Wild General Manager Bill Guerin knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. He experienced this on a few separate occasions with the Pittsburgh Penguins, first as a player, then as a member of the Front Office.
While it helped that the Penguins had depth in the lineup, as well as a reliable option in the crease, when the going got tough, they could always rely on Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin to handle a game.
More than a decade after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time, planning against both players is nearly impossible. If an opposing team moves mountains to take Crosby away, it simply frees Malkin, and vice versa. It’s no coincidence that penguins have been so good for so long.
It’s a recipe for success, with Wild hoping they can start with Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center on Monday night. For the first time ever, Wilde enters the playoffs with the required firepower, and because of that, he sees himself as a Stanley Cup contender.
Never mind that they can go deeper than any team they play against going forward. Never mind they boast a dynamic pairing between the pipes in Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot.
At the end of the day, Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala have the biggest reason to believe in Wilde.
“You have some gamebreakers,” said NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, who played for Wilde at the end of his NHL career. “It takes a few seconds to puck on their stick and they can change everything in the league. That’s what Kirill Kaprizov has brought in since he arrived, and now we see Kevin Fiala doing the same.”
The statistics speak for themselves. As impressive as Kaprizov was in setting a new single-season franchise record with 47 goals, 61 assists and 108 points, Fiala was just behind him with 33 goals, 52 assists and 85 points. They play on different lines, forcing opposing teams to take their poison on any given night.
“That’s depth, isn’t it?” Guerin said. “It’s really important.”
Actually. The past past tense is a perfect example of this. No matter how good Wilde was in the mid-2010s, they were eliminated only twice in the first round. Then, when they reached the second round, they were chewed and spit on by the Chicago Blackhawks.
The difference in those playoff series? While Wilde had talented players like Zach Parris and Ryan Sutter, the Blackhawks had legitimate gamebreakers like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toes. It was a perfect game to compete with that type of firepower, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough.
Now Wilde has Kaprizov and in Fiala.
“I think at this point the opposing teams are going to have a game plan against Kirill Kaprizov,” Roop said. “And it’s not a knock for Kevin Fiala. It should really give Kevin Fiala some friendly matchups, and he’s been really hot. It’s an advantage that Wilde has right now. He has some players who are there. can take the pressure off each other.”
That sound familiar? It does this to Fleury, who, like Guerin, first noticed Crosby and Malkin’s influence on the Penguins during their Stanley Cup runs.
“Usually every team has a very good defensive line and will try to match them,” Fleury said. “To be able to have two lines that can do it aggressively is big for us.”
When asked why Kaprizov was so dangerous, Captain Jared Spurgeon pointed to his work ethic.
“He’s such a dynamic player and he makes everyone around him so much better,” Spurgeon said. “Sometimes we see there are some people on him and he comes out of the corner with it and makes a play. He’s done a great job for us.”
When asked why Fiala is so dangerous, linemate Matt Boldy credited his hockey spirit.
“I think his mind is a little off,” Boldy said. “He’s thinking two steps ahead of everyone else. He’s passing it and jumping in a seam. He sometimes sends it to me, and I’m like, ‘Okay, hopefully there’s Kevin Will go.’ And next thing I know he’s right through the seam. I don’t think he gets that much credit for how intelligent he is.”
Together, Kaprizov and Fiala have helped build Wilde into one of the most exciting teams in the league.
“Gone are the days of the wild’s suffocating defensive style,” said ESPN analyst Arda Ocal. “It’s right there in the rearview mirror. It’s like a launch point for a new era of the franchise. They’re so exciting to watch and I wonder if Kirill Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala had been on their stick with the game.” , so it would make for some very compelling theater in the playoffs.”
That said, both Kaprizov and Fiala understand that the next step is to make it to the playoffs. Both players were very quiet in the first round against the Vegas Golden Knights last season; Kaprizov finished with a few goals and an assist, while Fiala finished with only one goal and an assist.
Those struggles from last season helped Kaprizov realize what he needed to do this season.
“To be honest, it’s not about fancy plays,” said Kaprizov through a translator. “It’s all about the small plays. That’s what we need to focus on.”
That said, Fiala noted how important it is that they don’t overthink the game going into the playoffs.
“It’s still hockey at the end of the day,” Fiala said. “I’m just going to try to keep my mind as calm as possible, don’t worry too much.”
Perhaps the most important part of the equation is how Kaprizov and Fiala get along, both on and off the ice.
“They are good friends,” said Marcus Foligno. “It’s never like, ‘Okay, Kirill has so many points, so I need to get so many points that night. Nothing like that.”
It goes back to the team chemistry that Wilde has made himself proud of this season. While both players have experienced massive individual successes so far, Kaprizov and Fiala are 100 percent first and foremost about the team’s success. Like the rest of the wild.
“They don’t care who scores the goals or gets the assists,” Guerin said. “It’s all about winning.”
No doubt Wilde finally has some gamebreakers to help with.