With end of the regular season looming like a final exam, the games have gotten harder, while the math to determine Stanley Cup Playoff combatants has gotten easier. Tonight, the equation is simple for the Minnesota Wild: win and you’re in.
The Wild skates in its final home game of the season hosting Central Division rival, the Winnipeg Jets. With a regulation or overtime win, Minnesota clinches a berth in the postseason, while knocking Winnipeg down a peg in the Western Conference standings ladder.
Heading into tonight’s contest, Minnesota holds the West’s first wild card spot, with both the Jets and Los Angeles Kings hot on its trail. Both the Kings and Jets trail the Wild by four points, with L.A. holing the tiebreaker with more regulation and overtime wins.
“We know what’s at stake; we know what’s at stake for them,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “But there’s a game to be played and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play it the right way.”
On the verge of the end of the regular season, Minnesota holds its own playoff destiny, something that seemed like a pipe dream just a few months ago.
“You have to get excited for these types of games,” Yeo said. “This time of year, it’s fun to be playing these types of games — meaningful games, games where you have to be at your best. I think we should get excited for that challenge.”
Goaltender Devan Dubnyk has helped head the Wild’s postseason push. The netminder knows that the Jets will come in with frenetic energy trying to keep its own postseason hopes alive. He wants the club to earn its way into the playoffs tonight.
“It’s a big game tonight against a team we know is desperate. We’re desperate as well,” Dubnyk said. “We’re not planning on going into the next four games and losing our way into the playoffs; that’s not a way to approach it, and, obviously not a feeling you want to have going in.
“It’s going to be a fun game tonight. There’s going to be a great energy and a lot on the line, so it’ll be good.”
Minnesota will have its captain, Mikko Koivu, back in the lineup tonight. The team’s third-leading scorer since the All-Star Break (7-14=21), suffered a scratched cornea and missed the team’s last outing against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.
“It’s a scratch on the eye, a little accident,” Koivu said. “It is better and thanks to the doc, who made it work.”
The 32-year-old took warmups, but was a surprise scratch (no pun intended). It was the first game the center missed this season. However, he’s glad to be back in for a critical contest.
“I felt it was too dangerous to go out there and play. I didn’t feel comfortable going into the game,” Koivu said. “It feels like it gets more important when you get towards the end.”
“The good thing about it, too, is it was only one game and let’s move forward.”
Without Koivu, the Wild’s lineup was in flux from the start of the game. Erik Haula and Charlie Coyle moved around between Nino Niederreiter and Chris Stewart. Also, the club’s specialty teams saw several different five-man units without Koivu in his usual spot on the half-wall.
“It threw us a bit of a curve ball, for sure, just in terms of how you prepare for the game, the power play set ups you have and the lines that you’re going with,” Yeo said. “You saw, it was a bit a scramble. Almost every power play we were going with a different group. The only line we were able to keep in tact through the course of the game was [Granlund’s] line.”
Haula will move to the fourth line alongside Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Carter, who is in because of the physical nature of the Jets. Coyle will be back between Thomas Vanek and Justin Fontaine.
Coyle said there is added pressure on both teams with the stakes a spot in the postseason. The 23-year-old said that the Wild has always responded when needed this year. With postseason ticket on the line, the Wild doesn’t want to give Winnipeg a glimmer of hope.
“We have a chance to clinch tonight and this team is right behind us,” Coyle said. “We don’t want to give them any room to comeback and we want to put them behind us and set ourselves up for playoffs.”