Living in small town Minnesota, we didn't have a hockey rink let alone a team. But in 1991, the North Stars captured the imagination of a kid who ate, slept and breathed basketball. It was an introduction of how special the Stanley Cup playoffs are. Nine years later, the Stars were in Dallas, but a Wild new team took its place and it didn't take the new guys long to help hockey fans rediscover the feeling of an amazing playoff ride.
2003 was the first playoff experience for the young franchise and it was the Colorado Avalanche who stood in their way. Down 3-1, the Wild battled back, winning the next three games by an identical 3-2 score including overtime victories in games six and seven. Richard Park played the hero in with the winner in game six, but it is Andrew Brunette who will stand out in the minds for his heroics in game seven sending the Wild to the next round against all odds. It was the last goal scored against hall of fame goaltender Patrick Roy who was forced into retirement.
It was our guys that did that!
Vancouver was up next and like the Avs series, the Wild picked up a split on the road only to return home to drop both and fall behind in the series 3-1. Left for dead once again, the Wild tightened up their skates and went back to work. They were masterful in game five crushing the Canucks 7-2. The momentum was seized in that game and never relinquished. The Wild outscored Vancouver 16-5 in the final three games advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
Lady luck had other ideas as the Wild ran into Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the Ducks of Anaheim. Giguere was amazing allowing only one goal to a Wild team that was white hot entering the conference finals, the Ducks were mighty in their sweep of our favorite team ending their dream of hoisting the holy grail of hockey. What an improbable run it was.
Has it really been 10 years since the magical playoff ride the Wild took us on?
So here we are on the day the greatest playoff run in sport begins. There is nothing like the two month chase for the biggest trophy in professional sports. Big in stature and big in lore, it has escaped and eluded hundreds of players looking to quench their championship thirst from its sweet nectar.
Like 2003, this year's Wild team is a big underdog. They open against the Chicago Blackhawks who lost only seven games in a lockout shortened season. Trying to beat them four times in a seven game season isn't going to be an easy task. Then again, ask Andrew Brunette if he expected to end Patrick Roy's career. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are where the improbable happens.
We only need to cite recent history. Last year the Los Angeles Kings won the cup as the 8th seed in the west. The Kings picked up steam as the playoffs went along losing only four games in four series. Not bad for a team that had to play top seeded Vancouver in the first round.
The Blackhawks are loaded top to bottom, but the Wild played them tough, winning a shootout 3-2 in January, losing 5-3 in Chicago, then a 1-0 grinding loss at Xcel Energy Center. That loss proved that the Wild could play a tight checking game against the best team in hockey. It also proved that one mistake can cost you and that the Wild's best just might not be good enough.
This time of year always comes back to the guy in net. In 2003, the team rode two guys. Both Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson took turns with the hot hands, but this year, the entire load rests solely on the shoulders of Niklas Backstrom. Is the Fin up to the challenge? Does he have that ‘it' factor that every goalie that has backstopped their teams to the Cup have had?
We might be underdogs just like 2003, let's hope this team can create the same memories and capture the imagination the same way.