Wild are fighting for their playoff lives

Published 7:54 am Monday, March 26, 2018

By Dane Mizutani

Pioneer Press

As crazy as it sounds, maybe it’s a good thing the Wild haven’t locked up a playoff spot yet. At least this way, they can’t take their foot off the gas.

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You might remember last season, the Wild were one of the best teams in the NHL until a horrible 4-10-2 stretch in March that left them sputtering into the playoffs. While the Wild managed to right the ship with a 4-1-0 stretch in April, they bowed out in five games of a disastrous first-round series against the rival St. Louis Blues.

“Last March we were playing pretty awful, and we were so far ahead of everybody that we weren’t worried about anything,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “This March, we seem to be playing pretty good and the race is so tight that we have to worry about it every day.”

It raises the question: Is it better to be way ahead of the Western Conference cut line and playing like a minor league team, or to be right up against the cut line and playing well?

“Well, I’d prefer to be way ahead,” Boudreau said before acknowledging that there’s something to be said about playing at a high level down the stretch. “If we make the playoffs, we’ll have made the playoffs going in playing really good.”

That’s because with nine games left in the season the Wild (41-24-8, 90 points) are still locked in one of the tightest playoff races in league history. Luckily, they are 5-4-1 so far in March, already better than last season’s mark, and have had four days off heading into Saturday’s game against the West-leading Nashville at Xcel Energy Center.

“It’s definitely a lot different,” winger Nino Niederreiter said. “Every game means so much more. … It’s good that we’ve been on the right track and getting better and better.”

After the Wild go to battle with the Predators, they will immediately have to get ready for Sunday’s game against the Boston Bruins at the X, which sets up a sprint to the finish line.

Those games this weekend serve as a good preview for the final two weeks, as the only team the Wild will face down the stretch that’s out of the playoff picture is the Edmonton Oilers, and they have arguably league’s best player in superstar Connor McDavid.

“I think it’ll be good for us,” winger Zach Parise said. “Just looking at the pace and the intensity of our last few games, we can really tell it’s starting to build toward that time of the season. Not as if we took our foot off the gas last season. We just knew we were in.

“Now we have to make sure we’re sharp and getting our game in the right spot. I think it’ll be some great challenges and it’ll be really good for us to prepare like that.”
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