After the Wild’s 1-6 start to the season and only four wins in the first 14 games, that national broadcaster who this summer ticked off coach Bruce Boudreau by suggesting Minnesota would finish 32nd in the 31-team NHL was looking downright Nostradamus-like. The team was reeling, veterans weren’t scoring and the use of the words “Wild’’ and “playoffs’’ in the same sentence produced laughter.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the Wild’s sprint toward the bottom of the NHL standings. Those who have a say in it – Minnesota’s players, especially – decided enough was enough.
“At the beginning it ticked them off, and we certainly heard a lot of rumblings when we were 1-6,’’ Boudreau told reporters in Tampa, following the Wild’s gritty, 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night. “They’re all proud athletes and dug deep and started playing for each other.’’
That certainly was on display against the talent-laden Lightning, a team that posted a 62-16-4 record in 2018-19. Time and time again, when Tampa Bay scored, the Wild would answer, and often quickly. Three goals in a team-record-tying span of 1:41 in the first period gave Minnesota a 3-1 lead after the Lightning scored in the game’s first two minutes. When Victor Hedman tied it 3-3 late in the second period, Victor Rask put the Wild back up 4-3 only 36 seconds later. And when Alex Killorn knotted it 4-4 at 4:00 of the third, Mats Zuccarello needed just eight seconds to respond with the winner.
“Instead of saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ like we would talk about at the beginning of the year, they’re saying, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get these guys right away,’ ’’ Boudreau said.
The result gave Minnesota its fifth consecutive victory and extended its point-gaining streak to 11 games. Since that 4-9-1 start, the Wild is 10-2-3 and has moved into the last wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference with 32 points. Yep, there’s “Wild’’ and “playoffs’’ in the same sentence with not nearly as much laughter as we heard in October.
Three weeks ago, General Manager Bill Guerin said he still was evaluating the team but indicated that long-term success takes precedence over short-term satisfaction.
“We have to do what’s right for the organization as a whole, not grasp at straws,” he said. “We don’t want to talk ourselves into something that we don’t really want to do or think we’re something that we’re not.’’
Guerin’s evaluation of this team might have taken an interesting twist with the Wild’s active hot streak. A season that looked to be one of development and rebuilding now has the potential of a playoff appearance. Can the new GM build for the future while not completely sacrificing the present? The run up to the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline suddenly is more intriguing in Minnesota.
After Saturday’s game at Carolina, the Wild will have played 20 of its 41 road games this season. When your factor in a four-game trip that ends the season, the Wild has an opportunity to do some damage at home because 31 of its next 49 games will be at Xcel Energy Center, where it has a 7-1-2 record. The team’s road-heavy schedule through early December dealt a blow, but it hasn’t proven to be a fatal one in terms of playoff hopes.
Boudreau didn’t want to rock the boat after Thursday’s triumph.
“Everybody keep saying what they’re saying,’’ he told reporters. “We’re doing it with smoke and mirrors.’’