Even before the Wild embarked on last week’s road trip, coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t like the way the calendar lined up. Over a seven-day span beginning last Monday, the team was scheduled to play four games, have an optional practice Tuesday and days off on Friday and Sunday.
Boudreau knew his team needed more work, not less. So did Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Eric Staal, who were on board with the coach’s plan to turn that optional practice into a serious, intensely physical workout. The day after a feeble 5-3 defeat at Boston, the Wild spent an hour sweating out its frustration at a suburban Toronto rink, with every player pouring himself into a nonstop series of high-tempo drills.
It’s hard to say whether that afternoon is solely responsible for revitalizing an erratic team. There’s no question, though, that the Wild improved sharply over the final three games of the trip. Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Philadelphia capped a run of three fundamentally sound performances, sending the Wild home with a 2-2 record and reminding players what they need to do to carry that success forward.
“Every guy came off the ice that day and said, ‘That was an absolute battle,’ ” said forward Jason Zucker, who scored all six Wild goals in those three games. “But it was exactly what we needed. We didn’t get bagged with no pucks; it was just that we needed a battle practice, and that was huge for us.
“I remember talking to [forward Tyler] Ennis when we got off the ice. And it was like, ‘Yeah, that was good. We really needed that.’ I honestly think it turned our battle level around a bit and got us moving in the right direction.”
As Zucker noted, the practice wasn’t meant as punishment. It was designed to mimic the unrelenting effort Boudreau wanted to see from a team that had given it only sporadically.
The shoddy defense and passive offense in the loss at Boston infuriated Boudreau, who compared his team to the Keystone Kops. He was particularly aggravated to see that kind of performance from competent, experienced players who understand his system and how to make it hum.
Over the first month of the season, the Wild lurched from one extreme to the other. It could record a masterful victory at Chicago, then play two periods in Boston that left Boudreau shaking his head. “It’s like we’re in quicksand, not doing what we’re supposed to be doing,’’ he said. “If you play the game the right way, you usually win.”
Taking days off, Boudreau knew, wasn’t going to help the Wild get its mind right. Declaring “This is not a country club,’’ he used the day off between the Boston loss and last Wednesday’s game in Toronto to push his team hard, underlining his message that the Wild would go nowhere if it did not consistently outwork its opponents.
“Add the fact that we didn’t play very good [in Boston], and it was easy to cancel [the optional] and make it a good practice,’’ Boudreau said. “I talked to the leaders on the team, and they thought it was needed, too. The three hardest workers in that practice were Suter, Staal and Mikko.”
The Wild carried that energy into a 4-2 loss at Toronto. Though it controlled play for much of the game, it didn’t lapse into self-pity over a third consecutive loss. Instead, Suter and Zucker vowed to charge even harder the following night at Montreal.
Against the Canadiens, one more piece fell into place: the goaltending. Devan Dubnyk’s vision and movement were the crispest they had been all season, and he stopped all 73 shots he faced in back-to-back shutouts of Montreal and Philadelphia. His teammates blocked 46 shots in the two games.
Zucker — whom Boudreau said was standing still too often during a five-game goal drought — put his speed back to work. He became the first NHL player since Boston’s Glen Murray in 2004 to score six consecutive goals, a string that is one short of the league record.
“When everything feels like things are down and everything is kind of piling up, you just have to go back, and maybe it’s one push here or one stop there and things turn around,” Dubnyk said. “This is how I’m used to feeling in net. I’ll try to hang on to it as long as I can.’’