Cross Checks: Zach Parise

Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise talks playoff jitters, beating Semyon Varlamov and meeting Ilya Bryzgalov before Game 1 of his team's series against the Colorado Avalanche.
NEWARK, N.J. -- Almost two years have passed since Zach Parise left New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the Minnesota Wild, but the wounds were clearly still fresh for Devils fans when he faced his former club in New Jersey for the first time Thursday night.

The crowd of 14,772 at Prudential Center booed Parise when his name was announced in the Wild’s starting lineup. They preemptively booed him even when he was jabbing at the puck on the first shift of the game.

They booed him every time he touched the puck and did not relent once during the Devils’ 4-3 overtime victory.

[+] EnlargeParise
AP Photo/Bill KostrounZach Parise faced a bunch of booing as he made his return to Prudential Center.
The only time they cheered for him was when he was sent to the penalty box for hooking just 7:33 into play. He got the same treatment when he was stuffed by Devils netminder Cory Schneider on a short-handed breakaway attempt later in the period.

There were signs posted along the corner boards, some worse than others. It was clear Devils fans felt abandoned by the once-revered captain.

Parise was not surprised by the reception. In fact, he anticipated it.

"I was expecting that," he said after the Wild’s overtime loss. "I saw a couple signs that were nice. I was expecting the boos. Once you start playing, you drown them out. You don’t hear them."

Parise still felt like the homecoming was a memorable one. He didn’t deny that there was a different feel to this game. He sensed that upon arriving to his old stomping grounds, where he spent seven seasons, the last of which he served as the team’s captain.

"Some pretty weird feelings pulling up to the rink before the game and playing on this ice again, but it was fun. It was fun to be back," he said. "Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we were planning on, what we had hoped for, but for us to claw back into the game and get a point -- that could be big for us late in the year."

Parise was instrumental in leading the Wild’s comeback, cutting a Devils lead in half with a tip of Ryan Suter’s shot while jostling with Bryce Salvador in front of the net just 21 seconds into the third period.

"The first period, he must have been thinking 'Man, this couldn’t be going any worse.' He takes a penalty, does a great job on the penalty kill and gets a breakaway and doesn’t score," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "To see him get rewarded there in the third, for us, it was great because we know what it meant to him."

The Wild tied the game at three later in the frame to take the game into overtime -- earning a much-needed point given their precarious playoff position in the Western Conference -- but ultimately fell after Devils defenseman Andy Greene’s game winner two minutes into OT.

It was a very Devils-esque win. They controlled much of the game and frustrated the Wild for the majority of play. Parise, who led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in the spring of 2012, knows that type of game well.

"That’s the style of hockey they play," he said. "They grind, they grind, they grind. They don’t put the puck in the middle of the ice. They play low-risk hockey."

That low-risk hockey isn’t quite the same without the dynamic firepower the Devils used to possess, however. The team lost Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in consecutive offseasons, leaving fans feeling rightly perturbed. Even franchise goaltender Martin Brodeur said before the game that the Devils should have never let Parise walk.

But he did, making the gut-wrenching decision to sign with his hometown Minnesota Wild and leaving money on the table elsewhere and inking a matching 13-year, $98 million deal with fellow unrestricted free agent, defenseman Ryan Suter. Maybe fans’ ire would best be directed at general manager Lou Lamoriello, as Brodeur not-so-subtly suggested, but they took it out on Parise instead.

"I don’t have any hard feelings towards them. I understand," Parise said. "I wasn’t expecting cheers, so it’s fine."

Parise’s teammate, Matt Moulson, said Parise showed no outward signs of anxiety before the game. Rather, he went about his normal routine and appeared unconcerned. But having just been through an emotional return himself earlier in the week -- facing the New York Islanders on Long Island for the first time since he was unceremoniously shipped out of town to Buffalo -- Moulson could empathize with the mental toll.

"It’s emotional. You spend so many years putting your heart and soul into a team and you have to come back and play against them," said Moulson, who tallied two goals against his old team Tuesday night but was instead cheered by Islanders fans. "Mine was a little different situation but same emotions I think. You pour everything into your team and that becomes your family. It’s a little weird [when you change teams]."

And those ties still appear strong for Parise, because, as much as fans might resent him, he is clearly still beloved by his former teammates. A group of his old New Jersey buddies made its way down to the visitor’s locker room to catch up after what they knew would be a difficult game for him.

Luckily for Parise, who has had this date circled on the calendar for quite some time, it’s finally over.

"You know, I know his time here means a lot. I know what people think of him here means a lot, too," Yeo said. "Obviously, it was a tough decision, a tough move for him. That said, maybe it’s an opportunity for him to -- I don’t want to say move on -- but that’s what we need him to do. Obviously, we’re happy to have him here."
Zach PariseBruce Kluckhohn/Getty ImagesParise admits he doesn't know what kind of reception to expect from fans at The Rock.
Zach Parise noticed one particular date when he first saw the Minnesota Wild’s 2013-14 schedule. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it wasn’t until March. Midway through the season, he was still able to put the game on the back burner. But now, Parise’s much-anticipated return to New Jersey is right in front of him, with his first game back at Prudential Center against his old New Jersey Devils club on Thursday.

Time to finally face the music.

“I’m excited,” Parise said. “It was a lot of really great memories there and I haven’t been back since. It will be a lot of emotions going through going back to that rink for the first time and everything.”

The 29-year-old Parise, a first-round draft pick (17th overall) by the Devils in 2003, spent the first seven years of his career in New Jersey, where he blossomed into one of the elite forwards in the National Hockey League. He even led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012. But after the team’s surprising playoff run that spring, he decided to test free agency and signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild instead of re-signing with the Devils, as many New Jersey fans had hoped. Parise and stud free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter inked matching 13-year, $98 million deals with Minnesota.

Parise hasn’t been back to New Jersey since and doesn’t quite know what to expect from Devils fans in his return Thursday night.

“I’m guessing some mixed reviews,” said Parise, who has 23 goals and 45 points for the Wild this season. “I don’t know, though. I’ve said it before: What’s important to me is how good I was treated when I was there. I understand sports. Fans love their players and their teams and they don’t want to see players leave, but the part I’ll remember most is how good to me when I was there and that’s what matters.”

Parise still keeps in touch with his former teammates. He was planning to get together with a few of them for a low-key dinner Wednesday night. Those friendships won’t ever fizzle for Parise, no matter where he plays. The bond became particularly strong when the Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in '12. Though they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in a six-game series, it was an experience Parise will never forget.

