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Five reasons to believe in the Wild

USA TODAY Sports Minnesota right wing Nino Niederreiter, center, celebrates with teammates Kyle Brodziak, left, and Dany Heatley following his game-winning goal in overtime against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wedesday at Pepsi Center in Denver.

By Chad Graff

St. Paul Pioneer Press

CHICAGO — The Minnesota Wild were overmatched in their first-round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks last year, getting knocked out in five games.

The Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Wild were left to question whether they were on the right trak.

Well, if their Game 7 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday in Denver is any indication, they are. And they seem primed to put up a much better fight against the Blackhawks when the teams open their second-round series tonight in Chicago.

Here are five reasons why things could go differently this time around:

1. Scoring depth, starting with top line

The Wild’s top line produced just one point — a Zach Parise goal — in last year’s series against the Blackhawks, and Minnesota finished with an anemic seven goals in five games. Against the Avs, Parise had seven goals and three assists, and the top line was good for 21 points. More telling: The Wild got scoring from four different lines and three defensemen — 13 players in all.

2. Confidence

The Wild couldn’t keep up with the Blackhawks a year ago, scratching out just one hard-earned overtime win in the playoffs. But this year, they were 3-1-1 vs. Chicago during the regular season. And after limping in the playoffs in 2013, they’ve got a head of steam this time, winning six of their final eight regular-season games and then knocking off the Avs for their first playoff series victory in 11 years. “It is definitely a different team,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the Wild.

3. Emergence of young stars

The Wild’s four youngest forwards — Nino Niederreiter (age 21), Mikael Granlund (22), Charlie Coyle (22) and Erik Haula (23) — also were four of their best vs. the Avs, scoring the winning goals in Games 3 and 7. Only Coyle was on last year’s playoff roster, and he struggled in his debut; a minus-4 vs. the Blackhawks, he had three goals and five points vs. the Avs. The Wild are a whole new team with these guys — and should be for years to come.

4. Experience

Speaking of youth, half of the Wild players opened the Blackhawks series last year making their NHL playoff debuts, and it showed. Only three of the 20 players who dressed for Game 1 against the Avs were new to the playoffs. Granlund, a playoff rookie, proved to be a quick study, single-handedly turning the series around with the winning goal in overtime of a 1-0 victory in Game 3.

5. Not the same Blackhawks

As long as the Blackhawks have Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane, they will be one of the best teams in the NHL. But after being so dominant last year — finishing 36-7-5 to lead all teams in the regular season and then winning the Stanley Cup — things haven’t come so easily this year. Chicago finished third in the Central division, then had to rally from a 2-0 deficit to put away the Blues in the first round. And remember this: No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Red Wings in 1997-98.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.