ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — No team in the ultra-competitive Western Conference has made the playoffs more times in a row than the Minnesota Wild, with six straight appearances to share the current streak lead with the Anaheim Ducks.
That regular season consistency has only led, however, to April dissatisfaction. Ousted in five games by Winnipeg in their first-round series, the Wild were sent again to an early exit from the Stanley Cup tournament. They were shut out by the Jets in the last two contests and finished with a scoreless streak of 141:47.
“It’s really disappointing. I don’t think that’s indicative of the kind of team that we have. It was just a really tough night,” center Matt Cullen said after the 5-0 loss in Winnipeg on Friday. “Obviously with our backs against the wall, I think we all expected more and hoped for more, and I think if we could do it all over again every guy would like to give more.”
There was no shame in being beaten by the Jets, a deeper, faster team with an exceptional goalie in Connor Hellebuyck that finished with the second-best record in the NHL in 2017-18. For the Wild, though, there’s an overarching theme of staying stuck at a good-but-not-great level since the franchise-altering signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter helped start this remarkable-but-unfulfilling run of making the playoffs every year with the two stars on the roster.
“We want more. We expect more from ourselves. We let another one slip away,” right wing Charlie Coyle said.
Here are some key angles to the end of the Wild’s season:
The Wild are 2-6 in series and 15-29 in games in the postseason during the Parise-Suter era that began on July 4, 2012. The 17-year-old franchise’s only advancement past the second round remains the 2003 surge to the Western Conference finals, where the Wild were swept by the Ducks.
The postseason trouble encountered by the Wild used to be in the form of the Chicago Blackhawks, who eliminated them in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in the first and third of those years. They lost in the first round in 2016 and 2017, though, and failed to make the playoffs this spring for the first time in 10 years. So Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are no longer the problem.
Now Nashville and Winnipeg have taken the lead in the daunting Central Division, with the Predators taking the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record one season after reaching the Stanley Cup finals. Six of the seven teams made the playoffs either last year or this year.
“We certainly believed that we could give these guys a real run for it even though nobody seemed to be giving us a chance,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “We’re one play away each game. I know that’s easy to say, but it’s really how close it was besides tonight.”
This year, in fairness, one of the hurdles to postseason success became the rare absence of Suter, who has long been one of the NHL’s most durable players as a puck-moving, tough-minded defenseman. His broken ankle diluted the blue line in the final week of the regular season.
Then Parise, whose late-season surge signaled he was all the way back from the back injury and surgery that kept him out for the first 39 games, was knocked out of action with a broken sternum suffered in Game 3 against the Jets.
“Every team has injuries, right?” captain Mikko Koivu said, adding: “For sure that hurts, there’s no question about that. But we can’t go behind that.”
Matt Cullen, after winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, put off retirement for another year and returned to his home-state team with 11 goals, 11 assists and valuable leadership at age 41. He wasn’t ready to address his future after Game 5.
“My only thought here the last while was getting it back home for Game 6,” Cullen said. “So to be honest I don’t have an answer right now.”
Not every forward will be productive in a playoff series, of course, but the Wild were hurting without any goals or assists by three of their top-nine forwards: Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker. Coyle, who had only 11 goals during the regular season, was especially ineffective against the Jets.
“Had plenty of chances to finish. I didn’t finish. Or the goalie came up big,” Coyle said. “Whatever it is I didn’t get the job done. That hurts.”
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