“You develop bonds that you just don’t get when you don’t make it that far,” Parise. “It’s something that, yeah, I’ll always remember.”

His relationship with general manager Lou Lamoriello remains intact, as well. Despite having to make that tough phone call on July 4, 2012, when Parise told Lamoriello of the decision to return home to Minnesota, the two maintain a good relationship. They trade texts occasionally and even an odd phone call here or there. Parise’s wife, Alisha, still keeps in touch with Lamoriello's longtime secretary, Marie.

There is no bad blood between Parise and the organization.

“We have a great relationship,” Parise said of Lamoriello. “I don’t think he holds a grudge or holds anything against me. He understands that’s the way hockey works. We had a good relationship beyond hockey where I would feel comfortable talking to him or calling him or something like that.”

At the time of Parise’s signing, Lamoriello acknowledged that he couldn’t compete with the tug of home. He understood. Parise now gets to see his father, former NHLer J.P. Parise, almost daily. His dad is able to attend morning skates and join Zach for pregame meals, not to mention the time devoted to being an on-site grandpa to Zach's 2-month-old twins (a boy, Jaxson, and a girl, Emelia).

Was coming home as good as he had hoped?

“It’s been better,” he said. “It’s been great.”

Maybe Devils fans will understand that, too. Parise didn’t just chase the dollar signs. In fact, he left significant money on the table to play for Minnesota (Philadelphia made an offer far more lucrative than the one he signed).

Maybe Devils fans won’t understand. But, according to Parise, that’s OK, too.

“People believe what they want to believe. I don’t know. Maybe it made more sense to them since I wanted to go back to Minnesota,” he said. “You never know.”

The big fish is gone in Ryan Miller but he likely won't be the only goalie traded in the next few days.

For starters, what becomes of the NHL's all-time winningest netminder?

The Minnesota Wild seem like the perfect fit for Martin Brodeur, who no doubt would welcome being reunited with old New Jersey pal Zach Parise.

The Wild have been getting solid goaltending from rookie Darcy Kuemper and he looks like he can be a No. 1. But what if he falters, as some rookies do, or gets hurt?

Niklas Backstrom has been battling injuries all season and is unreliable. Josh Harding was fantastic until his MS flared up again. You feel for him, by the way.

But the Wild are playoff-bound and need assurances in net.

They looked in on Buffalo before Miller was ultimately traded to St. Louis. I never felt the Wild were ready to get into that kind of blockbuster.

But Brodeur or, possibly, Jaroslav Halak (now in Buffalo) are both UFAs July 1 and present certainly smaller investments in terms of what it would take to get them.

Thing is, we still haven't heard from Papa Lou in all this, have we? Veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has kept his intentions rather quiet on what he's going to do with Brodeur, a Hall of Fame backup to Devils starter Cory Schneider. This is a delicate one, for sure. Brodeur is the most important player in Devils history.

On the outside looking in, it just feels to me as if Brodeur is ready to move on. He certainly hasn't shied away from the subject all season long, but always adding that only if Lamoriello felt it was the right thing to do.

To me, it's clear Minnesota would top Brodeur's list. He's got a shot to play games alongside Kuemper plus, aside from the Parise connection, there's the fact Brodeur's twins are at Shattuck St. Mary's school there.

It all ties up in a nice bow, really.

But first, Lamoriello has to want to make the move. Secondly, I don't think the Wild are interested in breaking the bank in terms of what it's going to take to get a goalie in.

So if Halak is cheaper ...

Plus, there are other goalie options. You've got Viktor Fasth in Anaheim, who I believe is available, Tim Thomas in Florida, Justin Peters in Carolina, Ilya Bryzgalov in Edmonton et al.

A source this past weekend simply told me the Wild were kicking tires on different goalie options.

Still, none of those guys above carry the buzz of acquiring the NHL's all-time wins leader in Brodeur.

The latest on Callahan
Sources confirm that Ryan Callahan has softened somewhat of late in his contract demands, but as of Monday morning he's still not close to a deal with the Rangers.

Recently, the Rangers captain dropped his term request from seven years, which had been a major sticking point, to six years, sources confirmed.

But the money he's asking, somewhere just south of $6.5 million, a source said, remains too much money for the Rangers, who I believe would do a six-year, $6 million per year contract.

Doesn't seem as though they're that far apart at this point. But if that remaining gap doesn't close further over the next couple of days, the Rangers seem intent to trade him.

Just doesn't seem right to see Callahan wear another uniform. Hopefully both sides can further reduce this gap.
From the official NHL release:

PARISE, KESSEL AND BACKLUND NAMED NHL 'THREE STARS' OF THE WEEK


NEW YORK (February 3, 2014) – Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise, Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel and Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund have been named the NHL's 'Three Stars' for the period ending Feb.
2.

FIRST STAR— ZACH PARISE, LW, MINNESOTA WILD

Parise led the NHL with eight points (3-5--8) last week as the Wild
(29-21-7) went 1-1-1 in three road contests. Parise began the week by tallying the game-winning goal plus two assists in a 4-2 win at Anaheim Jan. 28, handing the Ducks their second regulation loss in 25 home starts.
He recorded a season-high four points (2-2--4) and nine shots in a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Jan. 30 and notched an assist in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames Feb. 1. Parise also was named captain of the
2014 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team on Jan. 31. The 29-year-old Minneapolis native, who served as an alternate captain for the silver medal-winning U.S. team at Vancouver in 2010, has recorded 35 points
(18-17--35) in 42 games with the Wild this season.

SECOND STAR –- PHIL KESSEL, RW, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Kessel recorded seven points (3-4--7) last week, helping the Maple Leafs (30-21-6) climb to third place in the Atlantic Division with three consecutive victories. He earned an assist on the game-winning goal in a
3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Jan. 28, recorded two assists in a 6-3 victory over the Florida Panthers Jan. 30 and tallied his fifth career hat trick and one assist in a 6-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators Feb. 1. The 26-year-old Madison, Wisc. native, who will represent the United States at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games later this month, leads the Maple Leafs in scoring and is fourth in the League overall with 61 points (30-31--61) in
57 games. His 30 goals rank second in the League to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (39).

