The Los Angeles Kings already were checked into a nearby hotel, their equipment bags and uniforms already strewn across an auxiliary locker room, their staff already at Xcel Energy Center watching the Wild play.
It would have been easy for the Wild to look past the Calgary Flames in anticipation of Saturday’s home game against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
But desperate to separate itself from other playoff contenders and particularly put some heat on one favorite foe above, the Wild pushed the pace Friday night until it finally busted through with three third-period goals en route to a 4-2 victory.
“What we said is, ‘You can’t have any kind of eye on [Saturday’s] game and you can’t be only half into this one,’ ” said coach Mike Yeo, who marched down his bench at the start of the third period with the score tied 1-1 tapping his players on the shoulders. “We had to win this game.”
The rallying point came 1 minute, 51 seconds into the third period, when Calgary’s Joe Colborne nailed Justin Fontaine in the head. The Wild believed Colborne should have received an illegal check to the head or an interference penalty. A fuming Yeo stood on the bench screaming at referee Francois St. Laurent and “strongly disagreed” with the no-call.
Fontaine walked slowly down the tunnel. He quickly returned, though, and on his first shift back set up Thomas Vanek with a cross-crease pass and go-ahead goal just 1:45 after the hit.
“I was pretty rattled,” Fontaine said. “I didn’t think it was the cleanest hit. Sometimes when you come back, it motivates you and gets you going. Getting one the next shift, kind of rubbing it in, I let the guy hear it a little bit.”
Only 3:23 later, captain Mikko Koivu capped an outstanding game with what became the winning goal. He led the Wild into the zone, dished to linemate Chris Stewart, drove the net and redirected Stewart’s pass back underneath Karri Ramo, who had frustrated the Wild with 27 saves through two periods.
Zach Parise, who had seven shots, ended Ramo’s night with 8:14 left by becoming the fourth 30-goal scorer in Wild history (Marian Gaborik five times, Brian Rolston three times, Jason Pominville once are the others) on a breakaway.
“It’s a nice number to hit, but you know, I didn’t keep the puck or anything,” said Parise, smiling.
Parise did smile regarding the Wild’s position in the standings. The Wild is 23-5-1 since the All-Star break. On that Jan. 27 day, the then-12th-place Wild was seven points back of eighth-place Calgary in the Western Conference, 14 back of Winnipeg and 16 back of Chicago.
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Kings, the Wild is six points up on now-ninth-place Calgary, three up on eighth-place Winnipeg and one point behind Chicago, which dispatched Minnesota the past two playoffs, for third place in the Central Division.
“Who would have thought that just from where we were earlier in the season to where we are now?” Parise said.
In the words of Flames coach Bob Hartley, the Wild “dominated us and controlled the entire game.” Only Ramo and the Wild’s frustrating inability to finish after Matt Dumba’s tying power-play goal kept Calgary in the game. But the message in the locker room during the second intermission, Fontaine said, was to stick with it “and we’d win.”
Vanek’s goal was his 20th. Not bad for a player who had one at Thanksgiving.
“It was a struggle early on, but I stayed positive all year long,” said Vanek, who has seven goals in the past 10 games.
Hartley, whose team was trying to overtake the Kings for a playoff spot, said: “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.”
Still, Yeo cautioned: “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.”