DENVER – With the Western Conference playoff race snarling like stop-and-go traffic during rush hour, nothing is a given with 32 games to go.
But the Wild guaranteed it will maintain possession of the third seed in the Central Division when it resumes play after an eight-day All-Star Game break. That’s because the team rolled by the Avalanche 5-2 on Wednesday in front of 17,310 at Pepsi Center, going into the layoff on a three-game win streak that sealed a three-point cushion over Colorado and Dallas, another division rival.
“When you get a step on teams, you want to solidify that and get even further ahead,” winger Charlie Coyle said. “We want to set ourselves up as best as we can here come playoff time. They’re obviously right behind us in the standings. This isn’t the be-all, end-all, but that’s another step in the right direction.”
This push, which culminated in 55 points and started with a 2-1 victory on home ice Saturday over the Columbus Blue Jackets before continuing Monday in Vegas with a 4-2 rally over the Golden Knights, has been sparked by the team’s leaders — an encouraging sign for when the group reconvenes Feb. 1 in Dallas against the Stars.
Center Eric Staal scored twice and assisted on another, defenseman Ryan Suter turned in a goal and an assist in a game-high 28 minutes and Coyle delivered his second goal in as many games.
Add in 20 saves by goalie Devan Dubnyk, who improved to 6-1 in his past seven road contests, and the Wild followed up a miserable December with a respectable 8-4 January.
“You certainly wish you could keep playing if they’re going to play like that,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Twice in the first period, the Wild had to play catch-up.
After center Carl Soderberg finished off a tic-tac-toe passing sequence 5 minutes, 42 seconds into the first period to give Colorado a 1-0 lead, Staal responded at 6:50 when he redirected a Coyle pass off a Colorado turnover.
The Avalanche retook the lead on a power-play shot from defenseman Tyson Barrie at 12:40, but the frame ended 2-2 after defenseman Jared Spurgeon buried a give-and-go with Suter with 3:33 to go.
In the second, the Wild capitalized on a 5-on-3 power play that felt like a 5-on-2 after winger Matt Calvert lost his stick and left Staal open for another put-back at 7:24 off a pass by winger Mikael Granlund that came after a keep-in by winger Pontus Aberg.
Staal has three goals in his past two games and nine points in his past six.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of some good plays,” he said.
Despite blanking on a four-minute power play later in the period, the Wild still grew its cushion after an impressive sequence of shot blocks in its own zone by defenseman Nick Seeler — who had three — and winger Marcus Foligno.
“Unbelievable,” Boudreau said.
Once the puck transitioned up ice, winger Zach Parise eventually retrieved it along the boards and fed Coyle for a one-timer as he crashed the net at 19:37.
“You know that the team is committed, and you got a good chance of winning,” Boudreau said.
“That’s how I felt after that shift.”
The Wild was awarded another 5-on-3 look in the third, and it capitalized again — this time on a rising shot from Suter at 8:13 that was also coordinated by Granlund and Aberg. Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer had 23 stops.
“Hopefully we’ll come back and be re-energized,” Staal said, “and excited about finishing strong.”