Minnesota Wild players celebrate winning the NHL Northwest Division title after defeating the Calgary Flames 3-1 in an NHL hockey game Thursday, April 3, 2008, in St. Paul, Minn. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/A.J. Olmscheid
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild started March like lambs, failing to win their first five games of that critical month and coming dangerously close to dropping out of the playoff race.
Famously demanding coach Jacques Lemaire was so incensed by the uneven effort midway through the slump that he accused his players of "cheating" themselves and their teammates.
Well, the message made it through. It took two more defeats, both by shootout, before the Wild started gaining ground in the Western Conference. Now they're 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, including six victories in regulation.
The last of those, a 3-1 win over Calgary on Thursday, was the biggest. It gave Minnesota its first Northwest Division title since the franchise was born in 2000, and a No. 3 seed for the playoffs.
"I'm really happy for these guys," Lemaire said on a night he picked up his 500th career coaching victory. "I know that it was a tough season, but I guess every team had a hard season. These guys, they work and they deserve it. They always can say that they were a part of this, too."
They weren't always working as hard as they could. Lemaire took the 2002-03 team to the Western Conference final, but this is probably the most talented group he's had since the Wild began. Because of that, this also might have been his most frustrating season here.
Though Minnesota has been at or near the top of the division from start to finish, the inconsistency was maddening at times.
"Because there was no teamwork," Lemaire said.
Many of the players defended themselves, at least to a point, due to the grinding nature of the regular season - especially in the Northwest Division, where all five teams were in the playoff chase until this week and just about all of the games are bruisers.
"It's not that easy to be on top all of the time," said centre Mikko Koivu, "but you want to get as a team on your top level at the end of the year. I think we did it, and now we just have to get back to the playoffs and just believe in ourselves and play the kind of hockey that we can."
Marian Gaborik, who scored his 41st and 42nd goals in the third period against the Flames to lead the Wild to victory, was as good as ever down the stretch. Koivu came through, too, and Brian Rolston picked it up.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom rebounded as well after a February slump.
"It's been like playoffs for a month or two," Backstrom said, "but it's going to be even tighter next week. It's fun. You practice for this. You work for this, and this is the best time for a hockey player - when the playoffs start."