ST. PAUL, Minn. -- With the pressure of making its first postseason since 2008 reaching a fever pitch following five straight home losses, the Minnesota Wild knew they needed to be at their best in the final three games of the season in order to hang on to their playoff berth. They got off to a good start against the defending Stanley Cup champions at Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild got goals from Charlie Coyle and Cal Clutterbuck 16 seconds apart in the first period and hung on in the third to beat the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 on Tuesday night.
Clutterbuck, who said the game was the biggest of his professional career, was credited with the game-winner at 16:37 when he flew down the left side boards and rifled a high shot that beat Kings goaltender Jonathan Bernier to the short side for his fourth of the season and first since March 16 -- a span of 19 games.
"I wish I could remember what was going through my head. I just kinda closed my eyes," Clutterbuck said. "It's nice to contribute that way, obviously."
The victory snapped a five-game home losing streak for the Wild and gave them a critical victory in their fight for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Minnesota is seventh with 53 points, two more than the eighth-place Columbus Blue Jackets and three more than the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings. The Wild and Blue Jackets have two games remaining; the Red Wings have three.
"We've got an opportunity to make the playoffs and this was a huge, huge game for us," Clutterbuck said.
The loss extended the Kings' road losing streak to five. L.A. visits Detroit on Wednesday night.
"We didn't play three periods tonight. We didn't deserve to win," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "We knew [Minnesota was going to be desperate] coming in, they're fighting for a playoff spot, they're right there. They played with the determination to win tonight."
Minnesota played one of its finest periods of the season in the first, getting back to the basics of coach Mike Yeo's system -- getting pucks deep, using an effective forecheck to create turnovers and generally making life difficult for its opponent.
After a slow first couple of minutes, the Wild started winning shifts and before long, Yeo had cycled a couple of times through each forward line with Minnesota carrying the play.
The period was reminiscent of each of its last two opening periods at home -- the lone difference being the Wild capitalized on a couple of chances, allowing them to play most of the night from in front.
Yeo raved about his leadership core afterwards, praising the specific efforts of captain Mikko Koivu, forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who racked up 32:17 of ice time -- third highest of his career -- Tuesday night.
"Mikko, the guy was unbelievable, he was all over the ice," Yeo said. "This time of year, you see leaders playing like that… It was the same thing I thought last game. This game, I thought everybody was going right along with them."
With just three whistles through the first 16 minutes of game time, the Wild finally took advantage of its zone time when Parise raced to a loose puck behind the net and saucered a pass over the stick of Kings defenseman Matt Greene's stick right to Coyle, who was standing in front of the net. The rookie buried his eighth of the season past a sprawling Bernier at 16:21.
"I don't think there was any [margin of error on the pass]," Coyle said. "I just tried to find an open space and I didn't know if he was going to try and put it there, it was a tight little space. He just sauced it right over the guy and right on my stick. All I had to do was direct it into the net. Great play by him."
On the next shift, Clutterbuck gave the Wild its first two-goal first period in more than a month.
"They're a veteran hockey club, they're not a young hockey club," Sutter said. "They have a lot of guys used to playing in big games. That's what they did."
Things got chippy late in the second period when Brown appeared to elbow Wild winger Jason Pominville in the head. Pominville stayed on the ice a few moments before skating wobbly to the bench. He did not return and no penalty was called.
"I haven't seen it yet," Brown said. "I had the puck on my stick, he's coming to hit me. I'm just bracing myself."
"Got the puck on your stick, pretty tough to do anything else," Sutter said.
Not surprisingly, the guys in the other room seemed to see it differently.
"You hate to see a hit to the head, that's all," Yeo said, clearly choosing his words carefully. "Can't really say much more than that."
"I saw an elbow in the face," Clutterbuck said. "You want to [get revenge], but we had to win the game. So we did."
The Kings appeared to get the benefit of a couple of other non-calls and in turn, sucked some of the life from the building. They capitalized on the momentum shift in the dying seconds of the period when Jeff Carter received a pass in the slot from Brad Richardson and rifled a wrister past Niklas Backstrom with 0.8 seconds remaining for his 26th of the season.
Los Angeles was on the attack almost the entire third period, but the Kings were stymied by Backstrom on all 12 shots they got on goal. His last save may have been his best of the season -- he made a sprawling save going from right to left to rob Slava Voynov of a sure goal with 13 seconds left in regulation -- one he actually stopped with his right calf.
The victory improved Backstrom's record to 23-14-3 -- he's tied for the most victories in the League.
Minnesota has two days off before hosting the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night and playing at the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday. Any combination of two points in those games clinches a spot in the playoffs, although various other results from around the league could get the Wild in before they take the ice for their next game.
Los Angeles has already secured a postseason berth and will play its final road game of the season Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena before capping the regular season at home Saturday against San Jose.
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