Even if the Wild didn’t evolve into the franchise’s most successful version through the regular season a year ago — a surge that only seems to validate a culture insistent on excellence — expectations in the aftermath would have been the same.
“The actual goal is to be best at everything,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
With 39 points from a 18-15-3 showing that ranks one point shy of the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference, the Wild has yet to achieve that status as it skidded into the leaguewide holiday break having dropped four of its past five games.
Its results to date have played out like a game of chutes and ladders, an up-and-down rhythm completely out of tune with the harmony that defined the historic march through 2016-17.
And although the roster has changed since then, there’s still optimism the Wild rediscovers its previous prowess and morphs into a consistent competitor after it resumes action Wednesday by playing host to Dallas.
“I’m positive we haven’t hit our stride,” Boudreau said. “I’m sure that somewhere down the road there’s a six- to 10-game winning streak somewhere.”
The steadiness that fosters success on a regular basis is what the Wild has been lacking most thus far.
While the team’s capped its longest losing streak at three games, it hasn’t strung together more than four consecutive victories. That’s happened twice, but the rest of the wins have been packaged as pairs or surrounded by defeats — a stop-and-go pace that makes it difficult to climb the standings in the ultracompetitive Central Division.
“It’s a matter of being consistent in this league if you want to be a good team, if you want to be a successful team, if you want to be a team at the top,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “We haven’t been able to do that so far this season, so we’ve got to find it fast to find that consistency and not just play one period or two periods or one game or two games. You’ve got to be able to put some wins in a row, and that’s what good teams do.”
Injuries have been challenging although not crippling; the Wild has remained in the playoff hunt despite missing forwards Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle, defenseman Jared Spurgeon and goalie Devan Dubnyk for chunks of the schedule, while winger Zach Parise has yet to debut as he recovers from back surgery.
Offensive woes also have stoked the adversity, an unfamiliar problem for a team that scored the second-most goals in the NHL last season.
That outburst was fueled by a handful of career years, a feat that’s clearly tough to duplicate. Koivu recently nixed a 24-game goal drought, Granlund is on pace to finish shy of 20 on the heels of a 26-goal campaign and Coyle has scored just twice since his return last month from a right fibula fracture.
What could be encouraging, though, is that most of the Wild’s production last season came in the second half; the team had buried just 102 of its 263 goals at this point a year ago.
And, really, the rest of the season is what will sculpt the Wild’s fate.
“We need to come back here with that urgency that our playoff push has to start immediately,” center Matt Cullen said. “Our schedule gets a little bit better as far as we can hopefully be home a bit. It’s been tough here lately. But it’s important that we all understand how urgent it is when we get back.”
The Wild will be home for much of January, and it’s shined at Xcel Energy Center amid a 10-4-2 record.
Add in the eventual returns of Parise, Dubnyk and Niederreiter — who was injured Friday but should be fine after wearing a boot on his foot for a couple of days — and perhaps getting to full strength is just the boost the group needs to realize its identity.
Maxing out on its potential, though, doesn’t guarantee the Wild a sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs.
But clarity is coming.
“I feel like guys are getting more comfortable in their roles and what’s expected of them,” center Eric Staal said. “Once that happens, you gain confidence as a group and you can do some good things. That’s what we’re looking to do.”