Jan. 26 seems so long ago.
I remember walking around this tiny, smelly locker room in Leduc, Alberta, and then writing this article.
“We’ve got to win. There’s no other way to put it,” Zach Parise said before the Wild swept a trip to Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. “There’s not a lot of room for error and it’s going to be hard. We know that. It’s going to be very hard. But we’re not going to quit.
“We’ve got to keep improving and get our game going in the right direction. We can’t put ourselves in an, ‘Every game’s a win or season’s over,’ type scenario. You stress yourself out and all of a sudden mentally you’re making the game a lot harder.
“We know what the standings look like. That’s no secret. But we can’t make up all those points this week. We’ve got to start small.”
The Wild was in 12th place then. It was seven points behind Calgary, 14 points behind Winnipeg, 16 points behind Chicago.
Prior to tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Kings and after Friday’s 4-2 win over the Flames, the Wild is 23-5-1 since Parise said those words.
The Wild is six up on 9th-place Calgary, three points up on Winnipeg and one point behind Chicago for third in the Central Division. If the Wild beats the Kings tonight, the Wild will overtake Chicago (although the Hawks would have two games in hand).
That would be quite the accomplishment even though remember in the new playoff format, even though the Wild has more points than Vancouver, L.A. and Winnipeg, finishing third in the Central just means you play visitor to the second-place team in the Central. That currently is St. Louis.
So not much would change, and in fact, it could turn out to be a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.
But who would want to play the Wild right now? Minnesota’s a team that hasn’t lost consecutive games in more than two months or even lost by more than a goal in more than two months. Minnesota’s got a league-best +44 goal differential (100-56) under Devan Dubnyk (23 saves tonight).
Tonight, the Wild dominated from start to finish and finally broke through in the third period with three goals by Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu and Parise. Coach Mike Yeo called all his veterans “gamers” tonight, and it’s hard to argue.
Koivu was sensational from the opening puck drop. Parise had seven shots and became the fourth Wild 30-goal scorer in history. Vanek continued his recent surge with his 20th goal and seventh in the past 10 games since missing that game in Raleigh sick and Ryan Suter played another strong game.
Jonas Brodin may not be a vet, but he was plus-3 and is now tied for third among NHL defensemen with a plus-22. Heck, I even jinxed Mikael Granlund in a good way with this morning’s blog. He won 10 of 14 faceoffs. Matt Dumba scored a power-play goal and now has eight goals, which ranks third among NHL rookie defensemen.
The big story of the game was Justin Fontaine being leveled 1:51 into the third period by Joe Colborne. In a 1-1 game, the Wild felt Colborne should have been assessed an illegal check to the head or interference penalty.
Fontaine looked dazed and was slow to get up. Yeo stood on the bench and screamed at referee Francois St. Laurent, then got into an umpire-manager-like shouting match.
Fontaine returned to the bench and in his first shift back 1:45 after the hit set up Vanek for the go-ahead goal.
“That was definitely a rallying point, especially for Fonzie,” Yeo said. “Great response by him. That’s the way you respond. Are we the most physical team? Not in the sense of running guys through the boards or dropping the gloves, but that’s a tough hockey player to come back from a hit like that the next shift and respond that way. That’s the kind of toughness that we’re asking for.”
Just 3:23 later, Chris Stewart assisted on Koivu’s eventual winner. From there, the rout was on against a previously unbeatable Karri Ramo.
For the second straight home game, the Wild chased an opposing goalie (Brian Elliott last Saturday).
It’s amazing because Ramo was so good early coupled with the fact the Wild frustratingly couldn’t finish.
Charlie Coyle had one side of the net open on a potential wraparound but instead opted to attempt a pass that slid through the crease. Later, Coyle set himself up for a great chance at the goalmouth, but instead of pulling the trigger on a backhand, he made one move too many.
Parise was gloved down 1-on-1 with Ramo, Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Schroeder each couldn’t bury pucks off fancy moves on drives, Stewart was robbed point-blank with the tip of a fallen Ramo’s glove, Ramo seemed to make a miracle save on an Erik Haula tip, there were what felt like countless other scrambles for loose pucks in the slot and Vanek was caught by defenseman Kris Russell on a breakaway.
But the Wild kept with it and finally broke through.
“Around the paint, the goalie spinning out of position, things are just hitting him and they’re collapsing and it’s just not going in,” Fontaine said. “But give everyone credit. We said if we stuck to our game, they were going to go in. That’s what happened in the third. It’s a big win for us.”
Flames coach Bob Hartley said, “They were dominant tonight. Right from first drop of the puck, they dominated us on the faceoff dot. They controlled the entire game. It was quite a performance from the wild
“They have unbelievable speed on their four lines. The balance of that team, if they stay healthy, they’re a top team.”
Heck, most impressive about the Wild’s entire second half is it has been doing this with five, six, sometimes seven guys out a night. Yet, it keeps on winning.
Quite the story, but Yeo said, “We’re not there yet. It’s great that we’re closer to the teams above us. We’ve got to have the same approach. We can’t start to get comfortable.”
Big game Saturday against the defending champs. Wild has four off-days in a row after tonight and before the Rangers come Thursday, so two more points would do the Wild some good.
That’s it for me. Talk to you after Saturday morning’s availability (I should just sleep here). Dubnyk will obviously start. The only question is whether Ryan Carter gets in probably for Sean Bergenheim (Jordan Schroeder had another great game tonight).
Check out the game story and notebook, which is Justin Fontaine heavy after the Bulldogs' big win over the Gophers and his big response to the Colborne hit.