ST. PAUL, Minn. - The NHL playoffs start April 9. In the Northwest Division, it's almost as if they've already begun.
Brent Burns and Branko Radivojevic both scored and Niklas Backstrom stopped 29 shots for the Minnesota Wild to give them a 3-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche and break a three-way tie for first place.
The game began a final stretch that features four teams with division title aspirations, and none with a playoff spot locked up.
"It's exactly like a playoff game," Minnesota forward Brian Rolston said. "The good thing about all of us being around the 84(-point) mark is we'll all be playoff ready. These last nine games will be a playoff game every night because we're all fighting, scratching and clawing to get into the playoffs."
The Wild have 86 points, two ahead of Colorado and Calgary and four in front of Vancouver, which holds the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Avs began a stretch of nine straight games against division opponents to end the season on Monday, while the Flames and Vancouver will also finish out with nine straight against Northwest foes. Minnesota will finish off with eight consecutive division games and has a four-game road trip next - with stops in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary before coming home for four of its last five.
"We know that we're leaving tomorrow for four games on the road," Backstrom said. "We needed this win. We needed the two points. It's good for us. We got it in regulation. It's good to move on and get ready for Wednesday. It's good for our confidence to show we can play against these clubs. We know how we should play against them."
The Wild had not beaten a team currently in the playoffs since Feb. 14, making Monday's two points even more important.
Minnesota, which had lost nine of 13, killed off a pair of early penalties, then scored on Burns' goal at 8:54 on the its first power play. The Wild had not scored in their previous 18 power-play chances at home.
Joe Sakic tied the score on a power play at 4:51 of the second period, but Radivojevic tipped in a Burns' pass at 9:42 of the period for the eventual game-winner.
Stephane Veilleux scored an empty-net goal from the opposite circle with 6.4 seconds remaining for the final tally.
Colorado entered the game with the worst road power play in the league at 11.2 per cent. The Avs converted only one of six chances, but missed on a crucial advantage with six minutes remaining in the third.
"We'll execute that and find ways to capitalize on it because it's very important down the stretch and in the playoffs," Colorado forward Ryan Smyth said. "It was a crucial part of today's game."
The Wild has killed 10 of 11 power plays the last two games - its first back-to-back home victories in regulation since Dec. 18 and 20.
"We had talked about getting some points lately that would build up our confidence, and that's what we did," Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire said. "Confidence was better, now we've got to stay with this and not think we can play any way we want and win. We still have to play a team game."
Jose Theodore stopped 26 shots, including a brilliant sliding save of Pierre-Marc Bouchard's backhand that kept the Avs in the game with eight minutes to play.
But the Avs missed several empty net chances in the final minute and lost for just the third time in their last 11 games.
"We played the way we were hoping to play," Colorado coach Joel Quenneville said. "You play like that, that's a recipe for success. I think we'll build off the things we did well."
Notes: Avs centre Peter Forsberg was back in the lineup after missing four games with a groin injury. Courted by the Wild before the trade deadline, Forsberg was booed by Minnesota fans whenever he touched the puck and drew a loud ovation when he was called for a diving penalty in the second period. ... Wild forward Derek Boogaard returned to action for the first time since Jan. 22 at Calgary. He missed 23 games with a bulging disc. ... Colorado defenceman Jordan Leopold, who played college hockey at the University of Minnesota, missed his fourth straight games with concussion-like symptoms despite practising at full speed on Sunday.