CHICAGO – Zach Parise had just finished a phone interview with a national radio host, slumped into a stall and got a jubilant fist bump from Craig Leipold.
The Wild leading scorer smiled and said, “You called it.”
Did the Wild owner really call Tuesday’s playoff-clinching, 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks?
“Well, he actually said, ‘You guys better get it done!’ I don’t know if that’s calling it or just threatening us,” Parise said, laughing, after the Wild won an 11th consecutive road game — one from tying the NHL record set by the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings.
Hey, Leipold had a right to be demanding. The Wild, in beginning a season-ending three-game road trip, was in another win-and-in scenario following three failures to get business done at home.
Three months ago, the Wild was in this same United Center locker room near the season’s low point. It had lost 11 of 13 games, it couldn’t get a save, folks were calling for Mike Yeo’s job. Ryan Suter said neither he nor Parise had ever experienced such losing.
“Every day’s a bad day right now,” Suter said that night.
Three days later, the Wild acquired lifeline Devan Dubnyk, the team made an improbable second-half about-face and here it was on the verge of the playoffs before fears of a collapse emerged.
Leipold wanted his players to finish what they started.
“And you can quote me on that,” Leipold said.
The Wild listened to its boss, waited out the Blackhawks for 49 ½ minutes before Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, playing for the first time since breaking a collarbone Feb. 9, broke open a scoreless game.
Dubnyk made 32 saves and improved to 15-1-1 on the road with a 1.42 goals-against average and .953 save percentage and 5-0-1 in his past six second games of back-to-back situations with a 1.14 GAA and .968 save percentage.
“What a great story, the fact that he comes in here and plays that game tonight, what he’s done for us,” Yeo said.
There were almost a dozen scenarios, some more complicated than others, that could have clinched the Wild a playoff spot. That’s how it works in a league where there are shootouts, regulation/overtime tiebreakers and three-point games.
But the Wild could seal the deal itself by winning in regulation or overtime.
“I don’t think there’s one guy in the room that wanted to wait another game to clinch and have one more question and have one more scenario,” Dubnyk said. “We wanted to get it out of the way tonight.”
Predictably, it was a nail-biter. The Wild played a strong game defensively, and a gritty one. Suter won a goal-saving puck battle with Andrew Shaw five minutes before the first goal. The Wild blocked 20 shots, including clutch ones by Granlund and Nino Niederreiter to stop Blackhawks scoring chances.
The Niederreiter one came on the shift before Granlund converted Parise’s rebound after a nice Jason Pominville setup. Less than four minutes later, Chris Stewart feathered a pass for Zucker, who made a great cut to lose David Rundblad.
With Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford pulled for an extra attacker, Bryan Bickell ruined Dubnyk’s bid for a second consecutive shutout against Chicago by scoring with 1:48 left, but the Wild hung on. Afterward, there was no crazy storming of the ice, no noisy locker-room celebration.
“We’re business,” Dubnyk joked.
Seriously though, this will be the Wild’s third consecutive postseason appearance. The Wild is past the stage where simply getting in is good enough.
“We want to do something special this year,” Dubnyk said.
Added Yeo, “This was only one step. We have bigger plans. I’m very, very proud of our guys for what they overcame, the way that everyone dug in together.
“A little bit of stress here the last week, a little bit of tension, but the fact that we won 11 straight road games to get ourselves in the playoffs, I mean, that’s unbelievable.”
Tuesday was National Beer Day.
“So I’ll make sure I honor that on the plane ride to Nashville,” Yeo said, smiling.