ST. PAUL, Minn. — The time on the scoreboard was ticking toward zero. The Minnesota Wild were clinging to a one-goal lead the Los Angeles Kings weren’t ready to give up on.
Kings defenceman Slava Voynov signalled to a teammate on the other side he was open, corralled a perfect through-the-slot pass at the far edge of the right circle and wound up for the potential tying shot. Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom lunged to block the puck with the middle of his right leg and smothered it in the crease with help from defenceman Ryan Suter with 11 seconds left.
Almost everyone in the arena exhaled.
"I thought Backy was very good tonight, making key saves at key times," Wild coach Mike Yeo said after a 2-1 win Tuesday tightened his team’s grip on seventh place in the Western Conference. "I thought he had a sense of control and kind of an air of confidence about him tonight, which is obviously extremely important. No matter how hard you play, you can’t play perfect."
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The Wild know that well.
They lost eight of their first 11 games in April, including a couple at home when they dominated most of the night only to lose a critical contest. This time, they were able to match their intensity with the goals that are all that matter.
"You just have to stick with it. We talked before: There’s going to be ups and downs," captain Mikko Koivu said.
With 53 points, the Wild are three points behind sixth-place St. Louis and one point ahead of Detroit and two ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blues, Wild, Blue Jackets and Red Wings each have two games remaining over the final three days of the regular season.
Minnesota would win a tiebreaker with Detroit because of more non-shootout victories, 21 to 19. Columbus has 17. The Wild only need to beat either Edmonton at home on Friday or win at Colorado on Saturday to secure a place in the playoffs.
They can clinch a spot even before they play again, if the Blue Jackets lose at Dallas on Thursday.
After signing Suter and Zach Parise to those mega contracts last summer, this lockout-shortened season took on a playoffs-or-bust vibe. In January and March, the Wild’s first post-season appearance since 2008 looked like a mere formality. In February and April, not so much.
They lost 6-1 at San Jose last Thursday and 4-1 at home to Calgary on Sunday, heightening the tension and pressure to the point where a team meeting was held before Monday’s practice. The clear-the-air session apparently did some good.
"Well, right now it looks pretty good, right?" Koivu said. "But we all know how you have to play the game. It’s just every game we’re trying to do the same things that we’re supposed to do, and a lot of that is mental right now getting toward the end of the season. Your mind has to be in it each and every shift. It’s not about effort. It’s about making the right plays."
They did that against the Kings.
Suter played 32-plus minutes, the fifth time he’s played more than half of the game in the last nine appearances. His partner on defence, rookie Jonas Brodin, was on the ice for a career-high 29 minutes and 22 seconds. Koivu, Parise and rookie Charlie Coyle were all over the ice on the first line. Cal Clutterbuck was relentless, registering six hits and ending his 18-game streak without a goal in a successful union with Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen on the new-look second line.
When Jason Pominville was knocked out of the game by an elbow from Kings captain Dustin Brown in the second period, everyone else had to play and contribute a little bit more.
"The last game could’ve unraveled us, too, and it didn’t. That’s how you respond," Yeo said.
NOTES: The Wild had Wednesday off from practice. … Backup goalie Josh Harding has been picked as the Wild nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, presented annually to the NHL player for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the sport. Harding was on injured reserve for two months while he adjusted to medication for multiple sclerosis, a disease he was diagnosed with last summer. Harding returned to the active roster this week. The 28-year-old appeared in four games this season before being sidelined.