Jim Souhan: In the heart of a playoff race for Wild, the silence speaks volumes

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2013 - 9:39 AM

Xcel Energy Center is full of fans, but they've got not nothing to cheer about.

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Jason Zucker reached out for the puck in the second period against the Flames on Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez,

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There should be more noise.

It is April, in a shortened NHL season, in the so-called state of hockey.

The building is packed. The game is meaningful. Hair bands play, loudly, over the sound system. The X is, as they say, rocking. Except, it is not. Not really.

When the sound system goes quiet, so does the building. The Xcel Energy Center is not just quiet by NHL standards. It is quiet by the standards of a string quartet.

The Wild, the team that spent all that money last summer, the team that has been weighing the merits of traveling to Vancouver or Southern California for the postseason, is playing in the third period of a game against a conference rival, knowing that a victory will make a playoff berth all but a certainty. Suddenly there seems to be no joy in the pursuit.

The Wild will lose 4-1 to the Calgary Flames, leaving the home team with zero April home victories at the X, and the fans will react with the enthusiasm of people who have just been told they will be audited.

They sit, quietly, during the Wild’s lifeless third period. Most of them file out early. The rest use their hands as seat cushions. Their team needs only a couple of victories to earn its first playoff berth since 2008. They seem to expect the worst.

“At this time, I’m getting kind of tired of searching for positives,” said the star forward, Zach Parise. “We’ve got to win games. And that’s a game we needed to win. Unfortunately we didn’t, and now we can’t afford any more mistakes, the way things are, the way things are shaping up right now.”

There should be more noise as Parise talks, but the locker room, too, is quiet. After the loss, the players returned to the locker room, then headed back to the ice to hand their game jerseys to selected fans. When the promotion is over, most of the players clomp to their lockers, shed equipment, and disappear.

A few sit, waiting, to endure interview obligations. What is there to say? It’s all math now.

The predominant sound is tired men sniffling, seeking oxygen, battling colds and fatigue. Thoughts of trips to Vancouver or Southern California are giving way to worries, worries that this expensive team may drop to the eighth seed and face the imposing Chicago Blackhawks. There are worries, too, that the Wild may not make the playoffs at all.

Someone asks Matt Cullen whether there were positives to be acknowledged during the loss. “It’s kind of late for that,” he said.

There was no lack of effort, or guts. Ryan Suter was everywhere early, firing shots from all angles. The first line — Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle — dominated for stretches, producing the Wild’s only goal with a combination of skilled stickhandling and grit along the boards.

In the second period, Cullen twisted his right knee beneath him, went directly to the locker room to have it checked, and was back on the ice in minutes, testing the knee’s soundness every time play stopped, willing the ligaments and tendons to hold.

“I think last two home games, we created a lot and guys didn’t get rewarded,” goaltender Niklas Backstrom said. “I think in the second period we hit two posts. It could easily have been a different game. But this is hockey, and you have to fight the battle through the tough times. Only the strong survive.”

The interview room is quiet as Mike Yeo, the young coach, enters. He smiles, wistfully.

“We’ve been trying so hard to win that it looks like we’re forgetting how to make sure we don’t lose, too,” he says.

Does that make sense?

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