It wasn’t going to take much for the Wild to improve, not when the demands were temperamental rather than technical.
That’s the reality that faced the team after a stale trio of losses that dropped it out of a playoff spot made it look like the players had shifted into neutral instead of kicking their desperation into overdrive.
They finally found that gear Saturday, cruising to a well-timed 5-2 win over the Rangers in front of an announced 18,844 at Xcel Energy Center that stalled their slide and secured their first victory in their third try of a crucial five-game homestand.
But delivering a high-octane brand of hockey for one game isn’t enough.
The Wild will have to muster up this energy 10 more times to give itself the best chance to extend its playoff appearance streak to seven years.
“We have to,” center Eric Staal said. “We need points. It’s going to be a competitive race right until the end.”
What should be encouraging to the Wild is it seems to have found a road map that’ll help it close in on the playoff pace the rest of the way.
A fast start, aggressive attack and strong finish were key, all upgrades from a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday that put the team three points behind the Arizona Coyotes for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
And this urgency was captured in other areas, too: 75 shot attempts, 46 pucks on net (tied for the second-most this season) and a season-high 26 blocked shots.
“It seemed like everyone was on their toes tonight and wanted to anticipate the play,” winger Marcus Foligno said. “It’s fun when you’re involved.”
Just 4 minutes, 40 seconds into the first period, winger Ryan Donato skated into the Rangers zone on a 2-on-1 rush and authoritatively wound up and sent a shot over New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s right shoulder.
“He gets it and wants to shoot it,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He’s an offensive guy.”
That early momentum slipped a bit when the Rangers responded 1:20 later on a fortuitous goal.
Center Mika Zibanejad’s centering attempt from the corner and below the goal line slid into the far end of the net before goalie Devan Dubnyk could regain positioning after leaving the net in an unsuccessful try to play the puck.
Rather than shrinking under the miscue, the Wild fought back — literally, pushing back against the Rangers’ feistiness to look as engaged as it has been since a blemish-free 3-0 win over the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on March 7.
“We played that kind of grindy game, and it paid off for us,” Foligno said.
At 16:05, Donato converted again — this time a tip on a shot by center Luke Kunin. Donato has 11 points in 12 games with the Wild since joining the team in a trade with the Boston Bruins, and this was his second career multigoal effort.
“We wanted to jump on them as early as possible,” he said.
This mojo carried over to the second, with Staal making it 3-1 only 4:51 into the period when his attempted pass to winger Zach Parise on another 2-on-1 break bounced off defenseman Neal Pionk’s stick and into the net. The tally was Staal’s 20th, the 12th season in which he’s recorded at least that many goals.
The revitalized power play also capitalized for a second straight game, the first time that’s happened since Feb. 21-22.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon’s one-timer 6:06 into the third blew past Lundqvist, who totaled 41 saves. The unit finished 1-for-3; the Rangers were 0-for-2.
That ended up being a helpful insurance goal, since New York replied at 8:56 on a five-hole backhander by Pavel Buchnevich.
But the Wild’s push to the finish line was just as steady as its start, a hustle that included an empty-net goal from winger J.T. Brown at 17:25.
Afterward, Boudreau mentioned quite a few players were dinged with bumps and bruises. Winger Jason Zucker left the game briefly after defenseman Brady Skjei fell on his right leg, twisting it awkwardly.
Boudreau said he wasn’t aware of anyone not being healthy enough to play, and that’s positive news for a team that needs to stay in the driver’s seat.
“It’s really all do or die here,” Kunin said. “They’re all playoff games, and we have to come with that mind-set ready to go every night.”