Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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"Il-ya, Il-ya, Il-ya" leads Wild to the brink of the playoffs

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild game coverage Updated: April 7, 2014 - 11:18 PM

For some reason the Wild hasn’t been successful in the front end of back-to-backs (3-9 before tonight’s 1-0 win at Winnipeg; eighth shutout by the Wild to tie a team record), so defenseman Ryan Suter said this was kind of a “trap game” tonight with the hard-working Jets out of the playoff hunt, the Wild so close to clinching a playoff spot and the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL, waiting for the Wild in Minnesota for Tuesday night’s game.

But the Wild grinded it out. Its execution wasn’t good all night long offensively, but man, the Wild worked hard and defended well. Players sure had to with as much time as they spent in their own zone.

“That was the definition of grinding it out,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We battled hard. Structure-wise, we were good. Penalty kill was huge (4 for 4). The play of our defensemen in particular, really impressed.”

You have to give Yeo and his staff credit (I know, I know, players win games and coaches lose games).

Obviously, the four goalies who have been No. 1 this season for the Wild (Nik Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and now Ilya Bryzgalov) deserve credit, but this could have blown up at any time along the way if not for the Wild’s impressive defensive structure and Yeo’s system.

The Wild’s goalies are rarely peppered and when the Wild most needed it, it has gotten back to a defensive structure that has allowed 26 or fewer shots in the past eight games.

“This team right now, we’re going good places,” said defenseman Jon Blum, who had his best game since his callup. “We’re focused on defense first and you can see that. Whenever they get that big chance, Bryz makes that big save for us. We’re feeding off that.”

“Bryz” tonight made 24 saves for his second consecutive shutout. He’ll start against Boston and carry a shutout streak of 142 minutes, 15 seconds into a game against a team that is 13-1-4 in its past 18 on the road and 16-1-2 in the past 19 overall.

The Wild’s magic number is one point. Its magic number for the top wildcard spot is two.

Tuesday’s clinching scenarios:

-- Wild win or overtime/shootout loss

--Phoenix loss of any kind

--Phoenix shootout win

To not make the playoffs, the Wild would have to go 0-3 and the Coyotes would have to go 4-0 (no shootout wins) and then make up what would seem to be an insurmountable goal differential tiebreaker (plus-2 for Minnesota, minus-12 for Phoenix).

Six or seven games ago, it looked like the Wild was on its way to being toast. Now it’s 4-0-1 in its past five and closed its regular-season road schedule with a 17-17-7 record (7-3-2 since the Olympic break). Remember, before the Olympic break, the Wild was one of the worst road teams in the NHL.

“We went into a lot of tough buildings and I give our guys credit for the way they battled on the road,” Yeo said.

“It’ crazy how fast it can turn around,” said Charlie Coyle, who scored the winning goal 65 seconds into the second period on an even-strength goal that was basically a power-play goal. “Things aren’t going your way and you lose a game, it feels like the end of the world and when you win you’re on top of the world. You have to stay even-keeled.”

Coyle has 10 points in the past nine games and five goals. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu set up his goal, and the line now has eight goals and 21 points in five games and a period since Yeo reunited them in the third period of that loss in St. Louis.

“I tried to find the open ice there and let those guys make plays,” Coyle said.

Bryzgalov is 6-0-3 in 10 appearances and nine starts with a 1.67 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts. He’s been great and had some good quotes you can read in the game story. Also, check out the stuff about the Jets fans (see below) taunting him. Funny stuff.

“Very calm in the net, making a lot of very tough saves look easy,” Yeo said of Bryz.

What Yeo liked most about tonight was the battle level and defensive structure. Suter and Jared Spurgeon were solid all night yet again. Jon Blum may have played his best game with the Wild.

“All night our execution wasn’t very good. We know that,” Yeo said. “But you can win games where you’re not completely at your best” when you defend well and you’re structured and work hard.

The Wild’s penalty kill was 4 for 4 and is now 9 for 9 in the past four games after giving up 12 goals on 35 chances in the previous 13 games.

“That’s how it works,” Suter said. “You give up a couple cheesy ones and it turns around. It’s funny how the game works. It’s just like scoring goals. You don’t score goals all year and you get a hat trick. I mean, who would have thought (referring to his hattie back in January against Washington that helped turn the season around). That’s how the game is. Now I can’t buy one.

“Uh, uh, PK, back on point. Hopefully now we’re going up.”

This doesn’t read as funny as Suter sounded. He just went on a little tangent and then, … back to the penalty kill.

“Come playoff time, it’s got to be good,” Matt Cooke said of the PK. “Our whole game has to be good. We know we have right the system, we know we have the right components in this room. We have three games left to build.”

That’s it for me. Early flight home. Doubtful Wild has a skate in the morning, but if it does, I’ll blog afterward. Otherwise, talk to you pregame.

Check out the gamer, John Curry feature and Nino Niederreiter notebook in the paper Tuesday.

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