Is Minnesota putting Colorado away in the Western Conference?

Hot and not

PariseZach Parise, Minnesota Wild
Parise notched a hat trick in a 6-2 win against the Calgary Flames, and also added an assist and four hits.

WardJoel Ward, San Jose Sharks
Ward recently scored his 20th goal of the season, but he had a tough night Thursday in a 6-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. He finished a minus-5 in only 15:12 of ice time.

Has the Western playoff race been sorted out?

Pierre LeBrun@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Was Thursday the night the Western Conference wild-card race shifted for good? The Minnesota Wild won their fourth in a row, crushing the Calgary Flames 6-2, while the Colorado Avalanche dropped a 4-2 home decision to the Philadelphia Flyers that must have felt like a gut shot to the Avs, who now trail the Wild by three points in the race for the final playoff spot in the West. Plenty of hockey left, of course -- Colorado has eight games remaining to Minnesota's seven, but the Avs have little room for error now. The beauty for Colorado? The Wild visit it Saturday afternoon in a perfect opportunity to reclaim momentum in the race. It's a must-win, really, for the Avs, because after that they face the St. Louis Blues at home, followed by road games in Nashville and Dallas and a regular-season finale at home against Anaheim. All tough games. What say you on this Good Friday, gang?

Scott Burnside@ESPN_Burnside: Pierre, you know that based on something little-resembling popular logic I believed Colorado would somehow find a way to edge the Wild out of the final wild-card spot. But injuries are taking their toll on the Avs, who played Thursday without Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene. Without those two, the Colorado playoff picture looks grim. Still, a pretty compelling game between two desperate teams in Colorado and Philly, until a late defensive breakdown ended up with Flyers captain Claude Giroux somehow scoring the winning goal on a hopping puck just 19 seconds after sudden scoring machine Radko Gudas had tied the game with fewer than six minutes to go in regulation. Agreed, the Avs are not formally cooked, but Saturday's game has "must-win" written all over it. As for Philadelphia, it trailed early in the third, but kept coming and kept the pressure on the Detroit Red Wings, who hung on for a win against Montreal to stay tied with the Flyers for the second wild card in the East, although Philadelphia has a game in hand.

Craig Custance@CraigCustance: You hear it all the time from coaches: In these moments you need your best players to be your best players. Unfortunately for the Avs, two of their best players in this critical stretch are on the shelf. Minnesota, meanwhile, got a big-time performance from Zach Parise, who scored three goals in the first period on former teammate Niklas Backstrom. One of the reasons the Wild are fighting for their playoff lives is that Parise has had a bit of a down year. He's a minus player for the first time since signing with the Wild. He's averaging goals at a rate of 0.34 per game, the third-lowest of his career. Before Thursday's hat trick, Parise had just one goal in the past month. If this sparks a run for Parise in the final seven games, the Wild won't be caught by the Avs.

Joe McDonald@ESPNJoeyMac: I wrote last week about a few players who will be key contributors down the stretch, and MacKinnon was one of them. He's also slated to be sidelined again for Saturday's game against the Wild, and his absence is a huge loss for Colorado as it continues to tread water in the West. As far as Minnesota, I did not pick Parise as one of those key players, because the veteran forward already understands what needs to be done at this point in the season. His hat trick and the team's overall play were also the type of commanding win you want to see from a team on the bubble of the playoff structure. We all know the Wild are a talented team and many of us thought it would earn a postseason berth again this season, and after a coaching change it appears Minnesota is determined to reach the playoffs. Last spring, the Wild pulled off a big first-round upset against the Blues. It'll be interesting to see which team the Wild could possibly face in the first round this season.

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