The decision by Zach Parise to settle with his home-state team three summers ago was carefully reached, in step with close friend Ryan Suter.
Ultimately, the move was not a difficult one. Joining the Wild felt right to Parise from the start, and never did his place in Minnesota make more sense than this year when his dad, Jean-Paul, died after a long bout with lung cancer.
Playing in a familiar environment has been enjoyable for Parise, whose wife gave birth to twins last year. The progression of the Wild from a just-barely playoff team in 2013 to legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season has been a critical piece of the experience, too. The extra time spent with his ailing father made possible by proximity was an unforeseen and priceless benefit.
”There’s not a time that I come to the rink or throughout the day when he’s not,” Parise said. ”I’m always thinking about him.”
Suter’s father, coincidentally, died of a heart attack on Sept. 9. With heavy hearts, the two sons have done their dads proud this season.
The Wild advanced to the Western Conference semifinals for a rematch with Chicago by beating the St. Louis Blues in six games. Parise led the Wild with three goals and four assists in the series, including a pair of well-timed pucks in the net in the clincher on Sunday. With 22 points in 24 playoff games with the Wild, Parise matched Marian Gaborik for first place on the franchise’s career postseason list. Gaborik played in 29 playoff games with the team.
The NHL finally announced the second-round schedule Tuesday, slotting the Wild for Game 1 against the Blackhawks on Friday night.
Parise has been to the playoffs nine times in his career, six with New Jersey, but the only time he’s advanced past the conference semifinals was in 2012 when the Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals.
The following month, Parise signed a 13-year, $98 million contract with the Wild, identical to Suter’s, and has been their most indispensable player since.
”If you’re going to use one word, it’s `competitor,”’ Wild coach Mike Yeo said. ”He wants to win. There’s nothing more important to him. If it means blocking a shot or scoring a goal, he’ll choose the one that’s going to help you win the game.”
The Wild’s first line of Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville has thrived, fueled by the relentlessness with which Parise has always played. In 74 games this season, Parise had 33 goals, his most since 2009-10 and the third-highest total of his career.
At age 30, he has sure appeared still in his prime.
”The way he works, the way he hounds pucks, the way he makes plays, everybody would love to play with him,” Granlund said, adding: ”It’s great to have guys like that on your team. You really realize that you’ve got to work, too, and he’s shown that example all the time, every game, every shift.”
Parise has been relatively quiet against the Blackhawks, sometimes limited by their checking line. In 19 career regular-season games against them, he has a modest three goals and four assists. In 11 playoff games, Parise has two goals and three assists. The Blackhawks, though, will be well aware of when and where he’s on the ice.
”Aside from his skill and his ability, he doesn’t take a shift off. He’s always trying to create. He’s always going to the net. He’s always picking up some ugly rebounds. He’s got a great stick on the net. He’s good on the power play,” Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews said. ”And I think for the most part he makes the players around him better. I think that’s what makes him one of the top playoff performers and the type of guy who can really feed energy to his team.”
The Wild were closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than they were to the playoff cut at their low point this winter. Their defensemen were ravaged by a case of the mumps that spread around the first half of the season.
Parise’s father, a standout for the Minnesota North Stars from 1967-74, died on Jan. 7 at age 73. One week later, with the Wild at 18-19-5, they traded for goalie Devan Dubnyk. Their season immediately turned around, with a 28-9-3 record after the deal.
”Everything came together at the same time. And that’s when we took off,” Parise said.