With the Wild 3.4 seconds away from being 20 minutes away from the second round of the playoffs and another postseason trip to Chicago, the Blues’ T.J. Oshie turned the Wild’s comfortable two-goal lead into a stressful one-goal lead.
Yet, there was no panic, no screaming at each other to “wake up” inside the Wild locker room during the second intermission.
“That’s a great part of this group,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “Nobody was upset in between periods. There was nothing really said after the period, and nothing needed to be said. We knew we had to go out and do a job.”
It’s not a shock, but of all players it was Zach Parise who gave the Wild its two-goal cushion back 61 seconds into the third period with his second goal of the game. It was a heck of a response to calm the nerves. From there, the Wild skated to a 4-1 victory on Sunday at Xcel Energy Center to avoid a win-or-season-over Game 7 in St. Louis and advance to the conference semifinals against the familiar postseason foe Blackhawks.
In front of 19,318 fans — many of whom abided by coach Mike Yeo’s order to boost the Bloody Mary sales on West 7th Street before the game — the Wild eliminated the Central Division champion for a second consecutive season (last year it was the Avalanche) and it won a playoff series at home for the first time in history. Previously, the Wild won three Game 7s on the road.
“It meant a lot to us to try to win this game in front of our fans,” Yeo said. “They deserved that.”
The Blues suffered their third consecutive first-round exit. With the Wild on its heels in the second period, Justin Fontaine scored the eventual winning goal with a second-period dagger that ended goalie Jake Allen’s outing. Nino Niederreiter scored an empty-netter and Dubnyk was fabulous for a second consecutive game, finishing with 30 saves.
Almost surprisingly for a team that often loves to do things the hard way, the win circumvented what would have been two very long off days in the Twin Cities waiting for another road Game 7. The Wild now gets four or five days of rest before the second round begins in Chicago later this week. The NHL hasn’t announced the schedule.
Pre-Dubnyk, the Wild went 0-3 against the Blackhawks (it was outscored 13-6). Post-Dubnyk, the Wild went 2-0, outscoring the Blackhawks 5-1 and clinching a playoff spot in Chicago on April 7. This will be the Wild’s third crack at the Blackhawks, who eliminated the Wild in the past two postseasons.
“I’m sure there are some guys that would like to give a little payback,” Dubnyk said.
The Wild is a much more mature team than the one that was easily dispatched in five games two years ago and in spurts outplayed the Blackhawks last postseason but, bottom line, still lost in six games.
“It’s a different year, but we know we can play with those guys. Hopefully, this is the year,” Jason Pominville said.
Parise got things started 7:14 into the game when Matt Cooke forced a turnover, Parise pounced on the puck, went 1-on-3 and wheeled around Kevin Shattenkirk for a bad-angle shorthanded goal from the bottom of the left circle.
In the second period, with Dubnyk coming up big, the Wild was getting outplayed when a relentless Fontaine skated between the circles 1-on-2 and fired a shot through Allen’s wickets.
“Two terrible goals again. I just let us down,” Allen said.
Thirty seconds after Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had declared during an NBC bench interview with analyst Brian Engblom that “you’ve got to stick with him,” Hitchcock pulled “him” for veteran Brian Elliott.
Oshie made it 2-1, but early in the third, Mikael Granlund wheeled past Vladimir Tarasenko, gave the puck to Pominville, and Parise buried the rebound for his 29th career playoff goal.
Last April 26, Parise scored two goals and two assists in Game 6 of the first round to force a Game 7 in Colorado.
“All players want to be a part of a big-stage game. That’s the part of being an athlete,” Parise said. “As our line, we take a lot of responsibility. We have to deliver.”
Yeo was proud of his squad, the NHL’s best second-half team that overcame everything from the mumps to goalie turmoil to family tragedies this season.
“Every guy put in everything that we needed them to,” he said. “We said before the game, ‘We can’t have any regrets here, we have to leave it all on the ice.’ It’s a great accomplishment what we just did.
“By all means, everybody feels the same way, we’re not done. But that’s a heck of a hockey team, a very well-coached hockey team. You have to fight for every inch out there. To be here and start getting ready for the second round is a great accomplishment for our group.”
Added Dubnyk: “I was thinking about it over the last couple days: It just feels right. It feels right for our group to be where we are and to continue to move forward.”