It is playoff time for the Wild.
This is not a sarcastic comment on the team's position among the top eight in the Western Conference. It is a mindset players and coaches have adopted as the Wild heads into the immediate future without captain and leading scorer Mikko Koivu.
Koivu, who was injured in the first period of Saturday's shootout loss in St. Louis, is officially listed by the Wild as week-to-week, though coach Mike Yeo said he didn't expect Koivu back before the All-Star break (Jan. 26-30). But NHL sources told the Star Tribune that Koivu, who was placed on injured reserve, had a separated left shoulder and is expected to be out four to six weeks.
Koivu leaves the lineup for a team that has won only twice in 15 games. And Koivu -- who is the team captain and leading scorer -- is now on the sideline with the likes of Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who are dealing with concussions.
Just what sort of team will Koivu return to when healthy?
That's what brings us to the playoff angle. In the Wild dressing room after Monday's practice, the talk was of a season in the balance and the mindset required to see it through.
"This is a make-or-break point of the season,'' said center Matt Cullen, who was skating with the top line in practice. "It absolutely is. This is a playoff stretch for us. That has to be our mindset now. We have to get into that style."
That style would include selling out even more when it comes time to block a shot. Or a player allowing himself to be hit in order to make a play. But playoff style means even more. "We have to be in that mode right now where it's life and death every game," Yeo said. "If we do that we'll give ourselves a good chance."
The Wild had a preview of this, when a lower body injury sidelined Koivu for four games in December. The Wild went 0-3-1 in his absence. "We didn't play nearly close to well enough at that time," Yeo said. "Hopefully we can all draw upon that experience, look to what we did and didn't do. I think we tried to reconstruct our lines a little different way this time.''
Yeo has tried to spread what little offense he has among the top three lines, matching grit with skill. To that end, in Monday's practice, Yeo had Cullen skating with wingers Dany Heatley and Nick Johnson, Kyle Brodziak with Darroll Powe and Devin Setoguchi, and Warren Peters with Cal Clutterbuck and David McIntyre.
Winger Carson McMillan was called up from Houston of the AHL on Monday, and goalie Matt Hackett returned to the Aeros.
The last time the Wild was missing Koivu, it also was missing Bouchard and Setoguchi. This time around one of those three is in the lineup. But still, scoring goals figures to be a nightly challenge. And that only makes the margin of error that much smaller.
Most of the players referenced Saturday's game, in which the Wild came back from a 2-1 deficit to force overtime. "I think you saw how everyone's battle level got raised," Brodziak said. "I mean, it was at a point we haven't seen in a long time. The commitment to doing what we were doing was as high as it's been in a long time."
Yeo said everybody has to take their game up a notch but nobody should change their game. He doesn't want a player whose game is based on grit trying to get fancy. He doesn't want anyone trying to win games by themselves. Not with the season at a tipping point.
"There are always a few of them, and this is one of those moments for sure," Yeo said. "How will we handle this? Mikko will come back. And we'd like to be in a much better place when he comes back. [Latendresse] and Bouchard as well. We have to take care of business, so when these guys do come back we're in a good spot.''
Staff writer Michael Russo contributed to this report.