With Minnesota’s hold on second place in the Western Conference and home ice for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs reasonably secure, the identity of the Wild’s opponent couldn’t be less clear as they begin the season’s final week hosting the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday afternoon.
The Wild and Avalanche each had a partial say in making that determination this weekend with Colorado hosting St. Louis on Friday night and the Wild, in a potential first-round preview, facing off against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday afternoon.
After snapping a four-game losing streak with a 5-1 win over Ottawa, Minnesota allowed two third-period goals 10 seconds apart in a 3-0 loss to the Predators and fell to 4-10-2 since it last won back-to-back games (Feb. 27-28).
“Yeah, we all know the standings and there’s a good chance that’s a team we’d be playing in the first round,” Wild winger Zach Parise said. “I don’t think we played a bad game, I don’t think it was a lack of motivation. It was close game, it was a tight game. Again, we just gotta score on chances.”
Wild goalie Alex Stalock made 33 saves in starting for the second straight game since he was recalled from Iowa (AHL) on Wednesday. No. 1 goaltender Devan Dubnyk will return to the Minnesota crease to face Colorado on Sunday.
“I thought Stalock, quite frankly, the Ottawa game wasn’t that difficult for him,” Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I knew this game would be difficult, and I wanted to see him under these conditions. He played really good.”
Nashville’s win not only clinched the Western Conference’s final playoff spot for the Predators, eliminating the Los Angeles Kings, it lifted Nashville into third place tie (91 points) in the Central Division with the Blues, who salvaged a point in a 2-1 shootout loss to Colorado on Friday.
The Blues, who have a game in hand on the Predators, host Nashville on Sunday in the last game for either team against a playoff-bound opponent.
The winner of that race heads to Minnesota for round one and the loser faces the Chicago Blackhawks, who clinched the Central Division title and best record in the Western Conference with the Wild’s loss on Saturday.
Colorado’s win on Friday snapped a seven-game skid for the Avalanche (21-53-3), who last made the postseason in 2014 and have played the spoiler role five of the last six seasons.
Colorado trailed 1-0 after one on a Ryan Reaves goal and was outshot 13-5, but the Avalanche bounced back with 25-10 shots advantage in the second and third periods.
“A tough first, but it was fun to dominate a team for the last 40 minutes, and they’re a great team,” said Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon, who scored the shootout winner. “Obviously, it’s been a tough year, but that was a lot of fun.”
The game marked the NHL debut for Colorado center Tyson Jost, who left the University of North Dakota after one season to sign a three-year, entry-level contract with the Avalanche on Wednesday.
Colorado’s 2016 first-round pick finished with two shots, one hit, one takeaway and one blocked shot in 13:25 of ice time. He was 4 of 10 on faceoffs.
“Amazing, a dream come true,” Jost said of his debut. “I know it’s cliche, but it really was and something I’m going to remember for a long, long time and having my family come down and be in the crowd, that’s pretty special.”
Colorado coach Jared Bednar even gave Jost an opportunity in the shootout, but the rookie was denied by Blues goalie Jake Allen.
“We were talking on the bench,” Bednar told the Denver Post. “We have a number of options now and I wanted to put him in a situation there, our fans want to see it, we want to see it.”
The Wild will face a much different Avalanche roster since the teams last met on Dec. 20, a 2-0 Minnesota win for the eighth of what would ultimately become a 12-game winning streak.
Since March 1 alone, Colorado has signed Jost, added right winger Sven Andrighetto via trade and recalled left winger J.T. Compher and defenseman Anton Lindholm from San Antonio (AHL).
Compher scored his third career goal in his 16th game on Friday and Lindholm led the Avalanche with five hits against the Blues.
Sunday’s game is the first of two meetings in five days between the Wild and Avalanche as Minnesota visits Colorado on Thursday.
The Wild face two more non-playoff teams in their last four games in Carolina and Arizona.
“We can’t take anybody lightly,” Boudreau said. “They’re coming in off a win over St. Louis, so they’re pretty hungry and pretty excited, and we’ve got to come to play.
“We have four games left. We’ve got to play them all hard and then hopefully we can be consistent come two weeks from now.”