THIRD STAR – MIKAEL BACKLUND, C, CALGARY FLAMES

Backlund recorded six points (4-2--6) last week, highlighted by multiple points in each of his three appearances, as the Flames (21-27-7) closed out their first 5-0-0 homestand since Feb. 7-15, 1997. Backlund began the week by notching two goals, one shorthanded, in a 5-4 overtime victory over the Chicago Blackhawks Jan. 28. He tallied two assists in a
4-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks Jan. 30 and he closed the week by recording a shorthanded tally as well as the overtime winner in a 4-3 decision over the Minnesota Wild Feb. 1. The 24-year-old Vasteras, Sweden native increased his season scoring total to 13-14--27 in 54 games.
Time for a little Thanksgiving rambling session to help digest the turkey and the NHL holiday schedule.

Curses, foiled again: Is there such a thing as an Olympic curse? Paul Martin might think so. A lock to make the U.S. team in Vancouver in 2010, Martin broke his forearm early in the 2009-10 season, and complications kept him from making the team that would go on to earn silver in Vancouver. Fast-forward to this season and once again Martin's strong play for Pittsburgh had virtually assured him a place on the 2014 roster, but on Monday he suffered a broken tibia in a game against the Boston Bruins. Amazingly, Martin finished the game but is now sidelined for a month or more. If his rehabilitation goes according to plan -- unlike that of Steven Stamkos, who required surgery to repair a broken tibia earlier this month; Martin's injury will not require surgery -- he should be in place for the mid-February tournament in Russia. Still, you couldn't blame Martin, whose renaissance after a couple of subpar seasons with the Pens has been nothing short of inspiring, for wondering if somewhere someone has an Olympic voodoo doll sporting his jersey.

Talking a Blues streak: Love the idea of a Chicago-St. Louis Central Division finals series next spring, but after listening to the postgame comments involving Colorado coach Patrick Roy and counterpart Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues after the Blues' 4-1 win Wednesday night, it makes us pine a bit for a playoff showdown between these two teams. The Blues have rained a couple of times on the Avs' parade this season, including Wednesday, when St. Louis halted Colorado's three-game winning streak. Hitchcock chastised Roy for his season-opening performance against Anaheim when Roy tried to knock down a barrier between the two teams' benches, calling it "junior hockey." On Wednesday, Roy took issue with Hitchcock talking to the referees and jousting with some of Roy's players, behavior Hitchcock had been critical of when Roy did it. "Seems to me that there's different rules for everybody in this league. I guess the old guys are allowed to do whatever they want, and I guess us, because we are younger, we are not allowed to say anything. I am a little [mad] about that," Roy was quoted by Terry Frei of the Denver Post as saying postgame. Hitchcock responded by saying "Oh, give me a break. Tell Patrick to shut the f--- up." Great stuff. Lost in the postgame commentary was Alex Steen's 20th goal of the season, tying him with Alexander Ovechkin for the league lead.

Man down. And another. And another: It's a grueling time for a handful of teams that are struggling without key players lost to injury while various national teams are also watching with interest in the rehabilitation of said players. The Minnesota Wild were initially believed to be without Zach Parise for up to three weeks after he blocked a shot with his foot earlier in the week, although he did skate Wednesday morning. He was not in the lineup for the Wild's 3-1 loss to Phoenix. They also lost Mikael Granlund, as the previously red-hot Wild dropped their second in a row. Parise is a lock to play in the top six for the U.S. team at the Sochi Olympic Games, and the foot injury shouldn't change that plan, although you'll forgive U.S. GM David Poile if he's more than a little nervous these days (see Martin injury above, Jonathan Quick injury below).

Quick questions: The Los Angeles Kings continue to get great goaltending from stand-in Ben Scrivens as starter Jonathan Quick deals with a groin injury and won't be available until the last week of December -- assuming all goes according to plan. Scrivens stopped 38 of 40 shots in a shootout loss to San Jose on Wednesday night and is 6-1-4 with a league-best .947 save percentage and 1.48 GAA (albeit with a much smaller body of work). Quick is among the most interesting of the walking wounded, given his importance to both the U.S. Olympic team, where he is still considered the top goaltender assuming good health, and the Kings. Hard to imagine GM Dean Lombardi, who will help pick the U.S. Olympic team, isn't being pulled in two directions. Remember Dominik Hasek's injury moments after the 2006 Olympic tournament started in Turin? What did it cost the Ottawa Senators, who were considered Cup contenders at the time? No goalie goes side to side as well as Quick when he's on his game. But what impact does Quick's injury have on the Kings' Cup hopes, especially if he aggravates it by rushing back to solidify his place on the U.S. roster? Maybe he's 100 percent by the end of the calendar year, the U.S. wins a gold and the Kings go on a long run in the spring. But if it doesn't go that way, you know there are going to be lots of questions about how this all unfolded.

Speaking of the West: Yes, we know how good the West is. Pierre LeBrun, the official spokesman for all things Western Conference, reminds us every time we chat or do a podcast. But one of the casualties of the overwhelming concentration of power in the West is a Vancouver Canucks team that just can't seem to get it together and, as a result, is finding itself slowly sinking beneath the playoff surface. A team that won two Presidents' Trophies in recent years (2011, 2012) by dominating on both sides of the puck can't find the back of the net, with just one win in their last eight games. In the seven losses, they have managed to score just nine goals. The power play is rancid, ranking 28th, and the bottom line is if the Sedin twins or Ryan Kesler don't score, it pretty much doesn't get done. Before realignment, the Canucks were pretty much assured a playoff spot just by stepping onto the ice in the old Northwest Division, what with permanent rebuilds going on in Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado. Now in the tough, tough, tough Pacific, the Canucks woke up Thursday morning five points back of the second wild card. Not an insurmountable deficit but still more than a little worrisome for a Canucks team used to cruising into the postseason.

And on to the East: If there is one common trait among the flotsam and jetsam in the Eastern Conference, it's the inconsistency. Just when a team looks like it's going to take off -- take Philadelphia, for instance -- it inexplicably stumbles and falls back to the pack. Of the 16 Eastern Conference teams, only four had won six or more games in their previous 10 as of Thursday morning. In the West, seven of 14 teams had won at least six times. We keep waiting for the numbers to even out, but so far it hasn't happened.

One team, one goal: Maybe they mean nothing, but we always like to check the one-goal game stats. It just seems to make sense that teams that become comfortable in tight, closely fought games are going to be in a good place come the stretch run, when points are at a premium, and beyond that in the playoffs, when the nervousness ratchets up and one-goal games are often the rule. What remains almost inexplicable is the fact that the Senators, one of the best-coached teams in the NHL and one that went to the second round of the playoffs last spring in spite of crippling injuries, cannot get it done in the pinch. Almost half of the Sens' games have been one-goal affairs, and they have the 28th-ranked winning percentage in those games, with a 3-4-4 record. Of the 12 teams with the lowest winning percentage in one-goal games, only the Montreal Canadiens owned a playoff spot as of Thursday morning.

