organized based on points percentage and the Eastern Conference was shuttled to Toronto with the West descending on Edmonton.
A bubble that includes the arena, practice ice, hotels, restaurants and downtime activities has been assembled in each city, with players undergoing daily testing for COVID-19. Other safety protocols, such as social distancing and face coverings, have also been implemented.
As unprecedented as this off-ice arrangement is, the in-arena conditions aren’t exactly familiar either.
Without fans filling the seats, the NHL has revamped the lower bowl to feature LED screens, and the acoustics are much quieter.
But the reason the Wild is playing hasn’t changed.
“We’re excited and happy that we’re getting this opportunity,” Evason said.
One point out of a wild-card spot when the season stalled, the Wild is a beneficiary of the playoff field expanding from 16 to 24.
Although the team was on the rise before the stoppage, it still had work to do to nab a berth, and nothing was guaranteed. If it continued to cruise, though, its outlook was promising.
“That’s the thing that gives us the most advantage is we really were playing good at the end of the year,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “We knew we had a good team, and we finally started to play like it. To reflect on those good vibes we had there, I think that’s going to be very important for us.”
Just being in contention was an accomplishment since the playoffs looked like a moonshot at the beginning of the season after the team stumbled to the worst start in franchise history.
Even into November, the Wild loitered near the bottom of the NHL, foiled by a feast-or-famine offense and spotty play in its own end.
A season-high 11-game point streak that lasted into December helped, but the real turning point seemed to be Jan. 16.
From that point, the Wild went 15-7-1, ranking near the top of the NHL in wins, points (31) and goals (81).
“It just says so much about the group of guys that we have that they committed to sticking to it,” goalie Alex Stalock said. “I think we always said that, ‘Just stick with it, stick with it,’ because we knew we had a good group and we knew that eventually it’d turn.”
The team didn’t slow down after Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau in mid-February as an interim before getting promoted to full-time status last month. Under Evason, the Wild went 8-4 and became even more potent on offense; the 43 goals the group scored during Evason’s 12-game tenure were the most in the NHL in that span.
Winger Kevin Fiala dazzled with his skill, shot and speed, tying a career high in goals (23) and becoming the Wild’s leading scorer with 54 after a 26-point frenzy leading into the pause — evolution that Fiala feels Evason helped instigate.
“He has big confidence in me, and that helps me to be who I am and to be confident and to play kind of like I want, like I can,” Fiala said.
But Fiala wasn’t the only one at the helm of the No. 10 Wild’s turnaround.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the Wild tabbed Stalock for Game 1 against the No. 7 Canucks, which would be just the second playoff start of his NHL career. Across the ice is Jacob Markstrom, who has never skated in the postseason before, but he’s coming off a terrific season and has a slew of talented up-and-comers such as 2019 league rookie of the year Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, who might win the award this season.
If the Wild can neutralize those players and keep the puck out of its net, the series could morph into a depth battle and that’s where the Wild would appear to have the upper hand.
“Honestly it’s the team that can get back to the way they were playing the quickest that’s going to be the team that’s going to be the hardest to beat,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said.
The challenge is unconventional, no doubt, but the uniqueness of it also validates the Wild’s why-not-us attitude.
Travel is in steps not miles, distractions seem to be limited to such bubble attractions as cornhole and a golf simulator, and the wear and tear from the regular season is nonexistent.
“It’s probably the best-case scenario for a lot of guys but hopefully more so our team,” winger Marcus Foligno said.
In normal circumstances, the Wild has to survive 82 games to simply advance to the playoffs.
Now if it can hang around for two months, the team could lift a Stanley Cup.
The stakes might never be that straightforward again.
“We’ve been a streaky team, and we’re capable of going on some pretty good runs,” winger Zach Parise said. “Hopefully we can time it right and this will be one of them.”