Cheers, and questions, abound as Wild closes the season with 5-3 win
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Even though there seems to be more Minnesota North Stars gear seen on the streets and in the rinks of the Twin Cities today then there ever was two decades ago, bitterness lingers for many over the team's departure for Texas at the hands of the reviled Norm Green.
So maybe local hockey fans got some measure of revenge on Sunday, in the final game of a disappointing Minnesota Wild season. The 5-3 win by the home team meant very little for the Wild, other than moving the team to the 10th pick in the NHL draft, which will be held in St. Paul in June. But for the Dallas Stars, who ended up on the short side of the scoreboard, the loss kept them out of the playoffs.
The Stars, who spent their first 26 seasons playing in Bloomington and went to the Stanley Cup Finals twice to the delight of all Minnesotans, needed two points to pass the Chicago Blackhawks and claim the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. The Wild win means an early summer for Dallas, and a trip to Vancouver for the opening round by the Blackhawks.
Tied 3-3 with 20 minutes to play, the Wild got third period goals from Antti Miettinen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard to close the season with a win, to the delight of the raucous sellout crowd that gave the rink a playoff atmosphere for much of the evening.
"These are the games you live for," said Wild coach Todd Richards, who may have been behind the team bench for the last time. We should know more about his fate sometime this week. "These are the games you want to be a part of. It was a lot of fun being a part of this game. The bitterness just comes from you want more of it."
For the players, seeing Dallas get knocked out on the final day of the season brought feeling of familiar frustration, for a team that was a playoff contender until early March, when an eight-game losing streak made for an early end to the campaign.
"The tough part was 10 games ago when we knew how good we are and things kind of got away from us. Optimism is the only thing you can take into the summer," said Cal Clutterbuck, who assisted on Bouchard's empty-net goal to seal the win. "We've been disappointed for a few weeks, and I tell you, that's no way to live your life. It's miserable and it's not fun. I'm disappointed with the way things ended up, but I'm not going to spend my summer disappointed, I'm going to spend it getting ready for next year, which is going to be an improvement over this year."
What improvements and what changes are in the works remain to be seen, but there was a definite vibe in the home team's room that this would be the last post-game there for some, including, possibly, the coach. Andrew Brunette, who got his 450th career assist in the game, is one who could be out of hockey, or at least out of Minnesota, by September. And John Madden, who missed the last four games of the season with an injury, has said he will retire if he is not re-signed by the team.
But Richards' status is the biggest question mark. After two seasons that included 12th- and 11th-place finishes, he said he has no trouble sleeping at night when he reflects on the job he's done in his home state.
"With my job and doing certain things, without question you look back and there's always hindsight," he said. "Would you do some things differently? Absolutely there are some things I'd do differently, but for the most part there's not too many things I would change."
At times, Richards sounded like a man saying goodbye, complimenting and thanking his assistant coaches, the trainers and even the equipment staff. In the next breath, he sound like a man prepared to fight, and to come back with an even bigger determination to get this team to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"It would be foolish and silly if we didn't look back over the last 15, 16 games and figure out what went wrong and why it went wrong," Richards said. "I look back over the season and we did a lot of good things. I think we accomplished some things. It probably doesn't feel that way, but that's how I feel. To me there was growth - growth in players, the chemistry, the culture and things we want to build upon here. But still it leaves you with that disappointment of the finish."
It can't compare with the disappointment Minnesota hockey fans felt at the end of the season 18 years ago, when the North Stars missed the playoffs, packed up, and headed down I-35 bound for Texas, leaving hockey in a sad state here. On this night, there was some small measure of revenge, and many, many questions left over about where the Wild is heading from here.