Following Wild games, Content Coordinator Evan Sporer will give the Five Takeaways that he remembers from the contest. Tonight, he looks back at the Wild's 4-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center.
Almost poetic that, in earning its fifth straight victory, a season-high, the Wild also garnered its most important two points of the season.
Through stellar goaltending, sticking to its game plan and a forecheck that progressively gave the Avalanche fits over 60 minutes, the Wild drove into Pepsi Center, cranked its foot on the throttle, and sped into command of the second wild card spot into the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"This game, we set ourselves up for an opportunity to do that," Devan Dubnyk said. "The more games we win down the stretch, the tougher it's going to be for them to catch us."
Two points? Check. Regulation win? Check. Statement made? And then some.
The Wild took what the Avalanche threw at it, which is a consistently heavy, physical game, but stuck with its own ingredients, not getting goaded into extracurriculars, and instead playing a north-south game at its own pace.
"They try to come at you really hard and be physical," Ryan Suter said. "They did that, they did a good job at it, and we did a good job kind of weathering that."
The thing about throwing checks is a player can only do so when he doesn't have the puck. So while it can grow frustrating and painful as the hits-against pile up, having the puck is, in general terms, more advantageous than not having it.
"I don't know if they think it's scary, but we did a good job of sticking to our game," Dubnyk said. "We weathered the start in the first period, and got right to our game, and stuck with it for the rest."
So after being outshot 11-8 in the first period, the Wild responded by outshooting Colorado 27-18 the next 40 minutes.
"We did a good job of not retaliating, and not getting rattled," Zach Parise said. "They had a couple of big hits early, and it didn't phase us; it didn't bother us. We knew we they had to play the game eventually."
The Wild has opened up a five-point lead on the Avalanche. And though Colorado has played one fewer game, the teams are now tied with 34 regulation and overtime wins apiece, and with the Wild controlling the second tiebreaker (head-to-head record), as Minnesota had hoped for, it very much controls its own playoff destiny with six regular season games left to play.
"You feel confident, but we have to continue to play the way we have; the same mindset that we've had," Suter said. "It's still tight, you still want to build your game for the playoffs, and you want to be playing the right way when playoffs come."
It appears Parise's breakout was not limited to one game.
Parise and the Wild talked about how important its game on Saturday would be, and then the effort Parise put forth matched said importance.
The work-ethic that is so signature-Parise was there, hounding on the forecheck, creating loose pucks, turnovers, or at the very least not giving Colorado much time to operate.
Of course, when Parise is scoring he's more visible, and he now has five goals in the past two games so he's been pretty visible.
"He's on fire," Suter said. "He's been working hard, playing hard, doing the right things, and now he's finally getting rewarded for it. It's huge for our team."
On his first goal, his fourth in the past two games, his fifth against Colorado in five games this season, and his 11th against Colorado in 19 games as a member of the Wild, Parise benefited from an all-world pass from Mikael Granlund. It was Granlund's 100th career assist.
"It's just one of those things, but our team has done a really good job against these guys," Parise said of his production against the Avalanche. Going back a few years, we've played in some huge games against them, we've always come in and played well here, we've played well against them, and we were able to continue that tonight."
His second goal, on the power play, exhibited the kind of confidence Parise is playing with right now. He wanted the puck in the high slot, got it from Suter, and didn't hesitate before firing into the top corner, good for Suter's 400th career point.
"It was more of making an adjustment to the way that they were killing," Parise said. "They take away a lot of the low plays, and we saw that they left the middle of the ice open. We talked about it between periods, and it ended up working in the third."
Parise is playing at a very high level right now, something the Wild would like to continue for it down the stretch.
"That’s what I expect every night," interim Head Coach John Torchetti said. "That’s what he’s all about. He’s our best competitor and that’s what he’s got be every night. He certainly wanted it and he’s been like that for a while now."
After surrendering a power-play goal for the first time in eight games on Thursday, the Wild's penalty kill came up big for Minnesota in Denver.
For context, the Wild's penalty kill was very effective against the Calgary Flames in its past game, going 4-for-5 and only getting beaten when a point shot sprung off the end boards and into a dangerous area.
On Saturday, the Wild didn’t give Colorado much of anything on its five power plays, all of which were killed.
Zone entries were made difficult by the Wild standing up at the blue line. Minnesota won puck battles along the walls, and used quick, short passes below the circles to relieve forecheck pressure and clear the zone.
"Just everyone is forcing at the right time, and sitting back at the right time," Suter said. "We're blocking shots. When the PK is going, everyone has to be going."
And perhaps most important, and another key factor the Wild said it has seen in its penalty kill is the effectiveness of its goaltender.
"It starts with the big boy, Dubnyk," Torchetti said "He competes and he’s big and he controls the rebounds. I think he enjoys the push from the other team and I think he gets better and stronger from it."
Minnesota has now killed off 24 of the past 25 penalties it has taken. That's a telling number for a team that not-so-long-ago was trying to find answers to its penalty kill.
"I really like how we're going lately (on the penalty kill)," Dubnyk said. "Guys are working real hard, and getting the job done. It's been easy on me."
Momentum in hockey is such a strange, fickle beast. The final minute of the second period Saturday is no better indicator of the parabolic peaks and valleys of randomness.
The Wild led 1-0, and it looked as if the teams would go into intermission that way. But an Erik Haula defensive play in the neutral zone coupled with an Avalanche line change sprung Nino Niederreiter on a breakaway with 71 seconds remaining.
A Semyon Varlamov blocker-save later made it appear Colorado would get out of the period down a goal.
Not so fast.
Forty-nine seconds later, Justin Fontaine threaded a pass to a cutting Jordan Schroeder, who deflected the puck, popping it into Varlamov, and in.
"That goal at the end of the period is massive," Dubnyk said. "It's a much different feeling going into the third period with a two-goal lead than it is 1-0. To execute like that in the dying seconds is huge."
Just like that, it was a 2-0 game, and the Wild had a major insurance goal in its pocket with 20 minutes separating it from a regulation victory.
"It was nice to get on the score sheet, and to be able to get one in the last minute of the second period to go up two, that always gives you some confidence going into the third," Schroeder said. "A little bit of a lead, so we'll take it."
The last time the Wild was in Colorado, rookie defenseman Mike Reilly was a scratch. It was part of a week in which Reilly spent up with the Wild in the role of understudy, watching and learning and preparing himself for the current tour he finds himself on.
Pepsi Center is not an easy building to play in for the Wild. Colorado is physical, finishes just about every check (and even some others), and doesn't give puck-carriers — especially defensemen — time to think.
What Reilly did on Saturday though was show poise in all three zones that allowed him to play a steady game. There was no panic in his own end when getting blitzed by a forechecker: instead, Reilly kept his head up, identified an outlet, and confidently moved the puck.
In the second, some of the flare that is an exciting upside to Reilly's game came out when he spun past Erik Johnson in the offensive zone, worked his way toward the crease, and sent the puck toward the crease.
It was a convincing performance for the rookie at a time the Wild needed its best from everyone.