Wild heading to postseason, clinch back-to-back playoff berths
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The initial news came in anticlimactic fashion.
But the specifics were delivered along with ear-shattering zeal, the kind seen and heard in NHL venues annually starting in mid-April.
And after the Wild’s riveting, 4-3 shootout victory over the hottest team in hockey Tuesday night, the Xcel Energy Center will help host the postseason party for a second year in a row. The win, coupled with Phoenix’s defeat at Columbus, locks up the Western Conference’s top Wild Card slot and seventh playoff seed for Minnesota.
As he walked out of the home dressing room ahead of the third period against Boston, Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter and his teammates were notified the Blue Jackets had rallied and won in overtime, guaranteeing the Wild its fifth all-time postseason berth. The announcement was confirmed over the arena’s public address system, drawing a chorus of approval from 18,893 fans despite their team trailing 3-2 at that point.
It wouldn’t be the evening’s most pronounced extolment, though.
See, for a team that backed its way into the postseason last year via a win on the regular season’s final day, this wasn’t enough. "Yeosie (coach Mike Yeo) told us after the second that we’re in the playoffs," Suter said. "But I think, for us, it was not about just being in it. It was being in on our own terms."
So the NHL’s minutes leader and company did what they’ve done all season. They found a way.
This time, it came via Suter’s goal with 1:05 remaining in regulation. After Minnesota kept Boston’s Patrice Bergeron from firing into an empty net, Jason Pominville found Suter with a perfect pass from the right corner, and the defenseman blasted it home for just his second goal since Jan. 18.
That’s when the playoff-type ambience really began reverberating around the pucks palace on Kellogg Boulevard.
Suter’s marker gave the Wild (42-26-12) all kinds of momentum heading into overtime. Bruins goalie Tuuka Rask made six masterful saves to send the contest to a shootout but couldn’t figure out Mikko Koivu’s patented deke-and-backhand move midway through it.
"I was trying to figure out what he was going to do and couldn’t remember," Raask said when asked if he’d seen the ninth-year veteran try the same shot before. "I remembered afterward."
Ilya Bryzgalov usurped Rask’s extra-session brilliance at the other end of the ice, stopping Reilly Smith and Brad Marchand’s wrist shots and watching Bergeron’s howitzer from the slot sail wide of the net.
As soon as the quirky, trade-deadline-acquired goalie kicked aside Marchand’s attempt with his right pad, the place erupted. The fervor hadn’t worn down much by the time reporters were allowed in the Wild locker room — someone had to turn down an uncensored version of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ "Thrift Shop" so players could answer questions.
"It’s all about where you want to be," beamed Pominville, who had two first-period goals to go with his and Koivu’s assists on Suter’s goal. "It’s what you’ve played for throughout the season. We’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had injuries, we’ve had goalies get hurt, a lot of different guys in the lineup. I think we did a good job staying even-keeled, not getting frustrated when times were tough, and it paid off."
Said Yeo: "The message was, ‘Let’s not wait for anything. Let’s not back our way into anything. Let’s not come through the back door. Let’s go charging through the front door.’"
A feel-good night at the X came after a grueling slip-and-slide of a season. Injuries plagued the roster at different times; even Tuesday, the Wild were without the services of scoring threat Mikael Granlund. They don’t keep league goal judges busy, ranking 26th in the league in scoring. With Nicklas Backstrom’s chronic injuries and Josh Harding’s battle with multiple sclerosis, Yeo has started seven different goalies this season — tied with Buffalo for second-most in the NHL.
And with Minnesota enduring four losing skids of three or more games before the calendar read 2014, the third-year coach’s job appeared in jeopardy at times.
But here he is, and here his team is, waiting to see if it’ll draw St. Louis or Anaheim in the playoffs’ opening round.
The Wild earned that opportunity "the right way," Pominville said — and against the red-hot Bruins (53-18-8), who have lost in regulation once in their past 20 games and carry the league’s best record.
"I think it’s a sign of a good team when you get in the right way against the best team in the NHL right now," Pominville said. "We found a way to come back in the game and win it in a shootout. You can’t ask for anything better."
Boston coach Claude Julien was just as complimentary. Minnesota — 22-9-7 since New Year’s Day — played its third game in four nights but managed to snag its fifth win in its past six outings.
"To me, I was really impressed with the effort, especially in the third period," Julien said. "Third game in four nights, and there’s some desperation there, and you want to clinch. You find that energy somewhere and I thought there was some pretty good energy in the third period."
Said Bryzgalov, who had a scoreless streak snapped at 145:15 but improved to 24-32 in shootouts: "We just want to win the game, you know? We’re not thinking about ‘Oh, we made the playoffs, there’s no reason to play.’ No; everybody wants to win here. Our goal now is to play hard and win the games."
That may be part of the equation. But Yeo and his staff are now faced with the task of balancing rest with remaining sharp.
Minnesota has the day off Wednesday before hosting St. Louis on Thursday and Nashville on Sunday to close the regular season. The Wild can’t move up any higher in the standings, and falling to the Blues would actually help ensure Minnesota doesn’t meet them in the first round.
The Wild are 0-4 against the current Western Conference leaders this season and has been outscored 12-4 in regulation during those games.
But Tuesday night wasn’t the time for talking tanking or strategy. It was an occasion for celebration, as Minnesota reached the postseason in consecutive years for the second time in the franchise’s short, modest history.
"You dream of lifting that cup over your head, and to get a chance at that, you never know how many chances you’re gonna get," said winger Matt Moulson, who assisted on Pominville’s second goal, "so you’ve got to take advantage of them, and this is an exciting time."
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter