Want to get a sense of the level of urgency facing the Wild on Tuesday night with the defending Stanley Cup champs in town?
“This was probably the biggest game I’ve ever played in for this franchise,” Cal Clutterbuck said after the Wild’s 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings at Xcel Energy Center. “We’ve got an opportunity to make the playoffs, and this was a huge, huge game for us.”
Wild players aren’t stupid. A loss to the big, bad Kings, a team running hot and starting to resemble the confident squad that cruised to a Hollywood parade last year, would have meant two must-wins this weekend preceded by two long, slow, excruciating off days full of teeth-chattering, anxiety and … negativity.
With critics starting to question even the most trivial of organizational decisions, the Wild desperately needed to lower the outside decibel and infuse some confidence back into the locker room.
Mission accomplished, as the Wild ended a five-game home slide.
Now, the Wild’s playoff invitation isn’t in the mail yet. But the stamp is nearly on the envelope. Two points against 25th-place Edmonton on Friday, and the Wild is in.
But by putting forth what players all felt was a “60-minute effort” Tuesday, the seventh-place Wild put pressure on chasing teams Columbus and Detroit to be nearly perfect. For instance, if the Blue Jackets lose to Dallas on Thursday, the Wild clinches even before Friday’s game.
“That’s setting the bar for what we need going forward,” coach Mike Yeo said of the intense effort. “The idea is keep raising the bar. It was a very strong game. But the bar’s been set.”
Charlie Coyle and Clutterbuck scored 16 seconds apart late in a solid first period. The Wild never unraveled despite a second period in which referees missed a blatant Dustin Brown elbow to Jason Pominville’s face and that ended with a buzzer-beating goal by Jeff Carter.
Pominville was dazed, stumbled off the ice and never returned. Yeo didn’t offer a diagnosis, saying, “You hate to see a hit to the head.”
“All the things that happened in the second period could have changed the game in the wrong direction for us, but I think we handled it really well,” goalie Niklas Backstrom said. “We’re trying to grow that, where nothing rattles us.”
Backstrom aided there, making 12 of his 22 saves in the third period. None was bigger than a sprawling save with his … right calf to rob Slava Voynov with 11 seconds left.
“I don’t know if that’s a specialty from a goalie book — maybe a Tim Thomas book,” Backstrom joked.
The Wild got some huge performances. Defenseman Ryan Suter logged his ninth 30-plus minute game and fifth in the past nine (32 minutes, 17 seconds). Rookie Jonas Brodin logged a career-high 29:22 and assisted on Clutterbuck’s goal. So did Setoguchi, who also combined with Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak for 17 hits.
Yeo raved about the leadership, especially captain Mikko Koivu, who had five shots and was “unbelievable all over the ice.”
The Wild played a physical but patient first period and started to take over after a tightfisted penalty kill against a power play that had scored in eight consecutive games.
Playing against Jonathan Bernier, who entered with a 0.97 goals-against average and three shutouts against the Wild, Coyle forced a turnover and triggered a suffocating shift by the top line, which includes Koivu and Zach Parise
Tom Gilbert rocketed a shot that deflected off Coyle and over the net. Parise won the race to the puck and centered for Coyle, who scored his eighth goal.
Before the goal was even announced, Clutterbuck, who had moved to the second line despite having only three goals in 39 games, ended an 18-game goal drought with his first since March 16.
“Just kind of closed my eyes,” Clutterbuck said.