LOS ANGELES – The leaders took charge, and if the Wild ends up making the playoffs, the team may look back to Friday as the day the men with the letters on their chest saved the season.
It actually started on the Wild team charter from St. Louis to Phoenix and continued on the airport tarmac next to the team bus in the wee hours of Friday morning.
Captain Mikko Koivu and assistants Zach Parise and Ryan Suter wanted to figure out some way to practice that day. The problem was one of the big “gets” the players received during last year’s lockout was four mandatory days off per month. The Wild still owed its players the remaining one, so the coaching staff explained that the players were not permitted to practice even though they wanted to.
That’s when Koivu, Parise and Suter decided that things were too tenuous to waste the day. The three captains, and interestingly, recently acquired veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, planned to meet for breakfast later that morning in the hotel courtyard to talk.
“We just weren’t happy with the way we were playing,” Suter said. “We’d get down a couple goals and we would give up. So I think [Friday] night we just wanted to get everyone on the same page and know that whoever’s in the lineup, we just have to go out and play for each other.”
During a relaxing day in which players unwound by lounging by the pool, going to the spa and playing ping pong in the sun, Koivu, Parise and Suter slowly but surely grabbed each player for one-on-ones.
What was said was different between each, but it was decided that later that night, Koivu, Parise and Suter would hold a players-only meeting at the hotel.
Everybody attended to “clear the air” and rally the troops, “or we were going to blow our season,” Suter said.
The next night, the Wild rallied from a goal down by scoring three times in a dominant third period to beat Phoenix 3-1. A loss would have enabled the Coyotes to overtake the Wild in the standings.
“The compete wasn’t that great [recently],” Suter said. “That’s not the way we were playing earlier this year, so we said something. We really responded. All the way through the lineup, we played really well. The past few games, we were turning pucks over, trying to be pretty fancy.
“So getting the puck deep wore down their defensemen. Guys were forechecking. It was just a good effort.”
It was impressive. At one point, the Coyotes went 24 minutes, 28 seconds without a shot, including the first 18:04 of the third period.
The Wild had 29 hits, including nine from Charlie Coyle and Stephane Veilleux. The Wild blocked 22 shots, three by skilled centerman Mikael Granlund. The Wild registered 30 shots, including 12 by Parise, Koivu and Kyle Brodziak, who was stellar defensively.
“It was a big talk and we said we had to turn this around, that we had to forget about the last few games,” said defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who rebounded from a couple of tough games with the winning goal and a plus-3.
After a second intermission during which players called upon themselves to “keep going, keep going, we’re going to break through,” Parise scored twice and was plus-2. Koivu assisted on both goals. Suter was plus-3.
“This time of the year your leaders really come to the forefront and take charge, and they’ve really done that,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Reuniting [Parise and Koivu on the same line], part of that is the idea that, ‘Hey, you guys are the guys to show us how it’s done.’ I thought they did right from the drop of the puck.
“I thought that they were on their game — battling, working, shooting, playing the right way. They did it all, and Suts was a horse on the back end, too.”
Brodziak said the Wild’s effort stemmed from that team meeting.
“I think it was something that needed to happen,” he said. “Obviously the pressure’s been building a little bit more lately, and I think it’s easy for that to be a distraction. The main focus of the meeting was to get our heads right, focus on individually what we need to do and we know we’ll be fine because we’ve proved it.
“We’ve proved throughout the year that when we’re all on the same page clicking we’re a really good team.”
There are two tough games left on this road trip — Los Angeles and Chicago — and seven games left in the season. One victory doesn’t mean the Wild’s secure. Inevitably, this playoff race will go down to the anxious end.
“It’s matter of keeping it going,” Brodziak said. “We have to find a way get the battle level, the urgency, the attention to details that we had [Saturday] and find a way to hit the repeat button and keep building off it because the more we keep doing it, the more confidence we’ll build as a group.”
Added Parise, “To win an important, big game standings-wise, we feel much better about ourselves going into L.A.”