MONTREAL – One of the best teams in the NHL is a distinction that has belonged to the Wild this season.
A balanced offense backed by a stingy support system combined to catapult it to near the top of the Western Conference and third overall, a climb barely slowed by a measly five losses in an 18-game span.
But this hasn’t been the Wild’s only reputation.
For the past six weeks, it has won only six times, while stuck in a funk that has included spotty scoring, poor starts and self-inflicted adversity. It also raised the number of teams ahead of it in the standings and shrunk the number of those behind it.
Which version is an accurate representation of the Wild might not be clear now, but with the team set to close out the first half Monday in Montreal against the Canadiens, its performance the rest of the way will endorse one over the other — while also deciding the Wild’s playoff fate.
“I want to believe that it’s the one that was at one time second in our conference,” winger Zach Parise said. “I think that’s the one we all think we’re capable of being. We went through a tough stretch. Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of games to redeem ourselves, but we made it pretty tough.
“But I think we still have the belief that we’re a good team.”
With 43 points from a 20-17-3 showing that slots it 10th in the Western Conference, the Wild appears to be trending toward average, but that’s just the sum of two polarizing parts.
From October until almost the end of November, it was tough to pry points away from the team. The group suffered consecutive regulation losses only once, and after finding a groove during a season-high five-game win streak it surged during a franchise-record seven straight road games that included five victories.
By then, the Wild was receiving production from throughout the lineup, wasn’t surrendering much in its own end and boasted a diversified portfolio of success; it could dominate the opposition, methodically pick it apart or catch up and overtake it.
“It seemed like whatever was going wrong, something else would pick up for it,” center Eric Fehr said. “The power play would go 3-for-4. It just seemed like something every night — which is different — but something was helping us win every night.”
Although wins continued to trickle in, there seemed to be a shift for the Wild after that lengthy road trip.
Its resilience looked to be maxed out by back-to-back victories in which it blew a third-period lead to Ottawa and then had to rally late against Winnipeg. After that, the team collapsed against Arizona and couldn’t claw its way back like it used to in setbacks to Columbus, Toronto and Calgary before it plummeted to a low point, a 7-2 rout in Edmonton.
That was the early phase of an offensive shortage, as five goals headlined a season-long five-game losing streak deeper into December.
“It was just the frustration with the amount of scoring chances we were getting,” Parise said, “and not converting. From top to bottom, it was everybody. It was a rough stretch.”
What compounded the drought was the loss of defenseman Matt Dumba, who ruptured his right pectoralis muscle earlier in December and is sidelined for a minimum of three months. Before then, Dumba was a consistent contributor, with 12 goals and 22 points.
“You always get frustrated — even if you know it’s part of the game — when you’re missing guys,” captain Mikko Koivu said.
Lately, though, it looks like the Wild has started to turn the page on those woes.
After starting 2-0 on this four-game road trip, it has won three out of its past four, its most productive stretch since mid-November.
“You can see the guys start to feel more like us,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “But we gotta continue to do it.”
Scoring has been rekindled, in part because of the lift from Parise and his line with center Charlie Coyle and winger Luke Kunin. The three have combined for 18 points the past four games, while Parise paces the team in goals with 19 and is tied with winger Mikael Granlund for the lead in points with 38; the Wild’s 2.95 goals-per-game average is 17th in the NHL.
“I really like how our line’s playing,” Parise said. “We hunt the puck down. When we don’t have it, we work hard to get it back. We’re aggressive on the forecheck.”
How the team has defended has been a strength. Its 2.83 goals-against average ranks 10th and the 84.7 percent efficiency on the penalty kill is third; the power play (22.4 percent) is ninth. Those would appear to be building blocks for a competitive team that’s playoff-bound, but with the Wild still shy of a berth, it has more work to do.
And the players know it.
“I don’t think it’s pressure,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think it’s eagerness and the fact they’ve done it before and they know they want to get there. The older you are, you never know when you’re going to get another chance. I think that dedication part and toughness is going to will it out hopefully in the end.”