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ø Captain Mikko Koivu, front left, was among those congratulating Ryan Suter (20), whose goal late in the third period against Boston sent the Wild on its way to clinching the top wild-card spot in a shootout.

CARLOS GONZALEZ • Star Tribune,

Wild finishes strong after desert summit conducted by leaders

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT
  • Star Tribune
  • April 15, 2014 - 1:14 AM

Zach Parise insists it was only a coincidence, not a magic bullet.

But this much is indisputable: The Wild pulled its playoff hopes back from the precipice only one day after a March 28 team meeting, called by Parise and fellow captains Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter.

The discussion was prompted by a pair of losses to Vancouver and St. Louis in which the Wild was badly outplayed. With Phoenix in position to leapfrog the Wild in the race for the final two Western Conference playoff spots — and Dallas breathing down its neck as well — the team and rallied for a 3-1 victory against the Coyotes that changed the trajectory of the season.

Since that point, the Wild has gone 6-1-1. Unlike last season, when it limped into the playoffs and was overpowered by Chicago in the first round, the Wild enters postseason play brimming with confidence and buoyed by success. While Parise and Koivu both downplayed the importance of the meeting to saving the season, both played major on- and off-ice roles in the Wild’s revival — and both will be just as critical to helping it advance past the first round for the first time since 2003.

They will begin by trying to keep the Wild on point. The team surged into the playoffs by paying more attention to detail, maintaining effort even when behind, getting each player to devote himself to his defined role and adopting a team-first mind-set. Its postseason hopes hinge on the same qualities.

“Sometimes, you just need to talk,” said Parise, who has four goals and five assists since the meeting. “It’s a bunch of grown men in here. Everyone wants to win, and everyone wants to do well. We just weren’t doing things the right way.

“We just needed to identify what we felt the problem was. And for whatever reason, from then on, we just played better. That trip was so good for our confidence; we beat really good teams when we had to win games. From that point on, our attitude has changed. We feel really good about the way we’re playing.”

Turning the corner

Koivu, Parise and Suter called the meeting in Phoenix because they felt so troubled by the team’s play in its two previous games. In a 5-2 loss to Vancouver and a 5-1 defeat at St. Louis, the Wild fell apart when it fell behind. A loss at Phoenix would have put it a point behind the Coyotes for the first of two wild-card playoff berths and left it only one point ahead of Dallas for the second.

Coach Mike Yeo said he had struggled to find the right mix with his players since the March 5 trade deadline. He felt the Wild was making incremental progress through a string of shootout losses, but it could not maintain consistency. It had won only three of its previous 12 games when it arrived in Phoenix, and its reputation for late-season collapses was adding to the pressure.

The meeting could have put players on the defensive. Instead, it proved constructive, inciting a discussion that helped the Wild sort through its problems to find solutions. It rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat Phoenix, with Parise scoring two of its three goals in the third period. On defense, it held the Coyotes to three shots in the third period and allowed none in a 23-minute span in the second and third periods.

A new start

“It was a laid-back meeting, where everyone chipped in and said what they felt,” said Charlie Coyle, who has flourished as the right winger on the Parise-Koivu line. “We talked about what we needed to do, and that got everyone on the same page. This is an ideal situation. We’re playing some of our best hockey now, and that’s huge going into the playoffs.”

The Wild brought home five of eight points on that four-game road trip. It followed up by regaining its footing at home, finishing the regular season 3-1 at Xcel Energy Center after winning only two of its previous seven games there.

Parise said the Wild is getting strong defensive play from everyone, forcing teams to shoot from the perimeter and blocking shots. It also has fortified its resolve, mounting third-period rallies in three of its past six victories.

“I don’t like to use the words ‘giving up,’ ” Parise said. “But we had started to play different when we fell behind. In that Phoenix game and in L.A. [a 3-2 victory], we got behind, but we liked the way we were playing, and we stuck with it. We kept wearing them down. Once we saw that worked, it was like a light went off. We knew how we needed to play.”

Seeking redemption

In the playoffs, both Parise and Koivu hope to fare better than they did last spring. Parise had only one goal and was minus-7 as the Wild fell in five games to Chicago; Koivu was held without a point and was minus-6.

Parise said the Wild’s challenge is to maintain, under the increased pressure of the playoffs, the consistency and self-assurance the team has gained over the past 17 days. In the postseason, though, Yeo noted that teams cannot stand pat. The ones that move on, he said, are the ones who still are working to improve.

Koivu stressed that the Wild doesn’t have to do anything different. It simply has to stay true to its strengths, the ones it rediscovered last month in the desert.

“You can’t always win, but you can always play the way you need to play,” said the captain, who has two goals and seven assists since that day. “I think that’s what we realized in Phoenix. You have to give all you have and play with passion, and your defense has to be there. It’s a process. We want to keep getting better.”



 

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