For the glass-half-empty crowd, there is plenty to pick at when it comes to the restart of the NHL season.
The format’s too confusing, they say. The Stanley Cup champion will have an asterisk, they add. The Wild’s games are starting way too late, they grumble.
Yes, nothing about sports during the dumpster fire that is 2020 has been convenient. We’ve seen seasons shut down on the eve of championships, serving as gut punches to high school and college athletes who had their dreams within reach. We’ve dealt with months on end of precious few live events to watch on TV. And we sit on pins and needles while hoping nobody bursts the protective bubble.
Here we are, though, with meaningful hockey restarting Saturday and the Wild beginning an intriguing qualifying series against the Vancouver Canucks late Sunday night.
Time to embrace it, with fingers crossed and coronavirus willing, of course. We hope to be treated to a two-month sprint in which the champion might have to play 33 games, and win 19 of them, to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. We’ll know soon enough which teams really want to be in those bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
For the Wild, the intrigue comes in a few forms.
First, who’ll start in goal, Alex Stalock or Devan Dubnyk? Stalock played well down the stretch, going 9-3-1, as the Wild chased a playoff spot before the coronavirus hiatus was called. Dubnyk started slowly and missed a month of the season while his wife, Jenn, dealt with a serious medical situation. He has 26 playoff starts, while Stalock has one. Coach Dean Evason hasn’t indicated which goalie will start.
Evason has a third option, too, in Kaapo Kahkonen, who went 3-1-1 when called up from Iowa of the AHL in November. He was dominant in the AHL, winning a league-high 25 games with seven shutouts, a 2.07 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
Second, how will Kevin Fiala perform? The 24-year-old Swiss speedster broke out with 23 goals and 31 assists in 54 games, and his explosiveness was evident Wednesday during the Wild’s exhibition loss to Colorado. Fiala could be the difference-maker the Wild has lacked in recent playoffs.
Third, how quickly will the Wild find its stride in the qualifying series? In its past three playoff appearances, the Wild fell behind two games to none in a six-game loss to Dallas in 2016; 3-0 in a five-game ouster against underdog St. Louis in 2017; and 2-0 in a five-game elimination against Winnipeg in 2018. Winning the opener, or at least counterpunching to even the series in Game 2, will be paramount in the five-game series. We’ll see soon enough if things have changed for the better under Evason and General Manager Bill Guerin.