WINNIPEG – The Minnesota Wild will have its first chance to clinch a spot in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sunday when it plays its final regular season road game of the season, against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Wild is five points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. Minnesota has three games remaining, and any combination of the Wild earning four points, and Colorado not earning four points would secure Minnesota its fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs.
For that to happen on Sunday, the Wild would have to win in any fashion, and the Avalanche would have to lose in regulation to the St. Louis Blues. Both games begin at 7 p.m. CT.
It's a far cry from the position the Wild was in 49 days ago, when it found itself in 11th place in the Western Conference, in the midst of an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2) needing to pass three teams and make up five points in eight weeks.
"They've bought in, and they're a great group," said interim Head Coach John Torchetti, who coached his first game for Minnesota 48 days ago. "They're fun to work with. Moving forward with us, we're committed to work for each other, and that's the number one thing."
If the Wild does clinch, it would snap a brief two-game losing streak that has preceded a season-high six game winning streak from March 19 to March 29.
"We have to have the mindset that we have to head into the playoffs playing our best hockey, and feeling good, and playing as a group," Charlie Coyle said. "We kind of got away from it the past couple of games, so we want to treat these games as important games to set ourselves up, and feel good going into the playoffs."
In the Wild's past game, a 3-2 loss against the Detroit Red Wings, Torchetti juggled his lines in the second period, playing Mikael Granlund on the right with with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, and Coyle at center with Jason Zucker and Thomas Vanek.
That's how the Wild will begin the game against Winnipeg, but with Vanek out with an upper-body injury, David Jones will take his spot.
"The film was good on it," Torchetti said. "The scoring chances were good. There was a little bit more of a commitment to the net. We didn't get any really second or third chances off of rebounds that we would like."
The line of Parise, Koivu, and Granlund ended up producing two goals, first when Jonas Brodin scored after the line created a turnover, and then when Granlund scored in the third period to make it 3-2.
"We all have to just play our own game, and play in our strengths, and [Granlund's] strength for sure is his vision with the puck, and the way he can pass the puck," Koivu said. "But also like we saw last game, he can shoot the puck well, too. We're trying to find open ice, and he'll find you when he has the puck."
What the Wild does alone cannot clinch a playoff spot on Sunday, but Minnesota said it wouldn't be scoreboard watching at MTS Centre.
"There's a lot of 'ifs' still, so all we can control is our game, and the way we play," Koivu said. "It's been like that for a while, and a lot of games already, and for the most part we've been handling that, and that's our goal."
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon will be out again on Sunday, missing his second straight game with a lower-body injury he sustained against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday.
Here is the Wild's projected lineup:
Zach Parise – Mikko Koivu – Mikael Granlund
Jason Zucker – Charlie Coyle – David Jones
Nino Niederreiter – Erik Haula – Jason Pominville
Justin Fontaine– Jarret Stoll – Jordan Schroeder
Ryan Suter – Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella – Jonas Brodin
Mike Reilly – Matt Dumba
Coyle Reacts To Keith Suspension
The NHL's Department of Player Safety suspended Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith six games for the intent to injure match penalty he was assessed for swinging his stick at Coyle's face on Tuesday.
The suspension will force Keith to sit out the remainder of the Blackhawks' regular season games, as well as its first game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"That's what the league decides, and if that's what they think, I respect that," Coyle said. "We'll move on; that's all."
Coyle said he thought the league handled the situation well, and that Keith called him the other day to apologize.
"He sounded pretty genuine and I respect that, for a guy to call or reach out," Coyle said. "I give him some credit for that. We had a good talk, he apologized and all that.”