Puck Drop
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Now comes the fun part.

The truncated, 56-game NHL regular season is complete for the Wild, and the team more than surpassed preseason expectations, assembling a 35-16-5 record for 75 points and finishing third in a top-heavy West Division that includes Colorado and Vegas, teams that tied for the most points in the NHL.

The Wild opens the best-of-seven first round of the playoffs on Sunday afternoon against Vegas, which was passed by Colorado on Thursday night on a tiebreaker for the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top team in the regular season. No matter where the Wild finished in the West's top four, it was going to face a team with considerable talent and pedigree in the Golden Knights, Avalanche or St. Louis Blues, a squad that still has the nucleus of the Stanley Cup winner from only two years ago.

In a perfect world for Wild fans, the team would have entered the postseason with some momentum. Instead, the Wild granted itself a couple of mulligans in the form of Wednesday' 4-0 blanking at St. Louis with its regular lineup and Thursday's come-from-ahead 7-3 loss to the Blues with five skaters and goalie Cam Talbot sitting out.

"You want to finish strong, and it is what it is,'' forward Marcus Foligno said. "But we know we're better than that.''

OK, time to prove it.

Presumably, Vegas was the opponent the Wild preferred to face in the first round, given the fact that Minnesota went 5-1-2 against the Golden Knights this season and is 11-2-3 all-time against them. Still, the Wild will be facing a formidable opponent, led by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped Pittsburgh to Stanley Cup triumphs in 2009 and 2017 and helped Vegas make the Cup Final in its inaugural season in 2018.

The Wild will try to end a run of playoff disappointments that includes first-round or qualifying-round losses in their past four postseason appearances. In series against Dallas in 2016, St. Louis in 2017, Winnipeg in 2018 and Vancouver in 2020, the Wild went a combined 5-15. The team's last playoff series win was in 2015, when it dispatched the Blues in six games before being swept by Chicago.

So, what provides hope that this year won't follow that pattern?

Kirill Kaprizov.

Quite simply, the Russian rookie has transformed this franchise, and it can be argued that no player is more valuable to his team that Kaprizov is to the Wild. He led the team with 27 goals and 51 points, numbers that projected to 40 goals and 75 points over an 82-game schedule. He announced his presence with authority by scoring the overtime winner in his NHL debut and continued to embarrass opposing defenders throughout the season.

Kaprizov is just the talented game-breaker for which Wild fans have been craving since the early days of the franchise. Now, they'll get to see what he can do in the playoffs. Buckle up; it has the makings of a fun ride.