Wild notes: Tough road trip looms
- Article by: Michael Russo
- Star Tribune
- March 27, 2014 - 12:19 AM
After Wednesday’s game, the Wild boarded a chartered flight for St. Louis, where it will begin arguably its toughest road trip of the season Thursday. Depending on how the Wild fares during its trip to St. Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago could either ramp up the anxiety level the final five games of the season, or lighten it.
The Blues are the top team in the NHL. The Kings and Blackhawks are above Minnesota in the standings. The eighth-place Coyotes are chasing the seventh-place Wild, so a victory Saturday would create separation as the Wild aims to secure the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
“We’re playing tough teams,” first-line left winger Zach Parise said. “They’re all in the playoffs right now, so we’ll have our work cut out for us. But it’ll be good to start seeing what type of hockey we’re going to have to play to, No. 1 make the playoffs, but, No. 2, do anything in the playoffs.
“It’ll be good for us. It’ll be tough road games, but if we recognize what we did in Detroit [on Sunday] and keep trying to do that, we’ll be OK.”
Defenseman Nate Prosser said the entire road trip is a proverbial “measuring stick.”
“It’s a huge road trip for our team to see where we’re at,” Prosser said. “Every two points are huge, especially these ones. We don’t want Phoenix coming up from behind and we want to let other teams know we’re for real.”
While it’d be easy to look ahead to the big game at Phoenix, Parise says it all starts in St. Louis.
The Wild has lost to the Blues eight consecutive times (0-5-3) and hasn’t won in regulation in St. Louis in 11 visits since Oct. 2007 (3-6-2). The Blues are 25-5-4 at home, and the Wild could conceivably face St. Louis in the first round if it finishes in either wild-card position.
“That’s always a hard building, and they play really well at home,” Parise said. “[Coach Ken] Hitchcock’s good with his matchups. That’s a tough place to win, but we’re at a point right now where we have to start winning games in that building if we want to be able to do anything.
“I mean, we could be looking at those guys in the first round. Who knows? We’ve got to start being a tough team to play in that building and win games in that building.”
After being scratched in five consecutive games, Justin Fontaine returned to the Wild lineup to play five in a row. That included a one-goal, one-assist effort March 18 at the Islanders.
But three below-average games in a row and Mike Yeo’s desire to find a fourth line with a stereotypical fourth-line identity caused the coach to scratch Fontaine on Wednesday against Vancouver.
Yeo said he wants a fourth line that brings momentum, is solid defensively, strong on the forecheck and that plays in the offensive zone. Wednesday, he went with a Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Cody McCormick fourth line.
Yeo said Fontaine, in a fourth-line role, must improve his wall play.
“When he’s on, he’s stripping pucks,” Yeo said. “He doesn’t have to be a guy who’s running guys through the boards, but you have to be effective. … We’ve got to make sure we keep him ready to go. There’s going to be a time very soon where we call upon him and we hope he can step in the same way that he did before [on Long Island].”
• Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom and forward Jason Zucker underwent successful surgeries Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.
Backstrom had surgery to repair an abdominal muscle, while Zucker had a tendon in his left quadriceps repaired in Rochester. Both are expected to recover in time for the 2014-15 season.
• Defenseman Keith Ballard (groin) missed his fifth consecutive game.
• Left wingers Stephane Veilleux and Mike Rupp also were scratched.
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