The Minnesota Wild defeated the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 Saturday night to claim the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Wild received no help from the other teams fighting for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference. The Detroit Red Wings beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 to finish the regular season with 56 points one ahead of the Wild, claime the 7th seed. The Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Nashville Predators 3-1 for a season total 55 points but end up in 9th place on tie breakers with Minnesota. It came down to a must win situation for the Wild and they stepped up and did it. Zach Parise scored the first goal of the game at the 6:42 mark of the opening period and from there the Wild never trailed. Colorado tied the game on a goal by Ryan O’Reilly late in the 1st, the only goal Niklas Backstrom would give up all night. The Avalanche put 30 shots on goal but Backstrom made several key saves, especially in the 3rd period to preserve a fragile 2-1 lead. Pierre-Marc Bouchard added an empty net goal with 3.4 seconds to play to put the icing on the playoff cake for the Wild. Minnesota Head coach Mike Yeo said he had no doubts as to the nights result saying, “I was very confident going into today. Knowing the group that we have, knowing the leadership we have and seeing the way we’ve responded in the past.” He also said that Friday night’s home loss didn’t feel good, “Last night felt like a good swift kick to a (pause) vulnerable spot on your body.” Yeo also said that tonight’s accomplishment was not the goal for the team saying, “Let’s make it clear here. We’re not done. We’re just not going to sit here on cloud nine and say this is a huge accomplishment. This is a step.”
The Wild came out fast in the first period, quickly building a 9-0 lead in shots and breaking through with the games first goal. Parise scored with the assists going to Koivu and Charlie Coyle. That top line for Minnesota will be crucial to any success against the Black Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Minnesota defense also elevated their game holding the Avalanche without a shot on goal until midway through the opening period and just 4 in the opening 20 minutes. The Wild played a disciplined game throughout and refused to join in any extra curricular activities the Avalanche tried to get them off their game. With the score tied heading into the 2nd period Colorado picked up the pace, out shooting the wild heavily over the first 10 minutes of the period. The Minnesota bend but not break defense held on and the 2nd power play unit cashed in with a Devin Setoguchi slap shot at the 12:20 mark. That goal put the Wild ahead to stay. Minnesota almost trailed near the midway point of the period when Chuck Kobasew appeared to score on a deflection off his skate. A review in Toronto determined that Kobasew kicked the puck past Backstrom so no goal much to the chagrin of the Avalanche fans in attendance at the Pepsi Center. The score would remain 2-1 for the remainder of the second period and 19:56 of the 3rd period. The Wild finally got the much needed insurance goal on Bouchard’s tap in on the empty Colorado net with just under 4 seconds to play, allowing Wild fans the world over to finally exhale as their team had done it, making the playoffs for the first time in 5 seasons. Minnesota had a golden opportunity to extend their lead midway through the 3rd when Patrick Bordeleau went to the box for a roughing call on Jason Zucker, he was joined by PA Parenteau 1:05 later when the Avalanche bench was issued a minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. I’d love to know what was said by Colorado that caused the referee to turn away from a Wild rush into the offensive zone and make that call. It’s my guess some player requested the official perform an anatomically impossible act upon himself. Whatever it was it gave Minnesota 55 seconds of 5 on 3 advantage during which the Wild were unable to put one past Semyon Varlamov. Minnesota had a total of 3 minutes of man advantage during that sequence but were unable to extend their lead. The Wild were 1 for 3 on the power play and are now just 2 for 13 over the last few games of the regular season. Going forward into the playoffs the Minnesota special teams are going to have to step up and produce at a higher level if they are to have a chance against a powerhouse Chicago squad.
Niklas Backstrom picked up his 24th win of the regular season tying him with Niemi of the San Jose Sharks and Lundqvist of the New York Rangers for 1st in the NHL. Backstrom is also now 22-3-4 in games after ones in which he has been pulled. He kept the Wild in the game making several big saves throughout the night to seal the win and a playoff spot for his team. Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter continues to be an iron man, playing 32:54 of the game, the biggest ice time total of his career. He was also a +2 on the night and the Wild improved to 15-1-1 on the season when he’s in the plus category. After the action Suter said of last night’s loss and tonight’s game, ”We always seem to make it harder than we need to. You want to go into the playoffs playing well tonight we all stepped up and played well.” Suter’s defensive partner, Calder Trophy candidate Jonas Brodin skated 24:45 and had an even +/- rating for the game. Overall the Wild defense was very solid, clearing Avalanche players away from the front of the net and forcing many Colorado shots to come from the perimeter.
The Wild’s offense generated 33 shots on goal tonight scoring three times. Zach Parise scored his team leading 18th goal of the year and in post game comments said it’s been a tough road to the playoffs, ”We stumbled a couple of times in the past week or two and put ourselves in a tough spot. Luckily we didn’t have to rely on someone else losing. We were able to do it ourselves. Now we’re in. We shouldn’t be satisfied with getting in, now we want to play well.” He’s right, the Wild will need to use all of their offensive weapons if they hope to challenge the President’s Trophy winning Blackhawks. The reunited line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Jason Zucker looked quick all night long, totaling 11 shots on goal with Setoguchi scoring the eventual game winner on the power play. That group was also a combined +1 for the game. Cullen put it simply after the game saying, “It was an awfully big win for us. We felt sick about last nights game.” In the face off circle Cullen and Konopka won 75% of their draws while Captain Koivu won 41%. Overall winning face offs in the offensive zone helped the Wild increase puck possession time especially on the power play. All in all it was a satisfying victory for the Wild and their fans. The playoff drought has been broken. Minnesota now has a monumental task in front of them, called beating the Chicago Blackhawks. Preparation starts tomorrow with practice, film time and game prep. The exact playoff schedule will also be released tomorrow. One thing for sure is the Wild will start out on the road, with two games at the United Center. Congratulation guys, you won when it counted the most this season. Enjoy the moment because tomorrow the slate is wiped clean and everybody is back to zero wins. GonePuckWild.com will be with you NHL hockey fans every step of the way through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ll be back with a preview of game one of the Chicago vs Minnesota playoff series. Until then this is Wild Game Day Correspondent Scott Drain shouting from the roof tops, “LET”S GO WILD, BEAT THE ‘HAWKS!!”