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With regular season over, Wild must find a way to flip playoff switch

More than two weeks after clinching postseason spot, Minnesota's playoff wait is finally over

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

After two weeks of glorified exhibition hockey, now the games will count for real. 

Sure, the Wild have had placement inside the West Division on the line. It had a slight chance at a division title shortly after clinching its playoff spot. Home ice was even a possibility until the final two games of the regular season.

And while coach Dean Evason has done his best to keep the players focused on the next game, as he's done all season, it'd be hard to imagine the minds of those same players haven't drifted to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Following a 7-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues in the regular season finale on Thursday night at Enterprise Center, the Wild has no choice but to put a the frustrating end to the campaign behind it and put its focus on Sunday afternoon and Game 1 of its First Round playoff series. 

Video: MIN@STL: Foligno bats rebound out of midair for goal

"It's always tough to forget about it and move on. It's always in the back of your head, not that you want to play safe hockey, but you want to feel good going into playoffs. This is what we play for," said Wild forward Marcus Foligno. "You wanna do things right and come out on top in every game. But we know that this is what matters most and it's come Sunday. We have the experience in our locker room, we have the right mind set and we know it's going to be a grind. I think the way we look at our team, it's been that way all year. It's been some ups and downs but we've been a team that's been resilient and pushed back in games we've been down and that's how our mindset has to be coming into these playoffs." 

Minnesota clinched its spot in the postseason more than two weeks ago on April 24. With nine games remaining on the schedule, it was the earliest the Wild had ever clinched a playoff spot in an 82-game season, much less a condensed 56-game one. 

Of course, it has helped that seven of those nine games have come against teams in the West that will be a part of the postseason, with five of those contests coming versus the Blues. 

But that's still a long time to take a day-by-day approach when you already know a playoff spot is a given. 

Video: MIN@STL: Suter scores 43 seconds after Sturm's goal

"We're excited. We've been waiting a little bit for this I think," said Wild forward Joel Eriksson Ek. "We just want to get going, it's going to be really fun and like Moose said, it's gonna be a really exciting series. It's going to be fun."

When those playoffs begin on Sunday, the Wild will be in Las Vegas, where Minnesota will commence its first-ever playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Knights have been at or near the top of the West Division standings all season long, but the Wild has had tremendous success against Vegas since the team entered the League in 2017.

Even this season, in eight games, the Wild has posted a record of 5-1-2 against the Knights. 

Video: Dean Evason postgame vs St. Louis

"There's always those teams that you seem to match up well [against]," said Wild coach Dean Evason. "Very similar hockey clubs. I don't know the reason. But every game certainly this year has been real good games, real intense hockey games, so it'll be a lot of fun if that's how it shakes out."

Minnesota and Vegas just recently tangled in St. Paul, with the Wild winning in regulation 6-5 and losing 3-2 in overtime. 

The Wild has posted at least a point in each of the past six games between the clubs. Of course, points no longer matter ... it's the wins that count. 

And nobody in the NHL has more wins against Vegas since it entered the League than ... Minnesota. 

Video: MIN@STL: Sturm locates loose puck, opens scoring

"We find that when you play good teams like that, great teams, you raise up your play a little bit and just emotional games against them. It's always been fun. It's always been back and forth and physical and heavy. So it's suits us well," Foligno said. "They're a great team. We're a great team. So it's gonna be a fun series. When we play aggressive, we're a big hockey team, a smart hockey team and we know how to play with that style and in that emotion. We've just come out on top most times against them."

While Minnesota has had good luck against Vegas, it has struggled against the Blues, who finished off the two-game sweep on Thursday and dealt the Wild just its second regulation loss of the season on the second of back-to-backs, and its first in more than two months. 

Perhaps most surprising was how Thursday's script played out.

The Wild led 3-0 after a brilliantly played first 20 minutes, only to see things unravel in the second, as St. Louis posted four-straight goals to take a one-goal lead into the third, where the Blues continued to extend its lead.

"The first period was outstanding. We did so many good things. Played the right way. Played hard, scored goals that we need to score as far as getting to the net and shooting pucks and getting it to the top," Evason said. "Obviously it unravelled on us. Yeah it's disappointing. No question it is. But this is a hockey club we've talked about it before that's won a Stanley Cup two years ago and they just plug away. They just continue. They didn't get rattled. Some teams might go away. They didn't go away. They just kept pushing and we didn't handle it very well after that."

Despite a clunker of an effort on the scoreboard in the regular season's final two games, Evason is convinced his team can wipe the slate clean for the playoffs, which will begin Sunday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena. 

That's what this club has prepared all season for.

"We've shown it. We've done it. They've set a standard for themselves that it doesn't carry over good or bad," Evason said. "Regardless of who we have in the lineup we're still Minnesota Wild players and come a few days from now when the puck is dropped we'll be ready to go."

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