WINNIPEG – Stephane Veilleux was sitting on the couch talking to his wife, Amy, late Saturday night about their European and minor league journey the past few years. The conversation took place not long after the 32-year-old left wing was a large contributor in the Wild’s shutout over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A week before, Veilleux was in the minors not knowing if he would return to the show after shuttling back and forth between Des Moines and St. Paul all season. A year before, Veilleux had no clue if he would ever play in the NHL again after spending all of last season, all of 2010-11 and much of 2011-12 in the minors.
“Sometimes in this game, things can change really fast,” said Veilleux, in his second stint with the Wild, with whom he ranks eighth all-time with 413 games played. “You always have to keep pushing and all of sudden I’m into a situation — again, I’m not taking anything for granted — where I’m in a playoff push.
“It feels really good to be part of this right now and hopefully more is coming. I’m really proud to be back. It comes with hard work and always believing in yourself. You take a step back and you think about all the traveling the last few years, the ups and downs and then you think you could be part of something great here. It’s great satisfaction.”
Cody McCormick, Veilleux’s fourth-line center against Pittsburgh, had a near identical retrospection Sunday morning. McCormick, after being scratched in five of the past seven games, assisted on Veilleux’s goal and scored a goal himself for his first two points with the Wild since being the “other guy” in the March 5 Matt Moulson acquisition from Buffalo.
The two games before, McCormick, 30, was in the press box. Exactly one month before, he played for the 30th-place Sabres and was staring at an early offseason. A year before, he, like Veilleux, was in the minors.
“You’re sitting there on the trade deadline watching [the TV coverage] and then get a call and go from 30th place to playoff contention. It’s a quick turnaround sometimes in this league,” McCormick said. “You want to be in the playoffs. You want to be in the NHL. That’s what you play the sport for.”
It’s these types of refreshing attitudes that earns the respect of Wild coach Mike Yeo, a former hard-nosed, heart-and-soul minor league player himself.
Being a fourth-liner isn’t the easiest hockey job around, but it’s an important one. It takes getting used to limited minutes but having to generate momentum by being physical, reliable defensively, occasionally dropping the gloves and sometimes finding yourself removed from the lineup.
The key, McCormick says, is not to pout when the latter happens.
“It’s not my first time having to be in the press box,” said McCormick, who spent parts of four seasons in Colorado and five seasons in Buffalo. “When you do have to take your turn there, you’re watching the game, watching everything to make sure you figure out the best way for you to contribute the next time.”
The Veilleux-McCormick-Nino Niederreiter line set an early tone against the Penguins. They were physical and suffocating on the forecheck. They brought energy, momentum and offense, starting with Veilleux chipping a puck in and forcing Brooks Orpik to hurry a pass so he wouldn’t get clobbered. That resulted in a turnover because of McCormick’s wall play. Veilleux worked his way back to the front of the net, McCormick found him and Veilleux scored.
“That’s the kind of workmanlike style of play we need from those guys,” Yeo said.
Later, McCormick stayed out for an extended shift and made it 4-0 on a setup from Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle. Niederreiter, relegated to fourth-line duty because of depth at the wings on the top three lines, has added physicality, defense and offensive-zone time, Yeo said.
“What our line brings is a consistent forecheck, consistent energy,” McCormick said. “We don’t want to be outworked.”
Yeo was honest Sunday, however, and admitted that one reason he played McCormick is because in the previous two games against Chicago and Los Angeles, Parise, Niederreiter and Jason Pominville were all nailed up high by what the team deemed cheap shots.
McCormick has been in 56 fights and is the closest the Wild has to a deterrent with the team clearly not willing to play nightly scratch Mike Rupp, whose operated-on knees have slowed his skating.
“There has to be a mentality as a team that if somebody’s going to hit someone like Zach, whether that person knows that we’re there or whether their team knows that we might be able to do the same thing to some of their top guys, there has to be that element to your team,” Yeo said. “I don’t want anybody feeling comfortable going after our top guys. That should never happen.”
Things become more physical in the playoffs, so the fourth line should continue to get important minutes for the Wild. Veilleux hopes to be a mainstay there and wants to continue to earn Yeo’s trust by “bringing energy, making smart plays, being reliable, hit legally and draw some penalties” like he did Thursday in Chicago when Kris Versteeg retaliated to a clean check by slashing Veilleux.
“He’s gone up and down [to Iowa] and all he’s ever done is say, ‘Thanks,’ ” Yeo said of Veilleux. “It says an awful lot about the player. It’s a perfect example of what a guy should do. You don’t ever know when your next opportunity is. But he focuses on what he can control and makes sure to bring a great effort and attitude every day.”