MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — Zach Parise stepped off the ice at the St. Thomas Ice Arena on Saturday and calmly declared the Minnesota Wild are ready for their critical final week of the season.
Parise is well accustomed to being in this spot, in playoff contention heading into the final week of the season. In his seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Parise’s teams only missed the playoffs once, the only occasion coming in 2010-11 when Parise was limited to 13 games because of injury.
After four seasons of missing the playoffs, Minnesota is in playoff position with just four games left in the season beginning Sunday night at home against the Calgary Flames. The Wild (24-17-3, 51 points) sit in seventh place in the Western Conference heading into Saturday’s games, two points ahead of eighth-place Columbus.
“We’re in a spot where if we play well right now, we’ll get rewarded and we’ll get where we want to be,” Parise said, later adding: “You always want to be playing your best hockey going into the playoffs and I think now it’s a good challenge for us to make sure that we are playing well going into the postseason and we have to play well now to get into the postseason, so it’s kind of in our hands.”
Three of Minnesota’s final four games are at home and three are against non-playoff teams. The Wild, who haven’t beaten a team ahead of them in the standings since March 30, face Calgary (40 points), the Los Angeles Kings (55), Edmonton Oilers (41) at home and finish the season at the Colorado Avalanche (35).
Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said he’s not concerned about the team getting too comfortable returning home for three of the final four games.
“It would be really hard to believe we could be too comfortable right now,” Yeo said. “The urgency level should be very high, for sure. But having said that, we should also approach these games with a feeling of confidence, too. The key is to have that urgency, but not be uptight. We kind of say, confident but not complacent, too. You have to walk that line. As long as we put our heads in the right way and prepare the right way then we should feel good.”
The Wild are four points ahead of ninth place (Detroit and Dallas) heading into Saturday’s games. They are also four points behind the Vancouver Canucks for the Northwest Division lead.
Even so close to the end, Minnesota is cautioning itself against looking beyond Sunday’s game.
“I think that’s a danger you have to be a little bit careful with,” center Matt Cullen said. “It’s hard not to, of course. You hear a lot about it and everybody’s excited about the possibility of being in the playoffs. But for us to get there, we’re going to have to take care of the business in front of us and it’s important that we do that and keep our focus on tomorrow, and tomorrow only. And then we deal with the next game. It’s important to learn how to do that anyways. That’s how you have to approach the playoffs.”
The Wild haven’t made the playoffs since 2007-08 and many of the current players haven’t faced the pressure of playing with the postseason on the line. Parise and Cullen are two of the few with playoff experience, with both having won the Stanley Cup before coming to Minnesota.
Only Niklas Backstrom, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Mikko Koivu and Josh Harding remain from the last Wild playoff team.
Yeo doesn’t worry about the inexperience dealing with playoff intensity.
“We’ve got winners,” Yeo said. “Even though guys have been in the lineup here that unfortunately haven’t experienced a lot of playing in these types of games at this time of year, we’ve got guys that go out and do winning things, and do things that winners do. And that’s what matters. What also helps is certainly we do have some guys that have that experience. There’s a lot of reason for optimism. Obviously we got work to do here, but we should be excited about it.”