ST. PAUL, Minn. — The stakes were simple: Win, and the Minnesota Wild were in the playoffs.
Nobody saw this coming.
The Wild played perhaps their most disappointing game of the season Friday night, falling 6-1 to the visiting Edmonton Oilers, who have already been eliminated from postseason contention. Minnesota now has just one more game — Saturday at Colorado — in which to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
After Friday’s lopsided loss, a short memory is a must heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale.
“We have no choice. We have a Game 7 tomorrow,” said forward Matt Cullen, whose team is 4-5-1 in its last 10 games. “This is where you show what you’re made of. This is what careers are made on. These are opportunities that you don’t get very often, and that’s absolutely the way we have to look at it.”
Given what was on the line Friday, the Wild were slow out of the gate. After Minnesota’s Zenon Konopka and Edmonton’s Mike Brown dropped their gloves for a fight immediately following the opening faceoff, Oilers defenseman Corey Potter scored 27 seconds into the game to put his team up 1-0 on its first shot of the game.
It was that kind of a night for Minnesota, as the Oilers scored early and often. Potter’s goal opened the floodgates against Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who was a perfect 17-0-0 against Edmonton in his career at Xcel Energy Center. That is, until Friday, when he gave up three goals on just five shots.
After Potter scored his second goal of the night with 1:22 remaining in the first period, coach Mike Yeo pulled Backstrom in favor of backup Josh Harding, who had not played with the Wild since Feb. 7. No matter who was in net, though, it didn’t seem to matter. Harding allowed three goals on 12 shots in the second and third periods.
Yeo said after the game that Backstrom will start in net for Saturday’s game in Colorado.
“I’ve got total confidence in Backy to play that game,” Yeo said. “I’ve got total confidence in our group to play that game tomorrow. This one hurts, but I’ve seen this group respond enough. I’ve seen our leadership enough to still feel confident.”
Minnesota had plenty of chances Friday but could never capitalize. Cullen missed back-to-back opportunities on passes from Devin Setoguchi in the first period. Shortly after his second chance was stopped by Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton went the other way to beat Backstrom for a 3-0 lead.
The Wild outshot the Oilers 39-17 but had just one goal to speak of. It came in the third period when captain Mikko Koivu finally got his team on the board — but it was far too little and far too late.
“Definitely a weird one,” Koivu said of the loss. “I can’t really explain what happened. We’re not going to throw any excuses or anything like that. A loss is a loss, and now we’ve just got to move forward. It’s still in our own hands. . . . We’ll just have to respond the way we’ve been doing all season long and play to the end and find a way to win a hockey game tomorrow night.”
The Wild have no choice but to put Friday’s embarrassment behind and look ahead to Saturday against an Avalanche team that is dead last in the Western Conference with just 37 points. Minnesota has already beaten Colorado three times this season and lost once in a shootout.
Those games don’t matter now. Neither does Friday’s. The only game the Wild care about is Saturday.
“I just want the focus on tomorrow,” Yeo said. “We can talk about this one until we’re blue in the face. Certainly, I don’t think it’s going to do us much good to worry about that.”
There is a scenario in which Minnesota can lose Saturday but still back into the playoffs. The Columbus Blue Jackets and the Wild both have 53 points entering Saturday’s games. If Columbus earns at least one point against Nashville and the Wild lose, the Blue Jackets are in and Minnesota misses the playoffs. If both teams lose, though, the Wild are in the playoffs due to a tiebreaker with Columbus.
Simply put, though, the Wild still control their own destiny. For the second straight night, it’ll be win and they’re in.
“You just forget about this and tomorrow’s a new day and we’re fighting for our lives now,” forward Kyle Brodziak said. “We’ve got to lay it all on the line, play as desperate as we possibly can tomorrow.”