WINNIPEG – The Wild felt it needed to improve its record as the visitor in the second half of the regular season to advance to the playoffs.
Now the team will have to win on the road just to stay in them, as Minnesota returns to Winnipeg for Game 5 on Friday against the Jets trying to extend the first-round, best-of-seven series after tripping into a 3-1 hole.
“You love to win at home,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You love to play in front of your fans and everything, but every good team has to win usually one game on the road that’s very decisive. Obviously [Friday] night’s an important game.”
To remain relevant beyond this series, the Wild will require two road victories. But the team is keeping its focus narrow and ignoring the big picture, a smart plan considering how grim it looks; the Wild hasn’t won in Winnipeg all season, including Games 1 and 2, and the Jets haven’t lost on home ice since Feb. 27 — a string of 11 consecutive victories.
“If you look at beating Winnipeg three times in a row, you’re looking at, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty daunting task,’ ” Boudreau said. “But you gotta look at it as just playing one game. Just win one game. And when you wake up the morning after you win the one game, you just think about winning one more game. And that’s the way you think about it.”
It’s a similar outlook to how the Wild embarks on the regular season, breaking the 82-game grind into weekly segments and vying to pocket more wins than losses by the end of each. The team is also familiar with having to figure out a solution for its road woes.
After completing the first half of its schedule, the Wild sat a subpar 8-12-1 in away games. Since then, the team got better — finishing 10-8-2 to end up 18-20-3.
This progress seemed to come with the understanding the Wild’s style must be different on the road than at home. Without the boost of a friendly crowd and the energy that comes with a comfortable environment, the team had to become more strategic.
Instead of regularly setting the tone like it did at Xcel Energy Center as one of the league’s best home teams by pushing the pace after puck drop, the Wild had to weather that early onslaught as the visitor and pick its spots to counter — awareness that appeared to help it become more competitive in other buildings.
“Sometimes on the road, it just needs to be more simple, a little more boring,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “But you have to be extremely sharp.”
There’s nothing wrong with a scoreless start for both sides; actually, that scenario seems to only flatter the Wild the longer it persists.
Eventually, though, the offense has to show up. It didn’t last game, as the Wild was blanked 2-0 by the Jets on Tuesday, and the team seems likely to roll out a new look to end the drought.
Winger Kyle Rau could replace Tyler Ennis after skating alongside center Matt Cullen and winger Marcus Foligno at practice Thursday, and defenseman Ryan Murphy is poised to make his playoff debut Friday.
He skated on the third pairing next to Nate Prosser at Xcel Energy Center.
“[Murphy’s] an offensive player, and we can use him on the power play,” Boudreau said.
Consider forwards Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle as other candidates to spark the offense. All three are pointless in the series after combining for 62 goals and 133 points in the regular season.
“It’s frustrating in the sense that I’m not helping the team,” Zucker said. “Last game for me individually was a step in the right direction, but it’s still not good enough and for guys that are top guys on this team to not be producing … when it matters most is frustrating.”
Give the Jets credit, though, for clogging up the middle and making it tough to create momentum along the boards — Winnipeg strengths on display in the third period of Game 4 as it sealed the shutout.
“We need to get more traffic to the net, and that’s one of my jobs,” Niederreiter said.
Boudreau said he felt Game 4 was the best showing so far from Niederreiter and Zucker in the playoffs, and maybe that ignites more improvement in Game 5. Perhaps scoring first would help, too, which the Wild has yet to do in the series.
“It’ll force them probably to play a little different, maybe a little more aggressive, maybe create some more chances for us the other way,” center Eric Staal said.
At this point, though, how the Wild perseveres is secondary. What matters most is if it does at all.
“With our situation, it’s just win one game,” Boudreau said. “It’s not going to be easy but win one game.”