ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Wild have a well-balanced team, with every important player back from the squad that reached the Western Conference semifinals for the second straight spring.
They also have an unsolved problem: the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Last year was especially disappointing, because we certainly felt like we had a team to do it,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “It’s no secret: They’ve won three Stanley Cups. They know how to play, and they know how to play once it’s playoff time. Eventually, we’re going to have to get through them. The more we not think about that hump of getting over the Blackhawks and just think about our game when the time comes, that’s going to be the best way to do it.”
The Blackhawks, winners of three of the last six NHL titles, have eliminated the Wild in each of the last three years. Given the way the Wild finished the regular season a league-best 28-9-3 over the final 40 games and disposed of the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues in the first round, getting swept by the Blackhawks last year was as big of a buzz kill as the franchise has ever had.
“Against a team like that if you’re not playing your best, you’re not going to beat them,” left wing Jason Zucker said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Here are some key angles to know about the Wild in 2015-16:
THREE’S A CROWD
Dubnyk, who started 38 straight games after his season-saving acquisition by trade with Arizona, signed a six-year, $26 million deal to be the go-to goalie for a while. Dubnyk earned the contract by posting a 27-9-2 record with a save percentage and goals-against average that ranked second in the league.
Darcy Kuemper, whose illness, injury and inconsistency made the Dubnyk deal necessary, will be the primary backup. But Niklas Backstrom is still on the roster, too, because he’s making $4 million in the final season of his contract. The 37-year-old Backstrom has played only 40 games over the past two injury-marred seasons. His goals against averages soared to 3.02 and 3.04.
MORE SITTING FOR SUTER?
Defenseman Ryan Suter has led the NHL in time on ice three years running, but he’s coming off a rough season. Thus, the 30-year-old Suter has reached the point in his career where it’s time to reduce his workload for the sake of keeping him fresh. Coach Mike Yeo said he expects to keep Suter, who averaged 29-plus minutes last season, between 24 and 26 minutes per game.
“Don’t expect to see him play 18 to 20 minutes,” Yeo said. “He’s a premier defenseman in the league. He’s hugely responsible for us being a team that’s very well respected around the league.”
After scoring only 21 goals, a career low for a non-lockout season, left wing Thomas Vanek will be counted on for more production.
“Without question, there are times where Thomas has to shoot the puck more,” Yeo said. “He usually has that skill to create, but sometimes we have to create off the shot as well.”
Vanek will start on the third line with rookie center Tyler Graovac and right wing Charlie Coyle.
Zucker has finally established himself as a top-six forward, coming off a career-best season despite missing one-third of the schedule with a broken collarbone. He’s one of the fastest and most productive players on the team, but the key to his progress of course was taking his defensive responsibilities more seriously. He’ll start on a line with captain Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter.
“I had a lot of cheat in my game and those types of things, and I had to fix that in order to play here,” Zucker said.
The Wild will play outside this season for the first time in franchise history, a Sunday afternoon game at the University of Minnesota’s football stadium on Feb. 21 against the Blackhawks. It’s part of the NHL’s Stadium Series, a sidebar to the annual Winter Classic.
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