DENVER – A day after beating the top team in the NHL, and less than 12 hours after getting to the team hotel in Colorado, Zach Parise was back on the ice with a few teammates working up a sweat Wednesday afternoon.
After 14 games away because of a broken left foot, the All-Star left winger wasn’t going to waste a chance to skate, especially when the Wild is playing so well.
The Wild struggled initially when Parise went down Dec. 22, losing its first four games before rebounding to win seven of the next 10 and get into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
With Parise back, the Wild roster is deeper and more dangerous. The offense has been clicking since Christmas, averaging 3.06 goals a game, and Parise’s presence will give that average a boost.
“He’s one of the best forwards in the league, so whenever you get a guy like that back it’s going to help you,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “We did a great job without him in the lineup; our young guys stepped up and scored goals and brought energy. With Zach back now it’s a huge bonus. He’s one of the best players in the NHL.”
In his third game back Parise showed his worth Tuesday night with a goal and two assists in the Wild’s 4-2 victory at Anaheim. They were his first points since Dec. 17, but only a drought of four games for him.
Still, getting on the score sheet in a victory was important.
“It feels good to get a goal,” Parise said. “It’s been a while, seeing I was out for a long time.”
Parise’s impact goes beyond his scoring ability. He is a good two-way player who improves the Wild’s puck-possession time.
“We’ve seen it right from the first game that he’s been back with us, how many times we get the puck in the offensive zone, how many turnovers he creates, how much he helps us just to gain zone time in the offensive zone,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s created chances in every game. He hounds, pressures and creates turnovers.”
The Wild has struggled in faceoffs without center Mikko Koivu, who has been out since having surgery on his fractured right ankle in early January. The Wild won only 31 percent of its draws against the Sharks but improved to 45 percent against the Ducks.
Bolstering that statistic will improve the team’s puck possession time.
“We’ve put a little extra emphasis on it. It’s so important to have the puck because you don’t have to defend all game,” Suter said. “Playing against some top players, it’s always better to have the puck than for them to have it.”
When the Wild doesn’t win faceoffs, it has to keep doing what worked at Anaheim.
“We forced them into some bad spots and forced them to turn the puck over, and as a result we had the puck more,” Parise said. “We’ve always got to be better puck possession-wise, and tonight was a big step.”
Parise’s 14-game absence provided an opportunity for the younger players to step up, and they responded. The team hasn’t missed a step since his return, beating Chicago and the Ducks while earning a point in an overtime loss to San Jose in between.
Things don’t always go smoothly when a top player returns to the lineup, but it wasn’t the case with the Wild.
“For us the biggest thing was to not have a letdown,” Suter said. “The young guys were playing really well, and still are, but sometimes when you have a top guy come back they think, ‘Oh, he’s back, I can take ’er down a notch.’ For us to have everyone going [Tuesday] night is huge.”