This is the most critical juncture of the season, with teams crowded around the last few playoff spots hoping to snag a seat.
In recent weeks, the Wild has played with the urgency that matches that reality – picking up points to put it on the verge of a berth.
But what the team insists isn’t part of its in-house preparation is pressure.
“From the beginning of the year, we were picked to take last in the NHL or second-to-last in the NHL,” goalie Alex Stalock said. “Two weeks ago, we were on the outside of the playoffs. Trade deadline, we moved some guys. I mean, what is there to lose at that point?
“We’re going to have fun this last 20 games, we said. Let’s keep it light. We’ve got guys that are playing with confidence. Yeah, pressure, you want to win games. But at the same time, it’s a group in here that’s been pegged to lose games since the beginning of the year. So, it’s kind of us against whoever’s counting us out, really, right now.”
The Wild certainly backed up that mentality Tuesday, waltzing out of the biggest game of its season with a ho-hum 3-1 win over the Predators at Xcel Energy Center – a result that helped it jump two teams (including Nashville) while moving within a point of both wild cards in the Western Conference.
“The last little while we’ve responded really well to the importance of the games and just kind of knowing where we are in the standings,” winger Zach Parise said. “… We’ve been playing well. We’ve been working hard. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the offensive zone, and it makes the game a lot easier.”
That’s not all that’s been working for the Wild.
Stalock has been rock-solid, improving to 10-3-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and three shutouts in his 14 starts after his 37-save showing vs. Nashville.
“Alex is real committed, really sound, and isn't trying to do too much,” interim coach Dean Evason said. “He has a very calming effect for our group for a guy that can get very excitable. He's obviously done a great job.”
Winger Kevin Fiala continues to dazzle.
He scored the game-winning goal and set up the insurance marker, becoming the first player in franchise history to record multi-point efforts in five straight games. His 51 points pace the Wild.
Don’t be surprised to catch Fiala’s finish Tuesday on highlight reels for the next while, as he showed incredible patience on a 2-on-1 rush by shifting the puck around a sprawled Predators defender before sending the puck top-shelf.
“He’s magic,” Stalock said. “He gets it, and he’s the guy where fans are starting to get out of their seats now.”
Nashville was completing a back-to-back and was steamrolled the night before by Edmonton 8-3, but credit the Wild defense for tightening up in front of Stalock and helping eliminate additional whacks at pucks – a stinginess that’s essential this time of the season when vying for the playoffs.
“We were committed to collapsing in front of Alex and not giving too many second and third opportunities and really good looks,” interim coach Dean Evason said. “They had some great chances. They’ve clearly got a lot of skill, but I don’t think there were a lot of second, third opportunities. I think that’s a real good commitment by our group.”