Nearing the halfway point of the season, the Wild continues to show it’s a very different team.
Its ability to battle back in games, its ability to win on the road, its ability to win the special teams duel and even its ability to defend, which slipped in recent years, have vastly improved this season.
Whether it’s the back-to-back games in Montreal and New York before Christmas or not letting a road-heavy first half act as an excuse, the Wild continues to gobble up points.
Even coach Bruce Boudreau wondered how the Wild would respond to its franchise-record 12-game winning streak ending New Year’s Eve against Columbus. But during a traditionally challenging three-games-in-four-days trek through California, the Wild swallowed five out of six points and returned to Minnesota with its road point streak, now at 10 games, intact.
“When you look at the schedule, and you’re looking at these three teams, and you’re looking at Montreal and Chicago and Dallas next week, you’re going, ‘Uh-oh,’ it’s a tough stretch,’ ” Boudreau said. “And, usually losing streaks follow winning streaks.
“So it was really good for them to, just sort of, say, ‘OK, you lost, get over it and start playing again.’ ”
In San Jose, the Wild rallied from two two-goal deficits for the first time in team history and scored four third-period goals to beat the Sharks behind tying and winning goals from Mikko Koivu and three-point nights from Zach Parise and Eric Staal.
In Los Angeles, the Wild surrendered a two-goal lead but got a last-minute power-play goal from Parise to salvage a point. And in Anaheim, the Wild beat a team that hadn’t lost in regulation at home since November by getting back to the nitty-gritty of defending.
“This is, if not the toughest, for sure, one of the toughest trips every year,” Koivu said. “All three teams, they play hard, they play good two-way hockey.”
The Wild allowed 22 goals in the previous six games but went 4-1-1 in that stretch though, another example of how this is a very different team. It is 10-5-1 when surrendering the game’s first goal (.625 win percentage is second-best in the NHL) after being a league-worst 5-25-6 in the same situation last season.
There were some positive developments this trip, too.
First, Parise looked like the Parise of old after getting a pep talk from Boudreau. Second, Devan Dubnyk returned to form in Anaheim after allowing four goals in his previous three starts.
“You don’t do that for 82 games ever,” Dubnyk said of his stellar first 27 starts. “There’s always going to be some lulls. And fortunately, two of the three [tough starts] we were able to score five and six goals, so we’ll take those.
“But, it’s nice to get out there and remember what it feels like to give up one, and not four.”
Struggling Jason Pominville had strong games in Southern California. Yes, he has now gone 17 games without a goal, but he assisted on two goals in two days and registered 10 combined shots and shot attempts vs. the Ducks. Pominville credited the reunion with last season’s second-half linemates, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula, as the reason Sunday, but Boudreau said, “The last two practices, I told him, ‘Your legs are coming back.’ ”
Thursday, the Wild begins a string of nine games in 15 nights. The Wild plays host to the Canadiens first, then plays back-to-back at Dallas and at Chicago this weekend. It will be the Wild’s first meeting with the division-leading Blackhawks, who lost all five games to the Wild last season.
Wild players seem confident they can continue to soar.
“I don’t think any one of us was worried how we were going to respond after getting our streak snapped,” Parise said. “It wasn’t going to go on forever, but I think we understood there still were areas even though we were winning that we could be better at.
“But we weren’t ever worried about a letdown after the Columbus game.”