Sometimes, a hot goaltender is all it takes to make a deep run in the NHL postseason.
The Minnesota Wild have that in Devan Dubnyk, who won his first playoff series Sunday with a 4-1 Game 6 victory over the Central Division-winning St. Louis Blues.
Many will look at Dubnyk as the key to an even more challenging task that lies ahead in a second-round series with the Chicago Blackhawks. Dubnyk described the Blackhawks as "pretty great," per the team's official Twitter account:
But the Wild have much more than just a reliable backstop.
The defense is wildly underrated with Ryan Suter leading the way and playing nearly every second shift. Behind him, fellow veteran Jordan Leopold and youngsters Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and rookie Matt Dumba boast a strong mix of puck movement and responsible defense.
They have a deep group of forwards that features a blend of talented veterans such as Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville with up-and-coming youngsters such as Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle.
The Wild were an underdog in the series by virtue of their landing spot in one of the two wild-card positions and the Blues claiming the title of what might be hockey's toughest division.
Nobody is going to take them lightly going forward. Wild head coach Mike Yeo's comments, per the team, appear to imply the Wild should not be counted out just yet:
In Game 6, Parise came up huge, scoring twice. Fontaine and Niederreiter (into an empty net) added singles.
This isn’t the old trap-it-up Wild. They can score on the rush. They can take advantage of mistakes by the opposition. They play a patient, confident game.
“We’ve evolved the last three years since I’ve been here. Trying to get the fourth guy in the attack when the opportunity is there and make plays in the offensive zone—we’ve come a long way in doing that,” Parise told the NHL Network in an interview after the game. “You’ve got to be smart about it, but we’ve done a good job.”
On the other side of this series, the forwards, outside of the always-stunning Vladimir Tarasenko, were a huge disappointment.
Tarasenko scored six of the team’s 14 goals. Of the remainder, only Patrik Berglund scored more than one.
Rookie goaltender Jake Allen let in a few softies in the final two games, but even if the goalies were flipped in this series, the result might have been the same.
There are plenty of questions in St. Louis now. Head coach Ken Hitchcock’s time may be up after three straight first-round exits. The Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Lazerus questioned Hitchcock's job security, and Bleacher Report's Adrian Dater detailed Hitchcock's playoff record:
The mix of players that looks so good on paper and tremendous in the regular season isn’t working out in the playoffs.
“It sucks. There’s no other summary of it than it sucks,” Blues center David Backes begrudgingly told reporters as seen on the Blues website. “Together as a group, we didn’t bring enough, and now we’ve got to answer too many questions. I wish I had answers for you.”
In Minnesota, the questions have been answered.
Things were bad in January. They were eight points out of a playoff spot and looking like a potential lottery team early in the new year. Since losing six in a row and 12 of 14 in December and January before Dubnyk's arrival, the Wild became one of the league's top teams, one nobody wanted to face in the first round.
They can score up and down the lineup. Their defensemen are great at joining the rush. They have one of the best goaltenders of the season as their last line of defense when things go wrong.
If you ask Dubnyk, they also have destiny on their side.
“It’s unbelievable. It just feels right. This is how I know we’re ready for it. I know I’m ready for it. This feels like where we’re supposed to be,” Dubnyk said on the Sportsnet broadcast on the ice following the game.
The series was another chapter written in a remarkable story surrounding the Wild goaltender who was brought in from Arizona in mid-January.
There's more to come.
The Blackhawks have eliminated the Wild in each of the past two playoff seasons. This time, you get the feeling it’s not a foregone conclusion.
“Hopefully we can keep winning,” Parise said. “We’ve got a rematch with Chicago, the team that’s knocked us out the last couple of years. We know it’s going to be another tough one.”
Steve Macfarlane has covered the NHL hockey for more than a decade, including seven seasons following the Calgary Flames for the Calgary Sun. Follow him on Twitter at @macfarlaneHKY.