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Wild sends struggling first-round picks back to minors

The Wild sent former first round draft picks Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek to Iowa of the American Hockey League and recalled forward Zack Mitchell on Tuesday.

Mitchell is Iowa's leading scorer, with five goals and 11 assists in 11 games. He had a goal and an assist with the Wild earlier this season.

"Yeah, it's completely different, especially when you go from playing, I played penalty kill and power play down there," Mitchell said. "But at the same time, I’m still excited to be up here. Any time you have to go out on the ice, you’ve just got to, even if you’re not [skating] for a while, you’ve just got to find it sometimes. It’s tough for sure, but it's going to be a challenge, and if you can’t get excited for that, then something's wrong."

Kunin (pictured), 19, was the Wild's first round pick (15th overall) in 2016. He was pegged for Iowa until injuries forced him into the Minnesota lineup. He has two goals and two assists in 17 games.

Eriksson Ek, 20, was the Wild's first round pick (20th overall) in 2015. He has a goal and two assists in 20 games.

"We just think those guys need a little bit of confident and get a chance to play the power play, get a chance to play 22, 23 minutes a night,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of Kunin and Eriksson Ek. “I know when I played, when I got sent down, you felt so much better because you’re at your NHL speed. You’ve got your NHL legs and everything. And Mitch has been very, very good down there and bringing him up might be just a little poke of energy for us.”

The Wild, which lost 4-3 in overtime Monday to New Jersey at the X, is at Buffalo on Wednesday night. At practice Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center, just Daniel Winnik and Eric Staal were absent, likely on a maintenence day.

Postgame: Wild looking to discover urgency earlier in games

It’s unlikely the Wild could rig the scoreboard to read a deficit at puck drop, but that’s the exact scenario that seems to elicit its best hockey.

After falling into an early hole spurred on by a pair of unlucky bounces off defenseman Gustav Olofsson, the Wild didn’t seriously start to cash in on the pressure it had been applying until the third period. That helped the team bank a point but not two, as the Devils outlasted the Wild 4-3 in overtime Monday at Xcel Energy Center.

“I feel like we always need to come from behind and all of a sudden we start getting angry, start getting emotions,” winger Nino Niederreiter said. “Obviously, the crowd starts getting into it and all of a sudden we get fired up. I think that’s something we’ve got to find in our room to get the emotions going and just be positive with one another, and everyone has to pull the same string.”

Although the scoreboard told a different story, the Wild were seemingly in control through the first half of the game. The Devils struggled to maintain possession in the offensive zone, and much of the play was concentrated in New Jersey’s end.

But not until the Wild found itself down 3-1 in the third period did it finally start to play with the gusto that merits results.

“I feel every time we get our forecheck really going, we’re throwing pucks to the net, we get the crowd into that game and it gives us some energy,” winger Mikael Granlund said. “I feel like we’ve been able to do that in third periods, and you can hear it from the building. It’s pretty awesome out there. So we need to try to do that right from the beginning.”

Consistency is key.

Not only can that help the team’s competitiveness from period to period, but it’s also a necessary ingredient to string together wins.

“We go in spurts, but we don’t go in 60 minutes,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Until we learn to go in 60 minutes, we’re not going to go too far.”

Here’s what else to watch for after the Wild’s overtime loss to the Devils.

  • Forward Charlie Coyle is back after missing the previous 16 games to recover from a right fibula fracture.

Coyle made his return to the lineup Monday less than six weeks after he was injured Oct.12 when he was hit by a shot from teammate Jared Spurgeon.

“I felt fine,” Coyle said. “Just gotta give more when you lose. Everybody needs to step up.”

The 25-year-old skated in 17:25, way more than the eight-to-10 minutes Boudreau expected to play Coyle, who was buzzing in the first period and eventually earned an in-game promotion from the fourth line where he started the game.

“I thought he had tons of energy in the first period,” Boudreau said. “He looked really good, and you could see he was getting a little more tired as the game went on. He’s going to be a big help to our team.”

Boudreau said he knew Sunday night that Coyle would play against the Devils. Coyle had yet to practice with the Wild, but that didn’t bother Boudreau.

“He’s in phenomenal shape,” Boudreau said. “I figured we could throw him into the fray right away.”

With Coyle back in the mix, winger Chris Stewart was the odd forward out. It was the first time Stewart had been scratched this season.

“That had nothing to do with Stewie,” Boudreau said. “We could have sat four or five guys. Stewie was the one that just drew the short straw in my mind today, but he’s a guy we need to play better – just like there’s other guys on this team we need to play better consistently.”

  • Since Nov.6, only four forwards have scored for the Wild – Niederreiter, Granlund, Eric Staal and Jason Zucker.

The solution for secondary scoring, Boudreau believes, is at the net – a strategy the players also anticipate will help the offense.

“We just got to get greasier and get into the paint,” Niederreiter said. “I think right now we just stay too much on the outside. We’re not getting enough traffic in front of the net, and I think that’s what we got to do from the first line to the fourth line. We got to jam those pucks home and get greasy, got to make sure we shoot more pucks.”

Niederreiter seems to have received this message since he continues to score goals from the front of the net, with his tally Monday – his fourth in his last four games – coming from the top of the crease.

“I think that’s my game,” he said. “I have to go there to be successful, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Getting more shots on net and I’m glad I’m getting rewarded at the moment.”

Grandlund has certainly been around the puck lately, but his pair of goals were his first since Nov.6 – a drought that’s infected most of the forward group.

“When you shoot the puck, pucks will go in eventually,” said Granlund, who also had an assist. “Just try not to get that blocked, and just try to hit the net, and sometimes it’s going to go in.”

  • It was certainly a difficult start for Olofsson, who had the first two Devils goals bounce off him and into the net.

“There’s always things you can do to prevent goals, and I could have boxed out a little earlier,” he said. “Both were unlucky bounces, but there’s little things always I think you can do.”

Olofsson is still young in his career and growing his confidence as an NHLer, so it had to be tough to have not one but two pucks carom off him and into the net. He said he tried to remain calm and "make something better of the rest of the game."

Goalie Devan Dubnyk said he’d wait to chat with the young blue liner tomorrow, while Boudreau said he didn't talk with Olofsson.

“You’re not going to tell him not to try to get the guy in front,” Boudreau said. “Those are unfortunate things.”

Final, 11/20 1 2 3 OT F
New Jersey 12-5-3 1 1 1 1 4
Minnesota 9-8-3 0 1 2 0 3

NHL Scoreboard

  • Vancouver

    Philadelphia

     

    - F

    5

    2

  • Edmonton

    St. Louis

     

    - F

    3

    8

  • Montreal

    Dallas

     

    - F

    1

    3