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Updated: May 14th, 2014 12:51am
Zulgad: Wild ousted by Blackhawks but there's reason for optimism

Zulgad: Wild ousted by Blackhawks but there's reason for optimism

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL -- Any satisfaction the Wild eventually might feel from taking the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to six games in their second-round playoff series will have to wait a few days.

Late Tuesday night, Wild coaches and players were far too stunned by the fact they had been beaten in overtime of a fantastic game because of an unfortunate bounce of the puck off a stanchion at Xcel Energy Center.

Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook had simply intended to dump the puck into the Wild zone to go for a line change, but it struck the stanchion in the glass behind goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and caromed in front of the net.

Chicago's Peter Regin and Wild defenseman Ryan Suter both overskated the puck but the ultra-talented Patrick Kane did not. Kane collected the puck and put a backhand into the top of the net at 9 minutes, 42 seconds for a 2-1 victory and a 4-2 series win.

A fired up crowd of 19,396 went silent.

"I've never seen a season end like that," Wild winger Zach Parise said. "You see it happen a few times a year, but it can't get any worse than that. I don't know. We were all just kind of in shock it happened. The whole building was in shock that it happened."

Said Wild winger Nino Niederreiter: "It's (an) empty (feeling). There's not much you can say about it. You don't even know what to say. It's tough. You feel lost, I guess."

This marked the second consecutive season in which the Blackhawks eliminated the Wild from the playoffs. This year's series only lasted one more game than last year's but that's where any similarities end.

In 2013, the Blackhawks were a far better team than Minnesota and when the first-round series ended no one was surprised. This time the Wild bounced Colorado in the opening round before facing the Blackhawks.

After losing the opening two games in Chicago, the Wild often looked like the better team and created the expectation that in 2014-15 there no longer will be a gap between the upper echelon clubs and the Wild.

General manager Chuck Fletcher is going to enter the offseason with a wish list that likely will include a goaltender, a physical defenseman and someone who can finish, but this is no longer a franchise with a few key veterans and inexperienced rookies.

Guys like Charlie Coyle, Justine Fontaine, Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula will be counted on to make big contributions from day one next fall. All gained valuable experience in these playoffs and Haula served noticed that his speed and puck-handling skills make him a steal as a seventh-round draft pick.

All of this should be encouraging for the Wild and Yeo, who coached this season on the final year of his contract but almost certainly will be back. "I don't know," Yeo said when asked about his future. "I have to reflect on that. What (this playoff run) has done for me is make me realize this group and what they are made of."

Yeo wasn't the only one who did not take any immediate satisfaction on Tuesday.

Not after the Wild had so many chances to force a seventh game in Chicago. Minnesota outshot the Blackhawks, 35-27, but Chicago goalie Corey Crawford stopped nearly everything, giving up only Haula's fourth goal of the playoffs in the second period. Haula, in fact, scored the Wild's only goal in Games 5 and 6.

"I thought we had our chances and that's why it really sucks right now," said Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who finished the playoffs with one goal and six assists but had only one assist in the second round. "It's been a great run. It's been the best time of my NHL career and when it ends like that it's an empty feeling right now."

Parise was asked about the fact that few outside the Wild locker room gave them a chance entering the Colorado series and certainly no chance against the Blackhawks.

"We knew going into it, playing against Colorado, that they were going to get all the hype," Parise said. "That was no surprise to us. The same thing coming in here playing Chicago, no one is going to pick us.

"We felt like we were right there with them. The opportunities were there to win games, to force a Game 7, to beat these guys. The most important thing is how we feel internally, not what analysts think. It's more of how we feel and we felt like we had a chance. We're just as good as anybody."

That feeling among Wild players only made Tuesday's loss hurt more. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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