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Myers: In a roller coaster season, Wild are once again trending upward

by Jess Myers, 1500ESPN.com Updated 4 months ago | 1814 reads

ST. PAUL, Minn. - After a long, scary dip, the roller coaster ride better known as the Minnesota Wild's season is soaring once again. And just like everyone predicted at the start of the season, they pasted the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday on the strength of offense from Cody McCormick and perfect goaltending from Illya Bryzgalov.

Go back and read that run-on sentence again. Yes, it's the truth.

On March 3, Bryzgalov was a little-used Edmonton Oiler, and McCormick was a run-of-the-mill tough guy toiling for a brutal Buffalo Sabres team. On April 5, McCormick had a goal and an assist - his first points for the Wild - and Bryzgalov had his second shutout in Minnesota as the Wild spanked and blanked the lifeless Penguins 4-0. On or about April 15, McCormick and Bryzgalov will be playing in the NHL playoffs, for Minnesota.

That much is all but assured now. With four games left in the regular season, the Wild are four points ahead of Dallas and six points ahead of Phoenix. Two of those three teams will get into the playoffs. According to the numbers-crunchers, there's a 99.6% chance the Wild will still be playing in 10 days.

McCormick entered the game with five points, all of them with the Sabres, and 50 penalty minutes. He'd been a healthy scratch six times since joining the Wild. But he claimed that he'd been ready to roll.

"When you're sitting out you're making sure you're doing what you can to get back in the lineup and contribute," McCormick said. "You don't pout, you know the opportunity will come and you just have to make sure you're ready for it."

The opportunity came Saturday, as the Penguins had little to play for, and played like it. They've clinched the Metropolitan Division title and nothing they do between now and the regular season will change their post-season position. So it may not have been much of a surprise when the Wild torched Pittsburgh goalie Jeff Zatkoff for three goals on their first five shots.

"A couple bad goals by me sucks the life out of us," said Zatkoff, who beat the Wild in December in Pittsburgh. "That's the difference."

Although Bryzgalov -- now 5-0-3 with the Wild and forced into duty as Niklas Backstrom (out for the season), Josh Harding (still dealing with MS, but closer to a return) and Darcy Kuemper (sitting, for now, with an upper body injury) are all shelved - made a difference as well. He stopped all 20 shots the Penguins threw at him, and is looking like he could be the one to bring momentum into the playoffs, in this season where the cast of important characters has changed more often than in a "Game of Thrones" marathon.

"I thought we came out and we were pretty good defensively but they had a bit of a push right from the start, they had some shots but he just settled everything right down," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "He looked so calm and in control and the team definitely feeds off that."

Leading 3-0 in the second period on goals by Erik Haula, Mikko Koivu and Stephane Veilleux a goofy line change meant Zach Parise ended up on the ice with McCormick, and the Wild star fed the Wild newcomer for the final goal of the game. Parise joked that Yeo may soon shuffle the lines to put him with McCormick more often.

"He's done such a good job when he's been in the lineup, with his physicality and now his offense too," said Parise, who recorded his 500th career point in the game. "When you get contributions from your energy guys like we did tonight with Cody and Veilleux, it goes such a long way for the team."

 One road trip remains - the short flight to Winnipeg for a game versus the Jets, who were eliminated from the playoff race this week. Then there are three home games to close out the regular season. Realistically the Wild need one more win and they're in. And the way things have gone all season, there may be three or four more new, unexpected heroes still to emerge.

 Enjoy the rest of the roller coaster ride.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
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