DENVER – Two hours before Saturday night’s regular-season finale, Chuck Fletcher sat alone in an empty section of a darkened lower bowl inside Pepsi Center for more than 30 minutes.
The Wild general manager just stared at the ice. Stared and stared and stared.
It was a stunning, powerful scene. Who knows what Fletcher was thinking, but it certainly epitomized the stress he was under and just how much was riding on one game for a franchise engulfed by anxiety.
If the Wild lost to the Colorado Avalanche — instead of taking a 3-1 victory to draw the eighth seed in the Western Conference quarterfinals — there is no doubt there would have been an organizational shakeup.
It could have almost certainly started with the coach, Mike Yeo, whose job was in danger. The Wild went from the division lead to almost missing the playoffs in 29 days. And there is no doubt blame could have landed squarely at the feet of the general manager, and on several players inside that ultimately jubilant postgame locker room Saturday.
“We did it the hard way, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” defenseman Ryan Suter said after logging a career-high 32 minutes, 54 seconds against the Avs. “We’re in the playoffs. We have a chance to do something special now.”
Yeo, with an ear-to-ear smile, was visibly relieved after advancing to play one of the NHL’s model franchises, the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Afterward, the second-year coach, who won a Stanley Cup as a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant, acknowledged that “for sure” he knew his job was potentially in jeopardy.
“I’m a firm believer that you go in and you believe,” Yeo said. “I believe in the group and I believe in what we’ve got going and I felt that we deserved this. It was a little harder than probably we all would have liked.”
Relishing in the moment, Yeo didn’t want to talk yet about the President’s Trophy-winning Blackhawks, saying he had a lot of work to do Sunday and added with a not-so-subtle undertone that he was “happy” that he still could do it “in the office.”
The organization hasn’t participated in the postseason since winning the Northwest Division in 2008. Zach Parise, who rode to the Stanley Cup Finals with New Jersey last year, said this was a huge growing step for this team.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Parise said. “You’ve got to get the playoff experience. After four years of missing the playoffs, you’ve got to get in there and taste it and see what it’s like and experience those type of games.
“We shouldn’t be satisfied getting in.”
Parise’s eyes literally open wide when he talks about the playoffs. He can’t help but smile as he speaks.
That’s how much this former New Jersey captain lives for the second season.
“It’s something else,” Parise said. “People don’t swing body checks. Everything’s finished. The pace goes up. It’s unbelievable. It’s something else.
“Once it’s over, you think to yourself, ‘We have to play another 82 games just to get back there, just to have that experience again of playing in the playoffs.’ Really, there’s nothing like it. I’m so excited that some of the guys in this room that haven’t tasted it will get to.”
The Wild went 5-8-1 in April after a 17-6-1 stretch to climb up the Western Conference charts. There was an incredible stress on the organization during this April swoon, and it took countless meetings to get players to eliminate the load from its shoulders. And then the 6-1 loss Friday at home to lowly Edmonton occurred.
Center Kyle Brodziak could only imagine how owner Craig Leipold, who has one of the NHL’s highest payrolls, would have reacted if the Wild had executed the meltdown.
It wasn’t just Yeo on the hot seat.
“Who knows what happens to a lot of guys,” Brodziak said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to block those thoughts out as much as you can, especially after [Friday]. That’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever been through as a hockey player. As a group, to be able to recover from that is pretty special.”
The next round won’t be easy. The Blackhawks were the best team in the league.
“But let’s make sure that we’re clear, we’re not done,” Yeo said. “We’re just not going to sit here on Cloud Nine and say this was a huge accomplishment.”
Things ramp up in the playoffs. So does the intensity. The Wild isn’t the biggest team, nor the most physical.
“I can only use my experiences and we were a pretty small team last year [with New Jersey] and we did fine against everyone in the East at least,” Parise said. “If you play a smart, effective style of hockey, it doesn’t matter.
“It’s not about the big hits. It’s about consistently rubbing out a defenseman every time on the forecheck. It’s not about banging the glass. It’s just about being effective making hits, being fast, being intense.
“We definitely have that ability.”