Parise pushes another Wild finish

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
9:42
AM ET
Wild 2, Maple Leafs 1 (SO)
* Wild: 5-0-1 in last 6 games; won 4 straight home games
* Maple Leafs: lost 3 straight road games
* Zach Parise (MIN): 9th goal of season, has scored in 3 of his last 4 games
* Jason Pominville (MIN): scored clinching goal in shootout. He's scored in the shootout round in each of the last 2 games
FROM ELIAS: Zach Parise's tied the score at 1–1 and then scored the decider in the shootout. He’s the first player this season to score a shootout-deciding goal after recording his team’s only regulation-time goal in that game. Two players did that last season.

Flyers 2, Penguins 1
* Brayden Schenn (PHI): 1st multi-goal game this season (had just 4 goals in 17 games this season)
* Sidney Crosby (PIT): Goal (9) (had gone 7 straight games without a goal)
* Flyers: have won 3 straight for 1st time this season; 4-1-1 in past 6 games (3-9-0 in 1st 12 games this season)
* Flyers: 6-1-1 in Pittsburgh the past 4 seasons
When the Minnesota Wild's regular-season game against his former team, the New Jersey Devils, was crossed out last season because of the lockout, Zach Parise had mixed feelings.

"A part you wants to do it and get it over with," Parise, who signed as a free agent with his hometown Wild in July 2012, told ESPN.com back in April. "And then part of me was thinking, 'Maybe it's not so bad to wait a full calendar year to do it.'"

Parise was witness to what teammate Ryan Suter went through in the defenseman's first game back in Nashville -- an environment he described as "pretty hostile." Now the time has come for Parise, though he gets the opportunity to do it on his home turf when the Wild host the Devils in St. Paul, Minn., on Sunday night.

The emotionally charged matchup features two teams that have endured rocky starts but have been recently gaining traction. Winless in their first seven games, the Devils have been playing better, with two straight wins heading into Saturday’s game against the Flyers. Meanwhile, Minnesota has won four of its past five.

With both teams fighting to climb back into the playoff picture, the drama anticipated from Parise's meeting with his old club will have to take a back seat.

"Zach was a great player for us - he still is and he’s a great person, but this isn't about Zach," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told ESPN.com by phone Friday afternoon. "This is about the Devils playing Minnesota."

Lamoriello, who drafted Parise 17th overall in the 2003 NHL draft, said he will always have respect and feel fondness toward Parise, but that he has to differentiate the player from the person. And right now, Parise is just an opposing player his team will face this weekend, the start of a critical three-game road trip for the Devils.

Parise, who is in the second year of a 13-year, $98 million deal with the Wild, is tied with Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund for the team scoring lead with 10 points through 14 games. As of late, he’s been producing at an impressive clip with two goals and five points in the past five games. Recently, he was split from captain Mikko Koivu as coach Mike Yeo opted to use the two players on different lines.

Regardless of where he starts Sunday's game or who he's playing with, the longtime Devil will have the spotlight considering the long-awaited meeting. And though Lamoriello is able to separate the player from the person, that task might not be as easy for Devils fans.

"It's always hard for the fans. That's understandable. That's their team," Lamoriello said. "They feel somebody might have done them wrong, they can’t separate the two [the player and the person], and they shouldn’t. They’re never criticizing the person. [Parise] will always have the respect, but I don’t care who it is. They’ll boo everybody."

Luckily for Parise, playing at home in Minnesota will largely save him from their wrath.


ARLINGTON, Va. -- Injuries are always going to play havoc with the selection of Olympic rosters no matter which country is involved, but the U.S. management team will be paying close attention to the health of center Ryan Kesler. When he’s been healthy and at his best, Kesler has proved he’s a dominant player, a difference-maker. But the former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the game’s top two-way forward has struggled with a variety of injuries over the past couple of years. He is finally healthy.

“I’m good. Finally. Two years,” he said Monday.

The injuries and the time spent recovering from them took their toll on the Vancouver Canuck.

“Mentally tough. It wasn’t fun, especially this time around when you go through 10 months of rehab and break your foot on your first game back, that was tough to take. But it makes you stronger as a person. I’m healthy now and finally able to enjoy a summer with no rehab,” said Kesler, who played in only 17 regular-season games after the lockout.

Not only is Kesler hoping to parlay good health into Olympic success, he’s also looking forward to getting the Canucks back on a Stanley Cup track after two straight first-round playoff exits.

The Canucks were swept by San Jose this past spring, and it cost Alain Vigneault his job as head coach. He was replaced by John Tortorella, who was an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic team four years ago.

“We have the same core. Obviously we know what that core can do,” Kesler said. “I think we’re going to have a new identity this year. Obviously a new coach behind the bench. He’s going to coach a little differently than our last coach, and that’s good sometimes. Sometimes you need change and a fresh face to energize your group.”

“I’ve played for Torts a little bit, and we all know what he’s all about.”

Looking for luck

If there is one player attending the U.S. orientation camp who could use a little Olympic karma, it’s Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin.

As a young player with the New Jersey Devils, Martin was selected to the so-called taxi squad for the 2006 Olympics in Torino. He, Matt Cullen and Hal Gill were in Italy in case of injury but did not stay in the athletes’ village and were in many ways isolated from the rest of the U.S. team.

Four years later, a virtual lock to make the 2010 team, Martin was struck by a puck early in the season and broke his forearm.

“Bill Guerin missed the net by six feet and hit me with the puck,” Martin said.

Initially the prognosis was that he would be out eight weeks, but that stretched to 10 or 11. Then the doctors worried the arm wasn’t healing properly, so Martin ended up at a specialist who ordered surgery the next day.

Even then, with pins and plates in his arm, Martin was hopeful he would heal in time to make the trip to Vancouver. But slowly it became clear it wasn’t going to happen.

“It was tough," Martin said. "As far as disappointment and frustration as far as an athlete goes, that has been my toughest thing to get over so far in my career. I didn’t have expectations as far as was I going to be on the team. But I think when you realize that that opportunity’s there and you get named but you can’t do it, it was a tough pill to swallow, and I struggled with it for a while.”

