Knocking on the door for a Western Conference wild-card spot, the Minnesota Wild begin a key three-game California road trip on Thursday night when face the San Jose Sharks.
Minnesota has crept within one point of Winnipeg for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference and has two games in hand on the Jets. The Wild have won six of their last eight games, including a key four-point playoff swing game against Nashville, 3-1, on Tuesday night in Saint Paul, Minn.
It marks quite a turnaround for a team that began the season 1-6-0, and in mid-February traded one of its best forwards, Jason Zucker, to Pittsburgh and fired head coach Bruce Boudreau.
"To be where we are now in a Western Conference that's so tight is pretty fun," goaltender Alex Stalock told twincities.com after making 37 saves in the win over the Predators. "There have been times throughout the season where I guarantee people have doubted what's going to happen."
Stalock, a native of Saint Paul who has compiled a 4-1-0 record and 2.01 goals-against and a .932 save percentage while starting the last five games in goal, was asked about the playoff pressure the Wild will be facing down the stretch.
"What is there to lose at this point?" he said. "It's a group in here that's been pegged to lose games since the beginning of the season, so it's kind of us against whoever's counting us out right now."
Forward Kevin Fiala, named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Monday, continues to sizzle for the Wild. He scored a goal and assisted on another against Nashville for his fifth straight multi-point game. He has 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in the past 15 games.
"I feel like if we play like this, we're going to be dangerous," Fiala said. "It's 16 games left. We can't be satisfied with this.
Veteran forward Zach Parise, a hot topic at the recent trade deadline, also scored against Nashville, giving him a goal in his third consecutive game six points in the last four games.
"No pressure," Minnesota interim coach Dean Evason after his team leapfrogged Nashville in the playoff standings on Tuesday. "We're just playing the same way. It's just guys playing really hard. It was a really good hockey game for sure."
The trip to the West Coast is a chance for the Wild, who play six of their next nine at home after the trip, to continue to rack up points. San Jose (13th in the Western Conference, 62 points), Los Angeles (15th, 56), which they face on Saturday afternoon, and Anaheim (14th, 60), Sunday's opponent, are the three lowest teams in the conference.
The Sharks have won three straight, however, including a 5-2 home victory over Toronto on Tuesday night as Evander Kane scored two goals and Martin Jones stopped 25 shots.
San Jose, which is 12 points out of a wild-card spot with just 16 games left, has decided to take on a spoiler role down the stretch, according to Kane.
"We've kind of made up our mind as a group, and as players, that we want to ruin seasons for some teams and be as disruptive as we can down the stretch," Kane said.
This is the third of three regular-season meetings between the teams. San Jose has won the first two, 6-5, at home on Nov. 7, and 2-0 at Minnesota on Feb. 15, spoiling Evason's head coaching debut in the process. last 13 games. Shaquille Harrison had 17 points in the setback.