There were 12 minutes left in the second intermission Tuesday night. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” rang out of Xcel Energy Center’s loudspeakers. Fans were buying concessions, using restrooms, chatting away as they waited for players to file back out for the third period.
The Wild had just clinched a playoff berth and nobody seemed to notice.
That’s because the scoreboard read, “Boston Bruins 3, Wild 2.” The Wild advanced courtesy of a Columbus overtime victory over Phoenix.
In the locker room though, coach Mike Yeo told his players their playoff destiny was set. But he made his final message clear: “Let’s not come through the back door, let’s go charging through the front door.”
The Wild did just that. Playing for the second time in two nights, playing against a rested Stanley Cup contender, the Wild pushed, prodded and pressured its way to a come-from-behind 4-3 shootout victory.
“You don’t want to back in. You want to win yourself in,” Zach Parise said after the Wild locked up the top wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference. Next week, Minnesota will meet the second seed, which will be Anaheim, slumping St. Louis (Thursday’s opponent), Colorado or San Jose.
Defenseman Ryan Suter scored the tying goal with 65 seconds left. Captain Mikko Koivu, who had two assists, three takeaways and won 18 of 27 faceoffs, scored his 36th career shootout goal, and Ilya Bryzgalov became the first Wild goalie in history to get points in his first 10 starts (7-0-3) with a spotless shootout.
Jason Pominville had his best game in a month, scoring two first-period goals, assisting on Suter’s tying goal, throwing his weight around and placing his body in front of a big slapshot.
“This is what you play for throughout the season,” said Pominville, one goal from becoming the third 30-goal scorer in Wild history.
Last season, the Wild eked into the playoffs. It skidded the final month and needed to win its finale to win a tiebreaker with Columbus. This season, the Wild went 5-0-1 in the past six games. Nobody has had a tougher schedule down the stretch than Minnesota. Yet, the Wild took seven of eight points from Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Chicago, teams that have combined for five Stanley Cups since 2009. Add in a recent victory at 2008 Stanley Cup winner Detroit, and the Wild has rallied in the third period in four of its past six victories (plus one shootout loss in Chicago).
“Last year, it was kind of disappointing how we made the playoffs,” Suter said. “This year, we played ourselves into the playoffs the way that you want to.”
Since Dallas beat Nashville, the Wild had to win to secure the top wild-card spot. Yeo proved in overtime “we were playing to win” by using three forwards and one defenseman. It was a scintillating, action-packed overtime that featured six Wild shots and a couple of Tuukka Rask robberies.
“I’m sure the fans enjoyed it. It was coast-to-coast hockey there,” Koivu said. Late in regulation was frantic, too. Inside 90 seconds, the Wild, and its fans, were furious a linesman waved off an icing. Yeo angrily stood on the bench. The Wild instead worked its way into the offensive zone, and Suter scored his eighth goal.
“I told [the linesman], ‘That should have been icing, but since we scored, I won’t yell at you,’ ” Suter said, chuckling. In a jubilant locker room, Pominville reflected on the season.
“We’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had injuries, we’ve had goalies get hurt, we’ve had a lot of different guys in the lineup, but we did a good job staying even-keeled and not getting frustrated when times were tough,” he said. “It’s nice to be where we want to be.”
Yeo feels good where the Wild’s game is at. There are two regular- season games left, but, “I feel like we’re ready for the playoffs right now.”