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Thriving Under Pressure

by Mike Doyle / Minnesota Wild

It looked like the Wild was done. For two periods on Saturday, Nov. 23 in Winnipeg, the club didn’t play well and trailed the Jets in the third period.

However, the team was building, chipping away and trying to claw its way back, with two of its leaders heading the charge. Then, with only 5:58 left in regulation the club took a penalty and was shorthanded. A goal from Winnipeg would all but seal Minnesota’s fate, but Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise wouldn’t allow this game to be decided by providence. They needed but one chance to draw Minnesota even.

“The game wasn’t going well for us and you never want to, in your own mind say, ‘It’s got to be me, I’ve got to do this,’” Parise said. “You don’t want it to turn into that, but, at the same time, with our line we expect ourselves to do that and we need to do that.”

The duo got an opportunity and pounced. Defenseman Ryan Suter picked up the puck and moved it ahead to Koivu streaking down the left side of the ice. Suter crashed the net, while the center bided his time and waited for a hole to open. Parise, on the right side, moved into that hole and Koivu threaded a cross-ice pass to the winger, who fired it into the twine to send the contest into overtime.

Before their contest last night, St. Louis Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock watched film of the game and acknowledged the play.

“Winnipeg looks like they have the game well in control and just going to wind the clock down,” Hitchcock said. “Three good players make a good play to tie the game and they win it in a shootout. Those are things impact players do.

“Their best players are their best players every night.”

Late-game heroics have become a bit of a habit for the pair.

Coming into last night’s game, Koivu was one of only two players in the NHL this season to score two game winners with under five minutes remaining in regulation, both coming last week (Nov. 17 vs. Winnipeg at 3:12 and Nov. 20 in Ottawa at 2:57). Parise’s game-tying goal against Winnipeg was the second time this month he’s sent a game into overtime with a late tally (Nov. 13 vs. Toronto at 4:17). A look through the November box scores, you’ll see that either Koivu or Parise, or both for that matter, have contributed on a majority of the team’s third period goals and late rallies.

“They’re competitors,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “Those elite athletes, they always seem to find a way. When things matter the most, they want that spotlight, they want the puck and they want the chance, and those guys have been able to deliver with it.”

“Clutch” is a term that is often used by talking heads to define and separate good players from great ones. But the term is used so often it can begin to lose meaning.

In a weird way, Koivu believes that coming through under pressure is almost equitable to busting out of a slump. Being clutch has more to do with belief in oneself than a gene you’re born with.

“You just believe in what you’re doing,” Koivu said. “It’s kind of similar when things are not going the right way—you have to believe in what you’re doing and continue to work hard. The harder and longer you go, eventually it will pay off, and it’s been working a lot for us lately.”

Parise acknowledges that being “clutch” in hockey isn’t necessarily a measureable trait. He does believe that you have to put yourself in situations to be successful and believes the team’s bench boss has a knack for understanding that.

“Coincidentally, lately, we’ve happened to score the big goal late, which is what we need and are expected to do,” Parise said. “I think Yeo does a good job, sometimes he can see that we’re going and that he’s got to get us back out there. All of a sudden you get one good shift, then you get another one. Then you’re feeling good and the puck goes in the net. So it goes hand-in-hand, you’ve got to get yourself going, but you have to get those opportunities, too.”

Maybe preforming under pressure doesn’t have anything to do with being clutch.

Everyone likes to win, but when losing burns, like an iron left face down on a dress shirt, it can be a powerful motivator.

“For all that they do as far as creating offense and all the little things they do in their game, it can’t be overstated as to how valuable it is to have leaders like them—just as far as how badly they hate to lose,” Yeo said. “You have a lot of people that want to win, but when you hate to lose, I think that makes you more competitive and they exemplify that.”

While Parise is quick to point out that he’s never met a professional athlete that likes to lose, there is a flame that flickers inside and can quickly morph into a wildfire: “I think the last couple of games we’ve been playing well and we get so consumed in the game and (angry) that we say to ourselves, ‘We need to pick our game up and need to get this goal.’ A lot of times it doesn’t work like that.”

The team’s best players are relied upon when the game is on the line, and that’s the way they like it.

“It affects every player when it’s tight and the game is on the line,” Koviu said. “You need to be sharp every shift. If the game is pretty much done in the third period with a big lead, it can get sloppy, even though it shouldn’t, that’s just the way it is.

“It’s a matter of staying steady, and if you get one or two chances, you have to be ready to bury them. (The standings are) tight, and that’s the way it’s going to be all season.”

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