DENVER – For three seasons, the Wild has been a team that loves to make life difficult.
In games or in the standings, the Wild rarely makes things easy on itself. For evidence, look at the previous two seasons when a couple of miraculous second halves were needed to save the season. Or last week, when a blown victory in Ottawa and a lopsided defeat in New Jersey caused it to fall outside the playoff bubble.
Well, Saturday afternoon at the Pepsi Center, the Wild has quite the opportunity to make life so much simpler on itself these last few weeks of the regular season.
If the Wild can defeat a Colorado Avalanche team missing its two most dangerous players in regulation, it’ll gain a five-point cushion for the eighth and final playoff spot with six games left. A regulation loss, and the Avs would inch to within one point with a game in hand.
The Wild’s objective is to leave the Mile High City in the driver’s seat toward a fourth consecutive playoff berth.
“That’s what we’re hoping to do, what we’re planning to do,” leading goal scorer Zach Parise. “It’s a big game for both teams. For us, to widen that gap a little bit would be nice, get a little breathing room.
“We’re looking forward to the game and to the challenge because they’ve been playing well lately and they’re a tough team.”
The Avs, who recently swept a three-game trip across western Canada, are desperate. They blew a late one-goal lead to lose to Philadelphia on Thursday and are without their two leading scorers, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, who have knee injuries.
“Obviously, it’s a must-win situation,” Avalanche defenseman Francois Beauchemin said.
The Wild loves playing its most bitter rival. Besides being 7-1-1 in the past nine meetings and outscoring the Avs 29-13 and outshooting them 301-215 in those games, the Wild is 16-3-4 in its past 23 regular-season games in Denver, holding the Avalanche to two or fewer goals in 16 of those games.
That doesn’t include its big Game 7 win in Denver in the 2014 playoffs.
“Starting with that playoff series, maybe even before that, I’m not sure, we’ve for whatever reason had some success here, we’ve had entertaining games here, we’ve had a lot of important games here and we like playing here as a team,” Parise said.
The Wild has responded impressively from a 7-4 loss at New Jersey on March 17 — a fourth consecutive defeat (1-3-1) — and is suddenly riding high with its third four-game winning streak in John Torchetti’s 20 games.
“This late in the year and you play a game like that, it’s unacceptable,” said right wing Charlie Coyle. “Not that we wanted to go out and play that way, but it’s just what happened and snowballed. But I think we all came together, stayed positive, got the next one and kept the momentum going.”
Since Torchetti’s debut Feb. 15, the Wild is tied for first in the league with 13 wins, tied for third with 27 points and first with 64 goals.
Devan Dubnyk is 12-3-1 since that date with a 2.24 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, after going 0-8-1 in nine starts before that with a 2.77 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.
Since Feb. 15, Nino Niederreiter is tied for sixth in the NHL with 10 goals, and Niederreiter and Erik Haula are tied for 16th with 17 points. Ryan Suter is tied for first among NHL defensemen with 12 assists, and linemates Mikko Koivu and Coyle have combined for 30 points in that span.
And maybe most important, Parise, who had two goals in his previous 25 games, broke out Thursday against Calgary with his third hat trick of the season. His first came on opening night in Denver when the Wild rallied from three goals down with a four-goal third period.
“I was pumped,” Suter said of Parise’s four points against the Flames. “You could see he wasn’t himself. And for him to get finally rewarded — he works his butt off every night, and for him to get off the schneid, it’s good for him and it’s good for us. We need him going.”
Parise’s usually “going” against the Avalanche. His 33 points in 25 regular-season and playoff games are the most by far in the NHL against the Avalanche since 2012-13.
Avs coach Patrick Roy knows how critical Saturday’s game is for his team.
“It’s not time right now to look at the big picture. If you’re looking at the big picture it’s going to be scary,” Roy said. “It’s time for us to find ways to play that full 60 minutes with the same intensity from the start to the end.”