Despite a tough closing stretch, a pair of key wins last week strengthened the Minnesota Wild's playoff chances significantly.
Minnesota hasn't played Chicago since a 2-1 home win on Jan. 23, and Thursday's matchup in Chicago could have playoff implications.
Marilyn Indahl / USA TODAY Sports
By Brian Hall
A week ago, the Minnesota Wild left town for a four-game road trip having lost two of three games and seeing their playoff wild-card lead dwindling.
Ahead was a daunting stretch of road games against three of the top six teams in the Western Conference, starting at Western-leading St. Louis, and one game against one of the team's chasing Minnesota, the Phoenix Coyotes.
A week later, the Wild's playoff chances have strengthened heading into the final game of the road trip Thursday night at Chicago.
It's funny what two big wins will do for the outlook in the tight playoff race.
Minnesota pulled off a pair of third-period, come-from-behind regulation wins at Phoenix and Los Angeles the past two games and own a four-point edge over the Coyotes and Dallas Stars for the seventh in the West with six games remaining.
After playing on the road against the Blackhawks -- who could be without both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane due to injuries -- on Thursday â the Wild play four of their final five games at home.
The final stretch isn't easy with home games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and the Blues (three of the six teams in the NHL with at least 100 points heading into Wednesday night), but Minnesota is closing in on its second straight playoff appearance.
According to the website, www.sportsclubstats.com, the Wild have a 91.73 percent chance of making the playoffs heading into Wednesday night.
Gaining two regulation road wins, including against Phoenix, proved critical.
Minnesota now holds a four-point lead and the tiebreaker over the Coyotes, who also have six games left. Phoenix's schedule includes three home games and four games against possible playoff teams in Los Angeles, Columbus, San Jose and Dallas.
The Kings hold two advantages against the Wild. Los Angeles has a game in hand this season with seven games left and holds the tiebreaker against Minnesota. The Kings (22-14-3 at home) host Phoenix on Wednesday night and could deal the Coyotes a potentially-damaging loss.
Los Angeles' schedule only includes two more home games though. The Kings also face San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton on the road before finishing at home against Anaheim.
According to www.sportsclubstats.com, eight points in the final six games would outright clinch a playoff berth for the Wild, no matter what the other teams are able to accomplish.
The past week -- and a couple of wins -- have made a big difference for Minnesota.