ST. PAUL-Even for a franchise accustomed to disappointment, in a sports market accustomed to having the football pulled away at the last second, the Minnesota Wild are straining credulity.
After finally gaining a toehold in their first-round playoff series with the Winnipeg Jets with a lopsided victory on Sunday, the Wild were hours from puck drop in a game they fully expected to win Tuesday when the good vibrations crashed on them like a snow cliff sliding off the roof in the warm April sun.
The Wild have played postseason games without their $98 million forward, and played them without their $98 million defenseman; Tuesday marked the first time since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year contracts on July 4, 2012, that they were without both when it was most important for them to be there.
On Tuesday afternoon, Parise, the Wild's best forward in this best-of-seven series, was diagnosed with a fractured sternum and declared by the club "week to week," which is shorthand for "maybe if we make the Stanley Cup Final." The problem of course being that without Parise, that is all but impossible.
Not only did Parise lead the Wild with three goals in the first three games of the series, he is exactly the player they need to beat the Jets, who finished second in the Western Conference, and entire NHL, with 114 regular-season points - a cagey forward with a nimble stick who thrives at the crease.
Without him, the pressure is on someone to take up the slack. Parise's immediate replacement, Tyler Ennis, has never been known for planting stakes at the blue paint, but there is no doubt general manager Chuck Fletcher anticipated such land grabs from big forwards Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle - and maybe even rookie Jordan Greenway - when he drafted them.
This is critical in any hockey game but especially in the playoffs, when every shot is challenged and series are won and lost on a goaltender losing sight of a puck.
When the Jets went up 1-0 with 28 seconds left in the first period of Game 4 on Tuesday, goaltender Devan Dubnyk was shielded by Jets winger Blake Wheeler, who was falling down at the time. For further reference, check out Paul Stastny using Joel Eriksson Ek before scoring the second goal of a 4-1 Jets victory in Game 2, or Parise's go-ahead power-play goal in the first period of Game 3.
Not coincidentally, it gave the Wild their first lead since Parise finished a two-on-one break with Mikael Granlund for a 3-2 lead in the third period of a 4-3 loss in Game 1.
Fresh after missing the first half of the season while recovering from back surgery, Parise had been playing maybe his best hockey since coming here from New Jersey, with 15 goals and three assists in his past 21 games. After struggling through injury and illness for the better part of the past three seasons, he was finally the Wild's best forward again.
But after deflecting a flying puck out of the Wild's zone with his glove on Sunday, he was sandwiched by Winnipeg defenseman Ben Chiarot and center Mark Schiefele at his blue line. He played the rest of the game, and even met reporters afterward, but now he's out and watching with Suter, who fractured his right ankle crashing into the boards in an April 2 loss at Dallas.
Usually when a fluke play decides a playoff series, it's on a goal - like when Brent Seabrook rimmed a dump pass in Game 6 of the 2014 playoffs and instead of circling the goal, it bounced off a stanchion right to Patrick Kane for the winning goal. The Wild have raised the bar of difficulty on that whole thing.
The series isn't over, of course, but if the Wild end up on the wrong side of this one, too - and out of the playoffs in the first round for the third straight year - they can point to another couple of fluke plays and wonder, "What if?"