After a dreadful 2011-12 season, Martin rebounded last season to the kind of form that made him a shoo-in for the Vancouver team. He and defense partner Brooks Orpik were tasked with shutting down opposing teams’ top lines every night and were key penalty-killing specialists, while Martin was also an effective member of the Pens’ power-play unit.

Orpik was a member of the 2010 Olympic team and is also an invitee to the orientation camp.

“I think it definitely helps," Martin said. "I think there is that comfort factor there. Especially after the year last year, I think we found our identity again and especially me. He’s so easy to play with, and obviously he played in the last Olympics and with the coaching staff that we have, I’m very familiar with."

At 32 years old, Martin is a realist. He knows he must take advantage of this opportunity, as it might well be the last chance at playing in an Olympics.

“I’m really excited about this opportunity and the chance to play. Wherever it might be, right side, left side, I just want to play,” the Minneapolis native said.

“I just want to go.”

Where to keep a medal

One member of the Vancouver team who is at the orientation camp has a special place for his silver medal.

“It’s tucked away. I’ve been meaning to put it in a safe, but it’s in this fake stack of books, but it opens up. It’s not really books, it opens up,” forward Zach Parise said.

Does he take it out and look at it sometimes?

“Yeah, I had to bring it out. I don’t just at night grab it and sit on the couch and look at it, but I had to bring it out to New York a couple of weeks ago. I guess that was kind of the first time in a year or two that I’d looked at it. It’s cool to have,” Parise said.

Starting strong

One thing U.S. GM David Poile has made clear is that players who play well at the start of the season will be doing themselves a favor as far as making the final roster. Knowing that they are being scrutinized by the management team that includes NHL GMs Stan Bowman, Dale Tallon, Dean Lombardi, Ray Shero and Paul Holmgren along with former GMs Brian Burke and Don Waddell may be a bit unnerving, especially for the younger players.

“It’s hard to not think about it. The best way to do it is just try not to think about it,” said New York Rangers center Derek Stepan, who is looking to play in his first Olympics.

“It’s definitely not going to be easy at all.”

Building the sport

St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said he still runs into people who talk about the 2010 gold-medal game and how important the game was to them. He said he believes that NHL players being in the Olympics is important for growing interest in the game, not just in the United States but around the world.

“If you watched that gold-medal game and didn’t get turned on to hockey, I don’t know if the game’s for you,” Backes said.

Rising star

One member of the 2010 team who saw his stock rise in recent months is the Colorado Avalanche's Paul Stastny, who was a dynamo for the U.S. at the world championships with 15 points, second among all players as the U.S. won a surprise bronze medal.

After he reached a career-high 79 points in 2009-10, Stastny’s production has declined, but he said he’s hoping to carry over the same style of play that gave his success at the world championships.

“I think I just will try and play the way I did there. Kind of just play at ease again and just have fun,” Stastny said.

Early in a player’s career, he plays with nothing to lose, Stastny noted. “Then sometimes maybe you put a little bit too much pressure on yourself when things aren’t going well,” he said.

With a new coach in former Avalanche star Patrick Roy and new management under former Avs captain Joe Sakic, Stastny said there’s a different buzz around the team, and he’s looking forward to being part of that.

“I think it’s just that sense of urgency, that passion. There was already that feeling going on all summer,” he said.

NEW YORK -- Of the many memorable hours leading up to the epic gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 between Canada and the United States, this is one that has stayed with us.

It was a conversation with then-U.S. associate GM David Poile the day before that game.

He had spoken earlier in the process about the importance of the Olympics, specifically the impact a strong showing might have on future generations of U.S. players. About how the 1980 Miracle on Ice team became a beacon for a generation or more of American players as well as -- to a lesser degree -- the U.S. team that defeated Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship.

As the gold-medal game approached, it was hard not to be swept up in the emotion of what lay ahead.

“I don't think anybody knew how good we'd be. We didn't know how good we'd be,” Poile said that Saturday. “Let's call it like it is.”

The Americans would be denied a shot at Olympic immortality by the slimmest of margins, a Sidney Crosby goal in overtime, from a bad angle at that.

We were reminded of the legacy -- or at least the potential legacy -- of that team Saturday, when we were swept up once again in the quest for Olympic glory as Poile was formally announced as GM of the U.S. team for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Part of the charm of the Vancouver team was the fact it was the youngest team in the tournament. As GM, Brian Burke was fond of repeating that no one gave the Americans a spit of a chance to earn a medal, let alone battle for gold.

No question the dynamics will be dramatically different in Sochi on a host of fronts.

“In Vancouver, we were turning the page,” Poile told ESPN.com on Saturday.

That team was the first that didn’t hearken to the glory days of Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Keith Tkachuk et al. The idea was that if the team had any success at all, it would provide a good base on which to build for 2014.

The Americans’ run to the silver (going 5-1 in the tournament) means they will not sneak up on anyone in Sochi. Not with the past two Conn Smythe Trophy winners on the roster in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Quick. Throw in top-end talent like Ryan Suter, who in our book was the hands-down best defenseman in the NHL this season (finished second to P.K. Subban in Norris Trophy voting), Minnesota Wild teammate Zach Parise, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel and Dustin Brown and there will be a strong core returning from the Vancouver squad.

Still, trying to handicap Olympic contenders based on results from a tournament four years in the past is a mug’s game. Yes, some continuity is important. Understanding the routines of an Olympic tournament, the media, the schedule and the ebbs and flows of a short, high-drama competition is critical to how a team comes together.

But each tournament represents a different world, and that is where the management structure and coaching staff are so critical to a team’s success.

USA Hockey neatly sidestepped a potential public relations problem early on by structuring its management team in the manner it did. Poile moved up the ladder and will be joined by Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, who will act as associate. The two worked together for the Nashville Predators and were part of the U.S. management committee that helped put together the 2010 team.

But Burke, the architect of that team, has been kept in the fold as director of player personnel. He will accompany the team to Sochi.

It was Burke who came up with the idea of opening the process of selecting teams for international competition to American GMs. He invited colleagues like Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia Flyers), Dean Lombardi (Los Angeles Kings), Stan Bowman (Chicago Blackhawks), Dale Tallon (Florida Panthers) and former Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell to join in the process.

The openness and inclusiveness established by Burke was universally praised by those involved, and as Poile pointed out Saturday, the validation of the process was in the result -- a silver medal.

That Burke, dismissed from his post as GM and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs on the eve of the lockout-shortened regular season in January, continues to have a strong voice in the building of the 2014 team is an important nod to what he’s accomplished. To have marginalized him would have sent a disappointing message.

