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Dave Campbell / AP Sports Writer, Published May 04 2013

Wild hoping for a repeat of team's 2003 underdog run

ST. PAUL – NHL hockey was absent from Minnesota for seven years, and the upstart Wild stumbled through two rough seasons in their debut.

Then came 2003, when the fervor of a playoff run came roaring back to a state that’s as tied to the sport as any other in the nation.

“It was a magical time to be playing here in Minnesota,” said former Wild left wing Andrew Brunette, “and I think about that group all the time.”

This Wild team, exactly a decade later, would love to be able to do what Brunette’s did, reaching the Western Conference finals as the sixth seed that year after winning three elimination games in each of their first two series.

Just as in 2003, the Wild are facing a heavy favorite right away.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who breezed through this condensed season with an NHL-best 36-7-5 record, already have a 2-0 lead in this first-round series over the eighth-seeded Wild. Minnesota is back on home ice for Game 3 today.

The Xcel Energy Center is sure to be buzzing, though the standard for arena atmosphere was set in 2003. The Wild beat Colorado and Vancouver before losing steam and falling to Anaheim.

With savvy coach Jacques Lemaire leading on the bench, gritty guys like Brunette, Wes Walz and Sergei Zholtok supporting budding star Marian Gaborik up front, and a stingy defense helping Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez thrive in the net, the Wild became the surprise story of the league that spring.

Playing a pesky, conservative, fundamentally sound system under Lemaire was a big reason for their success. So was chemistry. Zholtok reminded Brunette of that when a bunch of teammates gathered the following summer, in 2004, at Darby Hendrickson’s cabin. That was the last time Brunette saw Zholtok alive. Zholtok died of a heart problem during a game overseas a few weeks later.

“It was as close-knit of a team as you’ll ever play with,” Brunette said.

The bond to each other and the franchise is still apparent. Brunette and Brad Bombardir work in the front office. Hendrickson is an assistant coach. Walz is a television analyst. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is the only player who remains on the roster from 2003.

Colorado dominated Minnesota back then, so winning that first-round series was about as improbable for the Wild as it would be to beat the deep, talented Blackhawks this time.

“It was a matchup that wasn’t great for us. We were almost scared to death of them,” Brunette said. “We had to play a certain way against them to even have a chance, and that speaks to that group. Everybody knew their role, understood their role and played it to the best of their ability.”

Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and the rest of this year’s team must mimic that.

“We weren’t afraid, and we didn’t surrender,” Hendrickson said, recalling 2003. “And I do believe this group has a lot of that.”