After starting the season with some large gaps between games, the Wild embarks on a much busier stretch beginning Friday at Winnipeg. The game kicks off the team’s first back-to-back set of the season, with the road trip finishing Saturday in Calgary.
Coach Bruce Boudreau said the Wild will have only three real practice days between now and early December, after holding three practices last week during a five-day break in the schedule. Much of the time was spent tuning up a leaky defense that has surrendered 15 goals in four games. With the lineup missing scorers such as Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise, Boudreau said it’s more important than ever to make sure the defense is on point.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup, you can play defense,’’ Boudreau said. “When you’re missing skilled players, it’s a little more difficult to score, so you have to play better defense.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot. This is a team that year in and year out is probably known way more for their defense than their offense. They took great pride in it. Last year, until March 1st I think, we were first (in the NHL) by a good margin in defense. I think they do take pride in it, so when you get three of four games with four goals against, it’s tough.’’
Boudreau said it’s a game-time decision whether Granlund, who is recovering from a groin injury and practiced Thursday, will play. Devan Dubnyk is expected to start in net.
Winnipeg won three in a row before Tuesday’s loss to Columbus but also has suffered from some sketchy defense. The Jets are allowing 3.83 goals per game, though they have played much better in support of Connor Hellebuyck than Steve Mason. Hellebuyck, expected to start Friday, has a goals-against average of 2.11 in four games. Mason has played three games with a GAA of 5.96.
Plymouth native Blake Wheeler has a team-high six assists for the Jets this season and has 20 points in 26 games against the Wild. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien of Roseau has returned to the lineup after missing two games because of a lower-body injury. Byfuglien has 29 points in 35 games against the Wild, including four game-winning goals. Defenseman Tucker Poolman, who has played three games, also is from Minnesota (East Grand Forks).
Matt Hendricks of Blaine has not played a regular-season game after injuring his foot while blocking a shot in a preseason game.