“He will have a big part in the formation of this team in 2014,” Poile said.

But a nod to the past is also being balanced by a nod to the future, which is critical given that neither Canada nor the U.S. medaled in the two Olympics held away from North American soil since the NHL began participation in 1998 in Nagano. (2006 in Torino was the other.)

A bigger ice surface, time issues and different cultures will conspire to make life in Sochi exponentially more difficult than it was in Vancouver and, before that, Salt Lake City in 2002, when Canada defeated the U.S. for the gold medal.

The committee, which represents 150 years of NHL GM experience and six Stanley Cup championships, will have to keep all those things in mind, Poile said, when making selections, just as it did in choosing the Pens’ Dan Bylsma as head coach.

Burke built a team that could play an NHL-style game with a blend of hard-nosed forechecking, strong defense and goaltending mixed with opportunistic scoring, but the style of play in Sochi may make some of those qualities less important.

Clearly, skating and puck movement will be at a premium on the big ice surface, which suggests players like Keith Yandle, Kevin Shattenkirk and perhaps Matt Carle or John Carlson may be more attractive than other, more physical defensemen.

What about a speedy, skilled forward like Alex Galchenyuk, who had a strong rookie campaign for the Montreal Canadiens?

“Our philosophy is going to be a little bit different because this is in Europe,” Poile said. “We have to tune up our thinking a little bit.”

One thing Poile made clear is that, while a résumé of strong play has historically been a factor in inclusion on the final roster handed in late in December, getting off to a good start next fall will be key in the committee’s final decisions.

In introducing the management team Saturday in New York, president of USA Hockey Ron DeGregorio suggested that an American team is no longer the stuff of miracles but rather the stuff of expectations.

A fine sentiment, and after Vancouver, it would seem it is true. Now it’s up to Poile and the rest to meet those heady expectations.

“This is the ultimate honor and challenge,” Poile said.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In the middle of a hotly contested playoff series and with a crucial game in the offing, individual awards may seem relatively inconsequential.

But when it was revealed Tuesday morning that Ryan Suter was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, it was a form of vindication for both the player who made the heartbreaking decision to leave the only team he'd known in the Nashville Predators for the franchise that wagered $98 million in salary and 13 years of term that Suter was the kind of player who could help transform an organization.

After a brief period of transition at the start of the lockout-shortened season, the Minnesota Wild's Suter has been the league's best defenseman. He led the NHL in total ice time per game at 27:16, was second among defensemen in assists and third in points.

With all due respect to Kris Letang and P.K. Subban, the other finalists for the Norris, if Suter does not win the award it will be a major surprise.

If you talk with Suter's coaches, teammates and opponents, you find a universal respect for his skill set. He is not a bruising force like Shea Weber, his former partner in Nashville, or Niklas Kronwall in Detroit. He may not be the game's swiftest skater -- both Subban and Letang possess explosive speed. But Suter is the complete package in a way both understated and impressive and reminiscent of former Detroit Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom.

One Western Conference GM spoke recently about the ease with which Suter plays as much as he does, almost always against opposing teams' top players. Earlier in the postseason, players in another series were marveling at Suter's performance in Game 1 of the Wild's series against the Chicago Blackhawks, when he played 41:08.

Wild coach Mike Yeo said it's a shame most Norris voters don't get to see Suter up close and appreciate how important he is to the Wild.

"You don't realize what a good person this is," Yeo said. "You don't realize what a tremendous leader he is, the character that he has. He's been a huge part obviously with his play, but as much with his attitude, his character and his personality in really helping our organization take a big step."

Suter and Zach Parise shocked the hockey world last summer when they signed identical 13-year deals with the Wild worth $98 million apiece. In making the move, Suter left the team that drafted and nurtured him and Weber, his longtime defense partner and a former Norris Trophy finalist himself. There were questions about whether Suter could assume the kind of leadership role that he did not necessarily have to play in Nashville given the large shadow cast by Weber.

Yet, as the season wore on, the Wild asked more and more of Suter, including partnering him with rookie Jonas Brodin. While he was not a finalist for the Calder Trophy, Brodin's evolution has been dramatic and much of it can be traced to his proximity to Suter.

Although Suter has yet to record a point in the series, he has been playing shift for shift against the Blackhawks' top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and rookie-of-the-year nominee Brandon Saad and has helped stifled its point-production.

"When you play against him for a few years, you kind of see everything that he brings to the table," teammate Kyle Brodziak said. "He's strong, a good skater and very smart. He pretty much has all the elements you need to be a good hockey player. Can't say that he exceeded expectations, but they were pretty high coming in."

"He's very calm. It's good to have in the locker room," Brodziak added. "He's definitely a guy that doesn't get rattled, and that's important in a game where the emotions get so high. To have a guy that is able to stay composed in those types of scenarios, it's very important for your hockey team."

Not surprisingly, the low-key Suter was more interested in talking about Tuesday's Game 4 than individual honors.

"I'm really honored, I really am. But my focus isn't on that," Suter said. "Maybe someday looking back I say, 'Wow.' But it's preparing for tonight. It's going to be more intense than last game and the game before. Keeping my mind focused on the game is the most important thing."

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On a day when life was breathed back into the State of Hockey, it turned out to be the kid from Newport Beach, Calif., who did the resuscitating.

Go figure.

In what now ranks as one of the most important victories in franchise history, rookie Jason Zucker delivered the Minnesota Wild’s first home playoff victory in more than five years, snapping home the overtime winner just 2:15 into the extra session Sunday to give the Wild a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks still lead the series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Tuesday, but for a host of reasons, Sunday’s game was a significant test of character for the Wild and a huge payback for a fan base that might have wavered in recent years but has never let go its love affair with the team.

"It’s been a long time coming. And it was an entertaining game, an exciting game. Obviously, an overtime win is always great at home but in the playoffs and you’ve been waiting for so long, it’s very big," said center Matt Cullen, who was born in Virginia, Minn., and returned home to play for the Wild in 2010.

"It’s been a long time coming, and I’m a Minnesotan, so I know how long people have been waiting for playoff hockey. It’s a lot of fun," said Cullen, who was one of the Wild’s players, setting up the winning goal by shoveling a pass to Zucker from his belly behind the Blackhawk net.

After playing by far their best game of the series with a vigorous forecheck and more physical play, it looked like the Wild was actually going to slide into playoff oblivion. Holding onto a 2-1 lead late into the third period, the Wild lapsed into a passive mode, allowing the Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith to blast home the tying goal with 2:46 left in regulation.

