With five players heading to the Olympics and scores of others heading to the Caribbean, Mexico and other fun places in the sun, Wild coach Mike Yeo challenged his players not to look past the Nashville Predators.
After the game — not before, Yeo said, Wild players could turn their brains off, forget about hockey and think about the beach.
It wasn’t easy, but against a scrappy Predators team that had been off since Saturday, the Wild soared into the Olympic break with a 3-2 overtime victory Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center.
Nino Niederreiter is one of the five who won’t be off the next 20 days. He will represent his native Switzerland in his first Olympics. He left on a good note, scoring his first career overtime winner for his second goal in two victories to help the Wild, 11-4-2 in its past 17, gain a seven-point cushion in the wild-card race.
“So much excitement going on to have a chance to represent your country, but at the same time, we wanted to finish first here,” said Niederreiter, 21. “I can move on and I’m very happy the way it worked out.”
Niederreiter was the recipient of two “fantastic defensive plays” by Jared Spurgeon and Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak backhanded the puck into the neutral zone, Niederreiter caught up to it, built some speed and turned inside on his Olympic roommate and close friend, Roman Josi.
Niederreiter sniped a bullet from inside the right circle through Josi’s legs and into the top far corner of the net.
“It feels great I got the goal against him,” Niederreiter said kiddingly about Josi. “I might mention it. I don’t think he’ll be happy about it. We needed those points. It felt like a playoff game out there.”
Player after Wild player said the same thing. Players wore their road whites and in a play on the cold weather lately, the team tabbed it the “polar vortex” as fans got replica white jersey T-shirts.
“I asked them for a playoff type mentality coming into the game,” Yeo said. “That’s a lot to ask for in February when you’re about to go on a long break, but they brought it.”
The Wild took a 1-0 lead at 4:05 of the first period when Niederreiter stole a puck from Michael Del Zotto and fed Jonas Brodin for his eighth goal past goalie Carter Hutton, who made 33 saves.
But 1:45 later, Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, making his 12th consecutive start, dropped Craig Smith’s harmless-looking shot from the blue line. Smith found it in the blue paint for a tap-in, tying goal.
“They played a heck of a game in front of me,” Kuemper said of his teammates. “The first goal wasn’t a good one, but it didn’t faze them.”
Eight minutes later, the Wild regained its lead when Zach Parise took Dany Heatley’s pass and beat Hutton on a fluttering shot for his 19th goal and 10th on the power play.
The Wild outshot the Predators 36-18 for the game and 27-10 the final two periods and overtime, but Smith tied the score in the second period with a redirection.
“They really make you work for everything,” Parise said. “It’s not easy to play against them.”
But Niederreiter saved the day.
On Sunday, Niederreiter, Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikael Granlund and possibly Mikko Koivu will fly via charter to Sochi for the Olympics. The Wild’s non-Olympians will go their separate ways.
Players have weighed in and been given off-ice conditioning programs. But as Yeo promised, they can clear their heads and do nothing the next four days before prepping for a busy final 23-game grind.
Players will regroup in Edina for practice on Feb. 19 with the schedule resuming Feb. 27 in Edmonton.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Yeo said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good position, but there’s a lot of work to do here still.”