The Minnesota Wild are the third team this season that has clinched a spot in the 2020-2021 NHL postseason after a dominant win over the San Jose Sharks on Saturday. An impressive season for the Wild, who has managed to regain excitement and hope, after a few seasons of stagnation. Before the season expectations were almost nonexistent from fans and press alike. It was going to be a transition season, where the aim was developing the young superstars. However, due to a few key factors, the narrative around the Wild changed almost immediately.
While a lot of Minnesota Wild players have stepped up this season, the turnaround has happened primarily due to one player. A Russian rookie who has taken the NHL by storm and who the Wild fans have been waiting for for around five years. Kirill Kaprizov finally arrived in the NHL after years in the KHL where he earned the reputation as the best player outside the NHL. Expectations were high and some thought he might need a bit of time to adjust to the North American game.
From day one, however, Kaprizov managed to change the image of the Minnesota Wild. In his first game, he helped the Wild mount a comeback against the Los Angeles Kings, scoring the overtime winner and he hasn’t looked back since. He has 22 goals and 19 assists for a combined 41 points in 47 games so far this season, which is enough to break the franchise record for a rookie for the Minnesota Wild.
It’s an incredible achievement no doubt, but it’s not just the points from Kaprizov that changed the Wild. It’s how he plays and how he can change a game on his own at any moment he is on the ice. He has made the Wild must-see TV and an exciting team to watch. His brilliant plays and hard work even help cover for the lack of center depth where he has played most of the season with Victor Rask. While Jason Robertson absolutely deserves to be in the conversation for the Calder Trophy this season, he has not been able to touch Kaprizov when it comes to the impact that he has had on the team and its image.
Another noteworthy reason for the Minnesota Wild’s success this season has been goaltending. For the past few seasons, Devan Dubnyk has been the starting goaltender for the Wild. While he started well in Minnesota, his game the past two seasons declined rapidly. While having a strong defensive core, it always seemed like goaltending and poorly timed goals-against costed them over the past few seasons.
This season however the tandem changed from Dubnyk and Alex Stalock to Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen. It’s a change that has been extremely needed for the Wild. Both Talbot and Kähkönen have been solid throughout the season and especially Talbot has found a way to revive his career after a poor stint in Edmonton two seasons ago. This season, Talbot has a .926 save percentage and a 2.33 GAA. They’re fantastic stats for a goalie who has played 27 games and he has truly helped the Wild reach its potential.
Kähkönen has been a solid backup who has found ways to win games and relieve Talbot when needed with strong play. The rookie has a .910 save percentage in 21 games this season. He has split time with the starter and helped Talbot stay rested while not costing the Wild in the net. He has been reliable and has made a name for himself both for now, but also in the future where he easily could find himself as the clear-cut starter.
The last reason for the playoff spot for the Wild is the weak division. Most people knew that the Anaheim Ducks wouldn’t be amazing, but the fall of the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Arizona Coyotes were more unexpected. Neither has been able to hit their potential and while LA and Anaheim have potential in the future, neither challenged the Wild as expected. The Wild found ways to win games, while they found ways to lose.
Even the Vegas Golden Knights have struggled against the Minnesota Wild meaning the only team with a strong record against the Wild is the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche. Not many saw the Wild being that much better than the bottom 5 teams in the West, and yet here they are, in the 2021 NHL Playoffs.
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