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The Wild had the right idea.

After the best season in franchise history frayed in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, the Wild tailored their style specifically for that challenge.

They practiced playoff hockey for months, and they got pretty good at it. Low scoring. Panic-free third periods. One-goal wins.

But when the training wheels came off and the simulation turned into reality, their muscle memory was gone: The Wild froze, losing their seventh straight opening playoff series and getting bounced from Stanley Cup contention in six games for the second consecutive year. They haven't advanced to the second round since 2015.

"It's a brutal feeling," alternate captain Marcus Foligno said. "We grind all the way to get to the playoffs, and we can't get out of the first round again. Broken record."

A 4-1 defeat by Dallas in Game 6 on Friday night at Xcel Energy Center sealed the familiar fate, but this dud isn't like the rest.

That they so meticulously prepared for this obstacle, adapting their game from past mistakes, and still weren't good enough puts even more emphasis on how the Wild regroup.

"Obviously, this is not what we want," coach Dean Evason said. "We have to make that step. We didn't make that first step this year by getting through the first round. We've got a lot of work to do."

Different process

As routine as this resolution has become, there was reason to believe this season would be different for the Wild.

They weren't as dynamic up front after they couldn't afford to re-sign Kevin Fiala and traded the 30-goal scorer last summer, but they didn't need a touchdown or the extra point to win now that they were better defensively. That stinginess, from their blue line and goaltenders Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury, became their touchstone after a rocky start.

"We didn't have the best goal scoring," Evason said. "So we figured out a way to grind out hockey games."

Defense replacing offense as the trademark of the Wild was the biggest change they made in reaction to last year's swoon in the playoffs against St. Louis, but it wasn't the only adjustment.

The penalty kill that let them down improved, becoming one of the NHL's most aggressive units, and even the power play made strides. They raised their toughness by bringing in Ryan Reaves and added Marcus Johansson, Gus Nyquist, Oskar Sundqvist and John Klingberg before the trade deadline for scoring depth; every acquisition enhanced their experience.

Late in the regular season they were battling for the Central Division title, and even after they finished third at 46-25-11 for 103 points, they still looked primed to carry this combination of diligent defending and opportunistic offense into a best-of-seven series vs. the Stars.

Then old habits crept in.

"I really believed we were going to go deeper here in the playoffs," Fleury said. "It's a little bit stunning."

Same result

The Wild didn't flop right away; they actually arrived as-advertised, eking out a double-overtime victory in Game 1 on the road with the poise they earned from all those in-season reps.

During Game 2, they strayed from their structure and were punished for it, a 7-3 rout by Dallas for which Fleury was in net after Gustavsson won Game 1. The Wild recalibrated with their own romp, a 5-1 blowout in Game 3, but nothing was the same after that.

Despite outplaying the Stars in Game 4, they were felled by shaky execution and two head-scratching penalties against Foligno in a 3-2 lapse.

Linesman David Brisebois escorted the Wild’s Marcus Foligno off the ice after Foligno was issued a game misconduct in the first period of of Game 5
Linesman David Brisebois escorted the Wild’s Marcus Foligno off the ice after Foligno was issued a game misconduct in the first period of of Game 5

Associated Press

"Not getting bounces, refereeing-wise and just putting the puck in the back of the net," Foligno said. "I thought there were a lot of opportunities that we missed. Game 4, kicking myself with a breakaway, and we had a lot of chances in Game 4 to win that. It might be a different series if it's 3-1."

The penalty kill they appeared to fix during the regular season was also suddenly out of order, and the power play went on the fritz.

That's also how the Wild were blanked 4-0 in Game 5, Dallas' power play capitalizing on an early ejection for Foligno and its penalty kill snuffing out the Wild's chances to rally. Overall, the Wild gave up nine power-play goals while managing just four of their own.

"Obviously, our penalty kill wasn't great," Evason said. "But if we could have scored on our power play and made them pay for some penalties like they made us, it might be a different series."

