For the first time since the spring of 2015, the Wild on Sunday night came away from a postseason opener with a couple of key items in its back pocket.
A victory, of course. And swagger.
The victory came in the form a 3-0 blanking of the Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 of the qualifying round series. It ended a four-game losing streak in playoff openers, beginning with the 2015 Western Conference semifinals against Chicago and proceeding through first-round ousters against Dallas, St. Louis and Winnipeg in the next three years.
The swagger came not in the form of braggadocio but rather intelligence. Quite simply, the Wild was the smarter team Sunday. It kept its cool when goaded by the Canucks and took advantage when Vancouver’s misdeeds resulted in a power play. Man-advantage goals by Kevin Fiala and Jared Spurgeon gave the Wild a 2-0 lead, enabling the disciplined Minnesota team to keep the talented Canucks at arm’s length for most of the evening.
“Our discipline was really good,’’ said Wild coach Dean Evason, victorious in his playoff coaching debut. “… You want to hold your composure, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to do that when you have the lead.’’
Though the NHL hasn’t used a best-of-five format since 1986, history shows that winners of Game 1 go on to take the shortened series 82 percent of the time. For the Wild – which entered Sunday 2-11 all-time in Game 1s – that’s an important stat. And so is this one: Since 2015, the Wild was 3-17 in playoff games when the opponent scored first. Conversely, Minnesota was 5-1 when it scored first, with three of those wins coming in the six-game triumph over St. Louis in the 2015 first round. In its last playoff appearance, the Wild surrendered the first goal in all five games against the Jets.
The Wild helped itself by staying out of the penalty box. Vancouver’s power play ranked fourth in the NHL at 24.2% but didn’t get on the ice until 4:41 remained in the third period. The Canucks twice negated power-play chances by committing penalties of their own.
The game had a nastiness to it, starting with the Wild’s Marcus Foligno and Michael Ferland dropping the gloves 1:19 into the first period. It followed with Ferland spearing the Wild’s Ryan Hartman on the bench in the third after Luke Kunin had held Ferland’s stick, and the Canucks Antoine Roussel getting a misconduct with 47 seconds left for mayhem during a faceoff. The close-ups of the trash talk between Kunin and Roussel during the Ferland-Hartman episode stole the show.
“It’s the heat of the battle, and that’s what comes with playoff hockey,’’ Foligno said of his fight with Ferland. “… It’s the intensity that I do bring and we need to have on this team.’’
Will the Wild’s disciplined and intense play carry over for the rest of the series? We’ll find out soon enough Tuesday night, but Sunday’s first impression was a good one.