Zach Parise made his season debut Tuesday night. Nino Niederreiter likely will rejoin the lineup on Thursday. The injury list, for now, will become a blank sheet of paper.
The Wild finally looks whole again. Now it’s time to see what it can do with a complete cast.
“We do have a full roster back,” said goalie Devan Dubnyk, who recently spent time on the injury list. “This is it. This is us. We’ve got to get it together and string a bunch of wins together.”
Day 1 for the new-look Wild brought a step in that direction. The team celebrated Parise’s return from back surgery by spanking the Florida Panthers 5-1 at Xcel Energy Center.
Parise logged 13½ minutes of ice time, registered three shots and looked none worse for the wear after his first NHL game since undergoing microdiscectomy surgery.
“I thought it was a great first game back,” Parise said.
Paired with Charlie Coyle and Chris Stewart on the third line, Parise looked like the Parise of old. He skated hard to the net, battled for pucks in the corners, brought energy. He got knocked on his keister a few times, but jumped right up.
All in all, his return was a success. Personally and for the team. The Wild dominated from start to finish.
It’s been hard to know what to make of the Wild so far because the lineup has not been full strength for even one game. The team’s man-games lost to injury reached 94 Tuesday with Niederreiter’s absence.
Parise accounted for 39 of those games. Coyle, Niederreiter, Dubnyk and Mikael Granlund — all front-line players — have been sidelined at different times for at least a handful of games.
“Once we get Nino back as well, we’ll finally have the lineup that they draw up in the summer,” Parise said. “And then we’ll see what we’ve got as a team.”
Nobody likes to use injuries as an excuse because every team deals with them, but the Wild has been treading water with key players sidelined for extended stints.
The Wild flipped the calendar in fifth place in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference. The season’s first half has felt like a series of two steps forward, one step back. There’s just been no consistency.
“The nice thing is we’re a deep team and throughout the injuries we’ve been able to stay in the playoff race,” Dubnyk said. “That’s the most important thing. And when you get your full lineup back, you take off.”
That’s the working theory, at least. This second half is pivotal in terms of establishing — or re-establishing — an identity that ignites a playoff push and rekindles belief (hope?) that the organization’s playoff narrative will change.
The Wild has become a postseason regular with five consecutive appearances, but early-exit flameouts remain a broken record.
Owner Craig Leipold raised the ante rather bluntly before the season by stating that “Anything short of winning the Stanley Cup would be a disappointment.”
He’s not the first owner to talk in that manner, but sharing his expectation publicly revealed an intense desire to squeeze more out of a roster that has stayed mostly intact.
Leipold also disagreed with the notion that the Wild’s window for winning is closing because of an aging roster.
“This window is wide open for us,” he said.
That point is debatable, but the Wild played mostly uneven without its full complement of pieces. The return of Parise and Niederreiter should bring a spark to a lineup that suddenly becomes much deeper.
“I am so happy to be back and playing,” Parise said.
That sentiment was echoed throughout the locker room. Parise isn’t a savior. But his absence left a noticeable void.
The roster is nearly intact again so this sort of feels like a reset. It’s time to see the Wild’s full potential.
“I know what the group can do as a whole,” Dubnyk said. “We all do. That’s why it’s exciting to get everybody back. We know how good of a team we can be.”