Never was the contrast between the Stars' strategic scoring and the Wild's woeful whiffs more prominent than in Game 6.

Mere seconds after Ryan Hartman had a try at an empty net clip the post and stay out, Dallas bolted the other direction and scored on its first shot of the game.

"I've watched it 100 times in slow motion between periods," Hartman said, "A rolling puck. As soon as I go to push it into the net, it bounces over my blade and their defenseman whacks it off their goalie's foot and then it goes and hits the post."

Then right before the second period ended, Mason Marchment delivered a buzzer-beater breakaway after Mats Zuccarello missed the net from a close angle for another what-if.

"Last year I think you have a feeling you maybe lost to a better team," Zuccarello said. "Now you have the feeling that you were the better team for majority of the games and the periods. But those surges and swings when they got their goals and we didn't tipped it their way."

History repeating

A timely lift from the Wild's best players never emerged.

Kirill Kaprizov went pointless the last five games, the longest drought of his NHL career after his lone goal in the first period of the series. Matt Boldy entered the playoffs as one of the league's top goal scorers over the last month but exited empty-handed. Frederick Gaudreau's three tallies were tops on the Wild, and the team-leading five points apiece by Zuccarello, Hartman and Nyquist were seven fewer than the Stars' Roope Hintz got.

Dallas goaltender and Lakeville native Jake Oettinger was clutch in crunch time, but the quality of the Wild's pressure could have netted more production.

Wild center Frederick Gaudreau took a shot on Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger from his knee in the second period of Game 6 but the Lakeville native was too tough to crack.
Wild center Frederick Gaudreau took a shot on Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger from his knee in the second period of Game 6 but the Lakeville native was too tough to crack.

Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune

"We're hitting posts," Foligno said. "The pucks bouncing over our sticks. We're putting pucks through the crease. It is what it is. It's the bounces of the playoffs."

There were those questionable calls against Foligno, and the Wild were without Joel Eriksson Ek for all but 19 seconds of the series, their mainstay on the penalty kill, power play, faceoffs — basically all areas where the Wild struggled — sidelined by a lower-body injury suffered with a week left in the regular season.

"Everybody has injuries," Evason said. "We had to find a way to get through without him and without other people, and we didn't."

Adversity aside, the Wild were still ahead of Dallas 2-1 and coming off their sharpest performance of the series when they dropped three in a row and got eliminated.

Sound familiar?

That's also how they collapsed vs. the Blues.

The Wild wound up in the exact scenario they prepped for and still stumbled.

"There's opportunities throughout this series where we could have not necessarily put the nail in the coffin but we could have separated ourselves a little bit more," Hartman said, "and we failed to capitalize on opportunities throughout the series."

Tricky times

Now what?

That's the question the Wild must answer to solve the roadblock that remains the first round of the playoffs, a deflating return to square one after all the turns they made to try to go a new direction.

Instead, they went in a circle.

And the navigation is only going to get trickier in an offseason that will pose plenty of lineup decisions.

All the in-season players the Wild acquired are on expiring deals. Same with Gustavsson, who became the team's playoff starter after posting the second-best save percentage in the NHL during the regular season.

Players leave the ice after the Wild endured a familiar result: a quick elimination from the playoffs
Players leave the ice after the Wild endured a familiar result: a quick elimination from the playoffs

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Longtime defenseman Matt Dumba also doesn't have a contract beyond the season, and the alternate captain's exit from Game 6 after two periods because of injury could have been an unceremonious end to his tenure in Minnesota.

The asterisk alongside all the Wild's upcoming business will be that they're embarking on the most expensive years of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts.

Nearly $15 million of their budget will be inapplicable to a roster that's still hung up on translating regular-season success into playoff prowess.

"You've got to play next season to figure out if we're going in the right direction," Foligno said. "A lot to think about. It's tough to think about the future right now, but to say that this team is going to look different in a bad way, I don't think so. I think it's going to be just as competitive and be a really good hockey team for many years to come."