"Yup, that sucked," Zach Parise acknowledged.

Had the Blackhawks finished the job in overtime to take a commanding 3-0 series lead, it would not have been a surprise to anyone, even the 19,238 holding their collective breaths in the Xcel Energy Center when the extra session opened.

"It didn’t matter how we got there, whether the whole period was tied 2-2 or whether they got one late, you can’t let that bother you. I think that was a little bit of the message between the third period and overtime," Parise said.

One of two key additions made by the Wild last offseason to help rejuvenate the stagnant franchise -- Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year deals worth $98 million last July 4 -- Parise had been frustrated by his lack of production as the Wild dropped the first two games in Chicago. He had zero points and was minus-three heading into Game 3 but scored on a backhand Sunday to give the Wild the 2-1 lead that looked for a long time like it would stand as the deciding marker.

Like Cullen, Parise is a Minnesotan and his desire to play in his home state was one of the key factors in his decision to leave New Jersey, where he’d played his whole career.

He said the vibe in the building was special, different on Sunday.

"They’ve been patiently waiting for a playoff team here. And we finally got one, got a team into the playoffs and then, most importantly, in the first game, you get a big win," Parise said. "You get the excitement and hopefully you carry that over into the fourth game. Like I said, the energy in the building was awesome and when we got the winning goal it was so loud, it was great."

Before Game 3, head coach Mike Yeo acknowledged he wasn’t sure how his team would respond after dropping Game 1 in overtime and then being crushed 5-2 in Game 2. But on Sunday it resembled the team that had for the middle part of the shortened regular season challenged Vancouver for the Northwest Division lead. The Wild outshot the Blackhawks 37-27 and outhit them 34-13.

And when it looked like all that hard work might be for naught, they found a way to reward not just their fans but themselves with a key win and what was the team’s first home playoff win since April 11, 2008.

"I think, at the end of the day, they deserved to win the game," Keith said.

"They were a little quicker than us tonight. I think our strength is using our speed and our skill and we need to use our speed. We didn’t use it enough tonight."

After the game, as many teams do, the Wild gathered near center ice to salute the fans with upraised sticks. On this day the gesture seemed to carry more meaning.

"Obviously, it's pretty special. Definitely for these fans but for our team too," said rookie Charlie Coyle, who picked up the primary assist on the Parise goal, his second assist in the series.

"We have a good group of guys in here. We’ve been working all season -- this is the result we want, this is where we wanted to be at the end of the season and we’re just going to keep going from here."

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- At the same time Minnesota Wild players were stepping onto the ice for practice, workers outside the Xcel Energy Center were putting up a giant sign: Fight To The End.

So far in this Western Conference quarterfinals series between the Wild and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks, "fight" has been in short supply for the Wild.

The end?

Well, that’s definitely in sight after the Wild were pummeled 5-2 by Chicago on Friday night to give the Blackhawks a 2-0 series lead.

Game 3 is set for Sunday afternoon in Minnesota, the first playoff game in the building in five years.

"I think the place is going to be rocking tomorrow," coach Mike Yeo said Saturday. "We wish that it was a different scenario."

Unless the Wild can find some way to generate at least a modicum of offense while slowing a Chicago team that found another gear in Game 2, Sunday’s game will be but a prelude to the end for a team that was the talk of the NHL coming out of last offseason.

Certainly the signing of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to twin 13-year, $98 million contracts on July 4 upped the ante in terms of expectations for this team dramatically, as well as driving up the team’s profile across the league.

But if anything, this season has been a cautionary tale about both managing expectations and the complex nature of building a contending team.

As the Wild limped into the postseason as the eighth seed, it was clear expectations had been a little out of whack.

As for the building of a team, no one is suggesting that Parise and Suter are not as advertised.

Suter has especially been a force in the postseason, logging an average of 32:52 in ice time through the first two games. In the first game, a 2-1 overtime loss, Suter never seemed to leave the ice during the extra session. Still, he is minus-3 after two games and has not registered a point. Parise has struggled with zero points and a minus-3. He leads the team with nine shots but knows he needs to find a way to get some of those shots to find the back of the net.

“They don’t give you a lot of good chances,” Parise said of the Blackhawks, who have allowed three goals in two games while scoring seven times. “But I think each game we’ve had some good ones that we just didn’t finish. We’ve got to put those in. That’s the difference in the game right there.

"Game 1, I had one in overtime. And then Game 2, I had about 15 whacks right in front of the net. You’ve got to put those in. There’s really no excuse."

When you sign players like Parise and Suter to 13-year deals, it’s clear this is about the long view for a team whose history has been defined mostly by wheel-spinning and a kind of numbing mediocrity.

Those two players are the long-term cornerstones of a team that boasts an intriguing mix of high-end young talent, including Suter’s defense partner, 19-year-old Jonas Brodin, who will garner some consideration for rookie of the year honors. Another rookie, Charlie Coyle, has been playing with Mikko Koivu and Parise on the Wild’s top line with Dany Heatley out with an injured shoulder.

Jason Zucker is the third rookie who has been in the lineup for the Wild in this playoff series, and as we’ve seen with teams like the inexperienced New York Islanders, there is a definite on-the-fly learning experience that is part of the playoffs.

The Wild need to show -- as the Islanders did in stunning Pittsburgh in Game 2 of that Eastern Conference series -- that inexperience isn’t necessarily an impediment to evolving and winning as a series progresses.

"Each game, you gain a little bit of knowledge," Coyle said. "Whether it’s a lot or a little bit, every bit helps."

One part of the learning curve will be in not worrying about the big picture but the next shift and the shift after that.

You can’t identify a number -- oh, the Wild need to score three or four goals in order to win a game.

"You have to focus on the process," Coyle said.

The danger is that in realizing they need to win Game 3 or face the reality that their season will soon be over, do the nerves work at cross-purposes to achieving their goals?

That, said Yeo, is the great playoff question that all teams face at some point.

"This is part of the playoffs is dealing with those emotions right," he said.

Yeo was with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 as an assistant coach when they fell behind 2-0 to both Washington and Detroit before coming back to win both series -- and the Stanley Cup -- in seven games.

The Wild made a good accounting of themselves in Game 1, "and then last game we got crushed," said Yeo, the second-year head coach. “So how do you bounce back from that? That’s the challenge. Good teams and the teams that move on in the playoffs are the teams that are able to do that.”

