Seven consecutive games on the road over 14 days didn’t deflate the Wild. Instead, winning five moved it near the top of the NHL’s hierarchy as the second-best team in the Western Conference.
Maintaining that position or even continuing to climb now that the group has returned home won’t be easy, not when its first test back at Xcel Energy Center Tuesday is against superstar Alex Ovechkin and the reigning Stanley-Cup champion Capitals.
But the confidence the Wild earned while out on the road could help it settle back into familiar territory, with six of the next seven in St. Paul — another stretch that has the potential to stoke its win and point totals.
“When you get winning and the guys are playing together, it doesn’t seem to matter which direction the game seems to be going,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “You just believe you’re going to get the job done at the end. That’s the feeling we have right now.”
The team flexed that swagger throughout the past two weeks.
There was the back-and-forth tug of war with the Oilers on Oct. 30 that the Wild ultimately secured 4-3, an authoritative 5-1 thrashing of the Blues on Nov. 3 that ranks among the best performances of the season and a methodical 3-1 comeback against the Kings last Thursday.
More recently, the Wild was dominant for long spurts in another signature 5-1 victory — over the Ducks on Friday — and it was gutsy in coming from behind to win 3-2 on Sunday in St. Louis when the group looked weary of the road.
Following that effort, the Wild sat a league-best 8-3-1 when the opposition scores first.
“[That] was a hard game,” said winger Zach Parise, who scored the Wild’s first goal against the Blues. “The end of road trips are always tough. Not to make excuses, but with the travel [Saturday from California] and the early game, it was a challenge. I thought we played pretty smart for the most part and didn’t get ourselves into trouble up the ice and blocked shots and scrambled and got ourselves the win.”
What was clear by the end of this road swing was how much the team counted on everyone; only the first defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba exceeded 20 minutes of ice time Sunday. Center Eric Staal logged the most among the forwards, at 18:43, and all 12 up top skated at least 10 minutes.
“I’ve got confidence playing all four lines in any situation,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Whether you score or you don’t, if you do positive things for the team and you have that four-line mentality and six-defense mentality, you can do a lot of damage.”
One forward in particular, though, is on a tear, and that’s winger Mikael Granlund.
He leads the team in goals (10) and points (18) after shining on the road where he had five goals (two game-winners) and nine points.
After going pointless in the first three games of the season, Granlund has tallied at least a point in all but one ensuing game.
“You just try to work hard,” he said. “There’s little things you always try to do better. I think as a whole team, we’re playing much better. It felt like the first few games we didn’t even really touch the puck the whole game. We’re just playing much better. We’re creating some more chances. At the same time, pucks are really going in right now.”
A 1-2-2 start isn’t disastrous, but the Wild has improved plenty since then. And with the club the only one in the NHL to not suffer a regulation loss at home yet amid a 5-0-2 record, its evolution can certainly continue these next few weeks.
“We’re coming together as a team here,” defenseman Nick Seeler said. “You just see it on the ice. Even when we get down a goal, we don’t panic. I think we almost come together more and start working to get that next one. We showed a lot this trip, and [we’re] looking forward to being home for a little bit.”