SAN JOSE, CALIF. – No scoreboard watching was needed since help from another team was unnecessary.
The math was simple: win and claim a playoff spot for the first time in three months.
And given the chance to dictate its own fate, the Wild finally made the leap – shrugging off the Sharks 3-2 Thursday in front of 14,517 at SAP Center to move into the first wild card seed with 75 points after securing its fifth victory over the past six games at the outset of a three-game West Coast road trip.
Vancouver, Nashville, Winnipeg and Arizona (all at 74 points) now trail the Wild, which occupies a playoff berth for the first time since Dec. 6. The team has also won a season-high six in a row on the road, and its 14 points since Feb.19 (7-2) are tied for the second most in the NHL.
“It feels good to be back in there,” winger Zach Parise said. “It was a good start to the road trip. I think it’s just a product of the way we’ve been playing lately. I feel like we keep getting better and better.”
Like the rest of the team’s recent success stories, the formula against San Jose was steady goaltending and timely goal scoring.
In his sixth consecutive start, goalie Alex Stalock made a season-high 40 saves to post his 20th win of the season and improve to 11-3-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .928 save percentage over his past 15 starts. Over that time, he’s tied for the most wins in the NHL.
“Goaltending is huge,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “[Stalock’s] playing solid, and we’re kind of feeding off that right now. We have to continue with that effort and that determination to win games.”
In front of Stalock, Suter and Parise each had a goal and assist. And winger Kevin Fiala had a slick setup to push his point streak to six games, a span in which he’s tallied 12 points.
“This was a big one for us,” Parise said.
After weathering an early push by the Sharks, the Wild opened the scoring 8 minutes, 34 seconds into the first period after Suter’s point shot sailed in following a faceoff win by captain Mikko Koivu that was passed off to Suter by winger Ryan Hartman.
San Jose pulled even at 14:40 on its lone power-play goal in three chances, a deflection by winger Stefan Noesen. The Wild earned just one power play the whole night, blanking on it, but that didn’t prevent the team from taking control of the game in the second period.
At 11:30, center Alex Galchenyuk scored his second with the team when his backhand flew by Sharks goalie Martin Jones – a shot orchestrated by Parise and Suter.
By 14:48, the Wild doubled its lead on a slick sequence masterminded by Fiala.
He cut to the middle with speed, handed off to center Luke Kunin and Kunin fed a net-crashing Parise for the redirect past Jones. The San Jose netminder finished with 24 saves.
“The plays that Kev can make are unbelievable, and you know what Zach does,” Kunin said. “He’s always around the net. We’re having fun out there.”
The goal extended Parise’s goal streak to four games, which is tied for his longest of the season, and his point streak is at five games – a run in which he’s racked up eight points. He leads the team with 25 goals and has scored at least that many 10 times now in his career.
Fiala didn’t record multiple points for the first time in six games, and his five-game goal streak also came to an end. But his point streak is alive, with 12 points during the six-game stretch, and Fiala has 24 points over his past 16. His 52 points overall are also the most on the Wild.
That finish by Parise and the revamped top line (Parise and Kunin joined Fiala after center Eric Staal didn’t travel to San Jose following a death in his family) turned clutch in the third.
It was during that period the Sharks applied the most pressure all game, throwing 20 shots on net and finally solving Stalock at 9:08 when center Joe Thornton buried a loose puck in front after Stalock kept the puck out just seconds earlier on a key save.
“You’ve got to stop the bleeding, and we did and kept them from getting the big third one,” Stalock said. “It’s a big one.”
The Wild held on the rest of the way despite the lopsided feel, an effort that put the team in a coveted position but a spot that it’ll have to work to maintain.
“We’ve got to get ready for the next game,” interim coach Dean Evason said. “That’s it. The game was great. It was a fun game. It’s over. We’ve got to get prepared for the next one.”