NASHVILLE – If the Wild makes the playoffs and ends up settling for that second wild-card spot, there's a strong possibility Thursday's game with the Nashville Predators was a first-round preview.
If so, buckle up and enjoy.
In a fast, back-and-forth, entertaining affair inside the always-rabid and fun Bridgestone Arena, the Wild did an impressive job rebounding from a disappointing loss to the worst team in the Western Conference by beating the best team in the NHL 4-2.
Two nights after losing at home to Edmonton, the Wild handed the Predators, who have a six-point lead in the President's Trophy race, only their fourth regulation loss in 31 home games.
"That was definitely one of the best all-around team efforts of the year," said center Kyle Brodziak, who had a goal and an assist, was plus-3, twice knocked pucks out of the zone on a third-period Nashville power play in a one-goal game and won eight of 12 faceoffs.
"You could tell everybody was into it right from the get-go."
The Wild, 12-2-1 in its past 15, jumped Calgary back into eighth behind two goals from Nino Niederreiter, who scored his 20th and 21st goals, including a 166-foot empty-netter. Erik Haula played arguably his best game of the season and scored a goal, and former Predator Devan Dubnyk, who started his 19th consecutive game, made 27 saves to improve to 14-3-1 with the Wild.
"It was fun to play a game like that with the excitement in the building," said Dubnyk, who has allowed 31 goals in 19 games (1.6 per game). "You come in here and win a game and you realize that's the best team in the league right now. We deserved to win that game."
Winnipeg lost to St. Louis in a shootout, so the Wild is three back of the first wild-card spot with two games in hand. But beating Nashville in Nashville was, as Brodziak said, "huge for the morale" knowing "we can play with anybody."
The Wild visits Music City twice more. If this was a playoff preview, Dubnyk said, "You want to have that winning feeling in the road building. We'll have two more chances to do it shortly."
With Sean Bergenheim, acquired Tuesday from Florida, making his Wild debut, coach Mike Yeo took all four lines and juggled them. What spit out for the fourth line turned into the Wild's most consistent.
Haula, Brodziak and Justin Fontaine buzzed all night, not only scoring twice but drawing a penalty, getting tough assignments against the Predators' best players and spending the majority of shifts in the offensive zone.
"Every shift they were making a difference," Yeo said.
Haula was motivated. Tuesday against Edmonton, he was benched after largely being responsible for the Oilers' winning goal. Yeo and Haula talked Wednesday.
"I needed a bounce-back game," Haula said. "I didn't play a lot and the team lost, and I had a crucial mistake in the game, and that fueled me."
Facing Pekka Rinne, who leads the NHL with 35 wins and is 23-4-1 at home, Haula beat his Finnish countryman late in the first.
In his 100th game and moved to left wing, Haula one-timed a 55-footer after Fontaine evaded Mike Ribeiro. However, 16 seconds into the second period, Mike Fisher tied things off the first of former Wild Matt Cullen's two assists.
The Wild responded. Haula took a faceoff in the left circle because it was his strong side, not Brodziak's, and it worked. Haula won the draw clean and Brodziak one-timed his eighth goal. Again though, 79 seconds later, the score was tied on Craig Smith's beautiful breakaway.
But again, the Wild answered. As part of Yeo's shuffling, the Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Jordan Schroeder line that connected twice Feb. 16 in Vancouver scored a pretty tic-tac-toe goal for Niederreiter's first 20-goal season.
"I'm very happy that I reached 20-goal mark. I'm proud of that. But I'll try not to stop now," Niederreiter said, laughing.
Added Yeo, "We need a guy like that to come into a building, play confident, play big like he did tonight and we need him to finish."