DENVER – Lounging in front of his locker, music blaring in the background, Mikko Koivu chatted about what it meant to the team, the organization and the city to make it back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Yeah, but what about him? What did it mean to him?
Only then did the gravity of the moment begin to dawn on the captain of the Minnesota Wild.
“This,” Koivu said, “is a big deal.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Devin Setoguchi broke a second-period tie and Niklas Backstrom stopped 29 shots, helping the Wild secure the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 3-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night.
Zach Parise scored and Pierre-Marc Bouchard added a late empty-net goal for the Wild, who earned the No. 8 seed and will face top-seeded Chicago in the first round of the post-season. Minnesota had a chance to wrap up a spot on Friday, but fell 6-1 at home to Edmonton.
That lopsided loss led to an anxious 24 hours. It also led to a team meeting, when coach Mike Yeo got to look into the eyes of his players and see if they were ready.
They were, too.
“I was very confident going into today, knowing the group we have, knowing the leadership we have, seeing how we’ve responded in the past,” Yeo said. “If you’re not on the inside and don’t know the guys you have, it’s a little more difficult (to understand).”
The Wild were thought to be almost a lock for the post-season after investing $196 million in free agents Ryan Suter and Parise. But they had to sweat it out to the last game of the regular season.
Just a month ago, the Wild led the Northwest Division but swayed down the stretch, going 5-8-1.
They had no wiggle room as Columbus—tied with the Wild for the final spot heading into the last game—rallied to beat Nashville, 3-1. Minnesota held the tiebreaker over the Blue Jackets, provided the team beat Colorado.
Yeo never once asked about the Columbus score. Neither did his players.
“Operated under the assumption they were going to win and we needed to win this game,” Yeo explained.
Not once did the Avs broadcast the Blue Jackets’ highlights on the scoreboard, either. They could have, just to make the Wild grip their sticks a little tighter.
“Very classy by them,” Koivu said. “We were able to focus on our game. It helped a little bit, to focus on your game.”
Making the post-season is a big step for a team that hasn’t been there since the 2007-08 season.
“Let’s make it clear: We’re not done,” Yeo said. “We’re not going to sit on cloud nine and say this is a huge accomplishment. This is a step, a big step, a difficult step for us.
“Now that confidence is there.”
Ryan O’Reilly had the lone goal for Colorado, which finished in last place in the West. It remains to be seen if coach Joe Sacco is retained after the Avalanche failed to make the playoffs for a third straight season.
“I’m going to go about my business as usual. Just as I always do,” Sacco said. “My job is to coach this team. … We’re certainly headed in the right direction.
“As far as those decisions that will be made, those are the decisions that are out of my hands. I’m not really worried about that right now.”
Setoguchi gave the Wild the lead midway through the second period when he wound up and lined a slap shot past a screened Semyon Varlamov on a power play. Colorado pulled Varlamov with 1:38 remaining, but struggled to work it into the Wild zone. Bouchard sealed the win by hustling down the ice and tapping the puck into the net with 3.4 seconds left.
Minnesota caught a break early in the second when a goal by Chuck Kobasew was disallowed after replay officials ruled the puck went in on a kick. Kobasew’s right skate knocked it past Backstrom, who was livid when officials signalled for the goal.
The play went under review for several minutes, before the referee announced it no good, drawing boos from the crowd.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere rested after hurting his groin the night before, giving the start to Varlamov. Giguere went out late in the third against Phoenix and Varlamov helped the Avalanche to a shootout win.
Varlamov, who turned 25 on Saturday, was kept quite busy by the Wild, stopping 30 shots.
This might have been the last NHL game for Colorado’s Milan Hejduk, who grabbed the final puck just in case he’s not back for a 15th season.
“I haven’t made up my mind. I will take some time off to consider it and then make my decision,” he said.
It’s been a tough season for Hejduk, the last remaining link to the 2001 Stanley Cup squad. He had a career-low 11 points and missed time with shoulder and torso injuries.
The 37-year-old Hejduk is second in franchise history in games (1,020), fourth in goals (375) and fifth in assists (430). He’s also just the third Czech-born player to reach 800 points, joining Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias.
NOTES: The Wild recalled Fs Stephane Veilleux and Jason Zucker from Houston of the American Hockey League before the game. Veilleux was a scratch. The team also reassigned forwards Jake Dowell and Carson McMillan to Houston. … Colorado Fs Matt Duchene and P.A. Parenteau each finished with 43 points. The only previous time in the franchise’s history it had teammates share the squad’s scoring title was 2008-09 when Hejduk and Ryan Smyth each had 59 points.