NASHVILLE – As Ryan Suter chewed on a slice of pizza after the Wild clinched a playoff berth Tuesday night by beating the team that knocked it off in the past two postseasons, the veteran defenseman flashed back to three months ago.
Suter couldn’t believe he was standing in the same spot he uttered the most downtrodden, miserable thoughts about where this season was heading following a January pasting in Chicago.
As Suter uttered dejected yet honest lines like, “Every day’s a bad day,” and “It’s not fun to be a part of,” and “When it rains it pours, and it’s pouring,” the Wild media relations head honcho had a look of fright on his face.
Suter apologized, then walked away with his head down.
“Funny how the game works, eh?” Suter said Tuesday night. “Three months ago, everyone is down and negative and thinking the year is over. … We’ve gone through a lot this year. A lot of ups and downs and mumps and different injuries, sicknesses, it’s very rewarding to know we’re on to the next round here.”
Reminded of Suter’s post-Jan. 10 interview, Zach Parise started laughing.
“We’re a different team than we were then,” Parise said. “We were in a tough spot, and we just had to win games. We couldn’t look too far ahead, and we did a good job of that. We maintained that for a long time, which is hard to do.”
Player after player credits the Devan Dubnyk acquisition. Acquired three days after Suter’s somber thoughts, Dubnyk is 27-8-2 with a 1.73 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. He is 15-1-1 on the road, allowing two goals or fewer in 11 straight road games (all wins). Only three teams in 80 years have accomplished that.
Consider this when weighing Dubnyk’s value: Tuesday night in a must-win game at Edmonton, the Los Angeles Kings rested star goalie Jonathan Quick because it was the second of a back-to-back, coach Darryl Sutter said. The Kings lost, and now the defending Stanley Cup champs are in danger of missing the playoffs.
Dubnyk has done this seven times since arriving. In Dubnyk’s past six second of back-to-backs, he is 5-0-1, allowing seven goals.
“This is all new for him too, dealing with the pressure of making the playoffs and this is great experience going into the playoffs,” coach Mike Yeo said.
With two games left Thursday in Nashville and Saturday in St. Louis, Yeo has a lot to weigh now.
He’d like to give a few players rest, especially some of the banged-up ones like Nino Niederreiter, who was visibly laboring against the Blackhawks. But after taking four days off last week, the Wild lost three in a row in part because momentum was halted, so he doesn’t want to give players too much time off, especially because there will already be three or four days off between Saturday’s finale and Wednesday or Thursday’s playoff opener.
Also, there’s still playoff jockeying.
Win two in a row and the Blackhawks lose two in a row, and the Wild finishes third in the Central Division. Win one more game and the Wild secures the top wild-card spot. Win or lose to either Nashville or St. Louis, and the Wild could be determining its first-round opponent because one of the two likely will win the Central.
There’s one other factor: The Wild has won 11 consecutive road games, the second-longest streak in NHL history. Beat the Predators, and the Wild ties the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings for the longest road winning streak ever. Win out, and the Wild would set an NHL record.
It’s believed Yeo plans to start Darcy Kuemper on Thursday against the Predators. It’ll be Kuemper’s first start since Jan. 6, and end Dubnyk’s run of 39 consecutive starts — 38 for the Wild.
Dubnyk originally said he’d imagine he’d get one of the games off, but “I wouldn’t expect to have a week-and-a-half off. I don’t think that’d be very good. We want to continue the winning feeling going into the playoffs. These are both teams we could be facing in first or second round.”
So Dubnyk likely will start Saturday’s finale.
Whatever happens, Suter said the Wild shouldn’t reflect too heavily on what it has accomplished since mid-January.
“We tried that the last week and that didn’t work too well,” Suter said, referring to a three-game losing streak “The four days, I think guys were starting to think about how good we were and it didn’t help us. Hopefully we don’t reflect too much here.”