Dave Campbell / Associated Press, Published April 24 2013
Minnesota nearing playoff berth
Kings defenseman Slava Voynov signaled to a teammate on the other side he was open, corralled a perfect through-the-slot pass at the far edge of the right circle and wound up for the potential tying shot. Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom lunged to block the puck with the middle of his right leg and smothered it in the crease with help from defenseman Ryan Suter with 11 seconds left.
Almost everyone in the arena exhaled.
“I thought Backy was very good tonight, making key saves at key times,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said after the 2-1 win on Tuesday that tightened his team’s grip on seventh place in the Western Conference. “I thought he had a sense of control and kind of an air of confidence about him tonight, which is obviously extremely important. No matter how hard you play, you can’t play perfect.”
The Wild know that well.
They lost eight of their first 11 games in April, including a couple at home when they dominated most of the night only to lose a critical contest. This time, they were able to match their intensity with the goals that are all that matter.
“You just have to stick with it. We talked before: There’s going to be ups and downs,” captain Mikko Koivu said.
With 53 points, the Wild are three points behind sixth-place St. Louis and two points ahead of eighth-place Columbus. Ninth-place Detroit took 50 points into Wednesday’s game against Los Angeles. After that, the Blues, Wild, Blue Jackets and Red Wings each have two games remaining over the final three days of the regular season.
Minnesota would win a tiebreaker with Columbus because of more non-shootout victories, 21 to 17. Detroit had 19, before hosting the Kings. The Wild only need to beat either Edmonton at home on Friday or win at Colorado on Saturday to secure a place in the playoffs.
They can clinch a spot even before they play again, if the Blue Jackets lose at Dallas today.
After signing Suter and Zach Parise to those mega contracts last summer, this lockout-shortened season took on a playoffs-or-bust vibe. In January and March, the Wild’s first postseason appearance since 2008 looked like a mere formality. In February and April, not so much.
They lost 6-1 at San Jose last Thursday and 4-1 at home to Calgary on Sunday, heightening the tension and pressure to the point where a team-wide meeting was held before Monday’s practice. The clear-the-air session apparently did some good.
“Well, right now it looks pretty good, right?” Koivu said. “But we all know how you have to play the game. It’s just every game we’re trying to do the same things that we’re supposed to do, and a lot of that is mental right now getting toward the end of the season. Your mind has to be in it each and every shift. It’s not about effort. It’s about making the right plays.”