The last time we saw the Minnesota Wild, they were a team starting to build momentum. In the final 11 games before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wild had won eight times and was making a charge toward one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
Although the Wild couldn't slide past several teams to claim the eighth spot, the stoppage forced the NHL to get creative and hold a best-of-five qualifying round where the 10th seeded Wild drew the seventh-seeded Vancouver Canucks.
The disparity in seeds means nothing however as the Wild and Canucks finished just one point apart in the West and should lead to a highly competitive series.
Who will start in net for the Wild?
As with any playoff series, goaltending will be paramount if the Wild want to go on a run. Entering the series with Vancouver, head coach Dean Evason must decide whether he wants to keep rolling with Alex Stalock or go back to Devan Dubnyk.
Based on regular-season performance, Stalock deserves the nod after going 20-11-4 with a 2.67 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. That includes a win over the Canucks on Feb. 2 when Stalock stopped 24-of-26 shots in a 4-2 victory.
Meanwhile, Dubnyk struggled throughout the season, going 12-15-2 with a 3.57 GAA and .890 save percentage. He also went 1-1 vs. Vancouver this season allowing three goals in both a 4-1 loss on Jan. 12 and a 4-3 shootout win on Feb. 19.
Those numbers seem to lean toward Stalock, but the break may have given Dubnyk to get back on track. Dubnyk stopped all 12 shots in Thursday's exhibition loss to Colorado, while Stalock allowed three goals on 17 shots in the 3-2 defeat.
The most recent performance could favor Dubnyk, but it could also involve a rotation of sorts if either Dubnyk or Stalock start to slip. With Jakob Markstrom in the opposite net, the Wild will have to figure it out quickly, especially in a best-of-five series.
Can Kevin Fiala pick up where he left off?
At the break there were few players in the NHL that were playing as well as Fiala. The 24-year-old was starting to put it all together before the shutdown, scoring 14 goals and 26 points over his final 18 games and looking like the scoring machine the Wild have needed since Marian Gaborik left town.
In recent playoff series, electric players from the opposing bench have sent the Wild to an early vacation. As much as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane tormented the Wild through the past decade, a game-changer of their own could have tilted things back in Minnesota's favor.
The good news is that Fiala matched up well with the Canucks this season, compiling two goals and an assist in three games with Vancouver. If he can duplicate that effort, the Wild offense should be able to feed off of him and make life difficult for Markstrom.
How will this series play out?
The most interesting thing about this entire tournament is the aspect of picking up a season after more than four months off. With that length about the same as a full offseason, the Wild (like every other team) had time to sit and think about their season before gearing up for a Stanley Cup run.
Much like Dubnyk had time to think about his game in the first half, other players such as Matthew Dumba (who had just six goals in 69 games coming off a torn pectoral muscle) could use the time to get healthy.
Also mix in that these playoffs will be played on a neutral site in Edmonton, meaning the Wild won't have the advantage of playing in front of a packed Xcel Energy Center, but the Canucks won't have their fans either, making this a neutral matchup.
With both teams so evenly matched, this should be a great series if the Wild can continue where they were before the break.