The most important part of the Wild’s season has yet to be played.
And it might not be played.
Saturday was to have been the regular-season finale for the Wild, a game that might have decided whether it made the playoffs.
After diluting the worst start in franchise history with an 11-game point streak and going on a 15-7-1 run to land in contention for one of two wild-card invites in the Western Conference, the Wild’s remaining 13 games were put on hold when the NHL paused its season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That uncertainty affects all 31 clubs, but the implications are especially murky for bubble teams like the Wild.
Those on the verge of a berth would be stranded on the outside looking in if the league fast-forwarded to the playoffs upon a return, and everyone still jostling for seeding would see their bids impacted if the regular season was scaled back. That seems inevitable the longer this hiatus lasts — if the season restarts at all.
This is the kind of clarity the Wild is now seeking rather than a verdict on its playoff push, which could have arrived Saturday when its final game was scheduled against Nashville.
And based on the lead-up to the stoppage, each contest on the way to that finale was likely to matter in a multiteam race that was shaping up to be a captivating sprint to the finish.
“We’re right there in the mix with that bottom group of teams trying to get that wild-card spot,” winger Zach Parise said. “We liked the direction we were going.”
Race to the finish
At the time of the shutdown, the gap among teams vying for the last few playoff berths in the West was minuscule.
With 80 and 78 points, respectively, Winnipeg and Nashville occupied the pair of wild cards. Vancouver was next, also with 78 points, and then came the Wild at 77.
Calgary was only a point ahead of Vancouver for the third seed in the Pacific Division, while Winnipeg was only two behind Dallas for third in the Central Division. And it didn’t look like most of these teams were easing up; instead, they were primed to keep rolling.
Although they had the fewest games left of the bunch with 11, the Jets might have been the most formidable. They had won four in a row going into the pause and were 12-5-2 since Feb. 1 — giving up the second-fewest goals in the NHL in that span. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck was on a tear in his last six starts: 5-1 with a .957 save percentage, 1.34 goals-against average and two shutouts.
“We were starting to get heathy,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “We finally had our ‘D’ heathy again. Our guys up front got healthy. Our goalie was playing out of his mind. Helley gave us a chance to kind of hang in there and stay within striking distance of the wild card.
“Yeah, we were starting to string some wins together, so it was nice to have a full lineup and kind of see what type of team we had.”
Nashville was also a threat, at 13-7-1 over its last 21 games. Seven of those wins came on the road, where the team was to play most of its remaining schedule.
Like the Jets, the Predators’ goaltending had been steady, with Juuse Saros on a 12-5 tear. And captain Roman Josi was a bona fide Norris Trophy candidate after ranking among the best on defense in a host of categories — including average ice time (25 minutes, 47 seconds).
“Hopefully we’ll be back soon,” Josi said.
Vancouver’s outlook was a bit dicey. The Canucks were missing key players because of injury, such as starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and Burnsville’s Brock Boeser. They also had a four-game losing streak before winning twice in their last three games.
Still, defenseman Quinn Hughes was bolstering his chances for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, and trade acquisition Tyler Toffoli was at a point-per-game pace over his past 10 games.
“If we can put it all together and stay healthy and play the way we know how to play,” Vancouver captain Bo Horvat said, “we’re going to have a lot of success going forward.”
What only added to the intrigue of the wild-card scramble was how close the No. 3 seeds from each West division were; despite winning three straight, the Flames were within reach and so were the Stars after they had dropped six in a row.
“We were slipping a bit,” Dallas captain Jamie Benn said.
For the Wild, this landscape signaled opportunity — which looked like a pipe dream while the team struggled through the first few months of the season. In time, though, the Wild improved and was peaking in the right areas to potentially snag a playoff spot.
Its last game, March 8 in Anaheim, was the team’s eighth win over its previous 11 games, all under interim coach Dean Evason.
Winger Kevin Fiala was a lightning rod for offense, and the Wild’s goaltending — led by backup Alex Stalock — had stabilized.
Despite challenges the rest of the way, the team also had reason to be optimistic since it had won earlier this season against all but three of its remaining 11 opponents and seven games were on the road, where the group was on a 7-1 run.
“There were a couple of things that Dean wanted a little differently,” Parise said. “It took us a few games and then once we got the hang of it, I think we all liked the way we were playing. We were playing with a lot more speed and a lot more pace than we had been.”
Maybe the Wild would have kept surging to the playoffs, or maybe the team would have faded. The same applies to Winnipeg, Nashville and Vancouver.
Until the future of the NHL is decided, that’s just one of the many questions left unanswered.
For now, this what-if validates the progress the Wild made. But if the team doesn’t finish the season, the late run of success can also become a source of solace, knowing at least that its voided schedule was still meaningful.
“We were starting to win some games, and we were feeling good about it,” Parise said. “Hopefully that can continue.”