And let’s be honest, the Blackhawks are a formidable opponent. Of that there is no doubt. They looked sluggish in Game 1 and still won. In Game 2, they peppered Josh Harding, who has been excellent in relief of the injured Niklas Backstrom, with 47 shots, 43 of which he stopped.

"You could tell that they brought a different level from Game 1 to Game 2. We didn’t do that," Parise said.

In the end, if Chicago does prevail, there will be no shame in losing to a team that set a regular-season record with points in 24 straight games from the start of the season and lost just seven games in regulation.

But that does not mean there isn’t great anticipation for these two games in Minnesota to see if the Wild can produce something more than what has been revealed in the opening two losses.

The Wild backed into the playoffs after flirting with the Northwest Division lead during the middle part of the season. But as they did a year ago when they fell from first overall in December 2011 to completely out of the playoffs, they wobbled mightily down the stretch.

These next two games will provide an excellent test of how much push back exists in this dressing room, a chance to make a statement about just what the future might have in store for this franchise.

The Minnesota Wild didn't get any help on the scoreboard Thursday night with both the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets winning.

So Friday night's game with the Edmonton Oilers does indeed matter, the Wild needing a victory to clinch their first postseason berth since the 2007-08 season.

After lackluster losses to the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames threatened Minnesota's playoff standing, the Wild faced basically a must-win game Tuesday night at home against the reigning Cup champs and responded with a huge 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

"I think that was the best game, if not all year, it was the best game we played in a long time," Wild star winger Zach Parise told ESPN.com Thursday. "So that was kind of refreshing because we've had some tough games. We had a pretty bad game out in San Jose [6-1 loss last Thursday]. And we couldn't win at home for a while. So it was real good to have one that we felt good about."

The never-say-die Blue Jackets beat the Dallas Stars 3-1 on the road Thursday to tie the eighth-place Wild at 53 points, but Minnesota has a game in hand plus the regulation and overtime wins tiebreaker. So, beat the visiting Oilers and the Wild -- a team with so much offseason hype -- will achieve their goal of reaching the postseason.

"Just around town, you can really tell how bad people want us to get into the playoffs and how long they've been waiting for it," Parise said. "Hopefully, we can get ourselves in there and see what happens after that."

Just get in and see what happens. You hear lots of players saying that this time of year, and why not?

Parise saw it first-hand a season ago when the unheralded, sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils got all the way to the Cup finals, only to lose to the eighth-seeded Kings.

Just get in.

"We got a matchup that I thought was favorable for us in the first round [Florida Panthers], and we got better as the playoffs went along," Parise said. "We beat two really good teams after that in Philadelphia and New York.

"And you know, everyone is so obsessed with the home-ice thing," he added. "Last year proves it right. L.A., last year as an eighth seed, started each series on the road and went up 2-0 every time. We also started on the road the first three series, and we did fine, too. So I think more than ever now that home ice isn't as much of an advantage as it used to be."

First, the Wild have to get there. And they might have to do so without trade deadline acquisition Jason Pominville, who took a hit to the head from Kings captain Dustin Brown (which cost the latter a two-game suspension) Tuesday and missed practice Thursday.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com via email Thursday that Pominville remained "day to day at this point, upper body."

It's a sizable loss, but if the Wild are fortunate, it won't be prolonged.

"He's played very well for us," Parise said of the former Buffalo Sabres captain. "That line, with [Pierre-Marc] Bouchard and [Kyle] Brodziak, was great for us the last little stretch.

"I don't know Jason's status. I saw him in the locker room [Thursday], and he looked good, but I don't know. Hopefully, he's good to go, because he's a big part of our lineup."

Few players have been a bigger part of Minnesota's lineup than Ryan Suter, who, like Parise, signed a 13-year, $98 million deal last summer to join the Wild as a prized free agent. The star defenseman is a strong Norris Trophy contender, leading the NHL in minutes played while doing it all at both ends of the ice.

"He's been what people expected of him and more," Parise said. "He's played a ton of minutes and plays them well. I feel like the more he plays, the better he plays. And you look at how tough it is for a young defenseman to come into the NHL, just the way Ryan has helped [Jonas] Brodin out this year. To me, Brodin is one of the very best rookies in the NHL. You look at how Ryan has helped out his game; I think he's been unbelievable."

Parise and Suter were brought in for all kinds of reasons, but certainly their experience at crunch time is also valuable for a young team.

"That's a big part of why they wanted to bring Ryan and I in: to share some of that experience that we've had," Parise, who took home Olympic silver with Suter in February 2010 for Team USA, said. "It's hard as a player the first time you play in the playoffs. I know going into New Jersey we had a lot of playoff experience there, and that helped me my first couple of years. So we'll try to help here that way.

"And not just in the playoffs, but just trying to get into the playoffs. Our games lately have been essentially playoff games, too, for us. We got to win them. There's a different atmosphere around the locker room. You try to keep everything in perspective. You lose one game in the playoffs and you think the world is ending. You win the next one and you think you’re winning the Cup."

Win the next one and the Wild are in. That shouldn't be hard to keep in perspective.
So, maybe we were a bit hasty in assuming the Minnesota Wild were locks to make the playoffs.

After a lackluster 4-1 loss Sunday night to the lowly Calgary Flames, the Wild woke up Monday to find that they'd sunk into a tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final two playoff berths in the Western Conference, with the Detroit Red Wings just three points back with a game in hand.

Now, credit Joey MacDonald, who was stellar for the Flames, stopping 34 of 35 shots. But, come on, these are the Flames -- a team long banished from playoff contention. The Wild's offense, never the team's strong suit and less so with Dany Heatley out with injury, continues to sputter. Minnesota has only three wins in its past 11 games and has gone from battling the Vancouver Canucks for the top spot in the Northwest Division to fighting for its playoff life, a fall that is mindful of the Wild's great descent from the top of the standings midway through last season to a 12th-place finish in the conference.

During this 11-game span, the Wild have been outscored 33-19. Sorry, that won't cut it.

Even though Zach Parise and linemate Mikko Koivu combined for 15 shots Sunday, the Wild are going to need more finish or this season is going to end quickly, whether they make the playoffs or not.

The Wild still control their destiny in the race against the surging Blue Jackets (who came up with a huge 4-3 road win Sunday against the San Jose Sharks) and with the Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes lurking in the weeds. The fact that the Wild play the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche down the stretch (along with the Los Angeles Kings) should help pave the way to their first postseason berth in five years.

Of course, we would have thought that heading into Sunday's game, too.

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