GLENDALE, ARIZ. – The Wild, winners of three of its past 12 games and suddenly on fragile footing, enjoyed a day in the 80-degree Valley of the Sun on Friday.
“Coach has been great getting us away from the rink so we can recharge,” defenseman Ryan Suter said after Thursday’s 5-1 beating in St. Louis. “I almost say we should go practice to try to get feeling good about yourself.
“When you’re so inconsistent right now, it’s tough to get momentum and feel good about yourself.”
The Wild had a collective bargaining agreement- mandated day off, so coach Mike Yeo scheduled the relaxing off day weeks in advance. Players lounged by the hotel pool and played pingpong in the courtyard. They were seeking to clear their minds heading into Saturday’s vitally important clash against the Phoenix Coyotes, who are one point behind in the Western Conference playoff race.
“If we play like [Thursday], we’re not going to be around too long,” Suter said. “We better figure it out fast and come out ready to play.”
The Wild, after a 9-2-2 run before the trade deadline, has taken a turn for the worse in every facet. In 12 games since March 5, the Wild has given up three goals or more nine times. Its goaltending has been unstable. Suter called special teams “terrible,” as the Wild is 14.6 percent on power plays and 64.6 percent on the penalty kill.
And the Wild has averaged 2½ goals per game, although that’s actually a slight improvement for the NHL’s 27th-ranked offense.
So, it’s not a shock the Wild is 3-5-4 in those 12 games.
On the other hand, the Coyotes are 7-2-1 in their past 10 and 9-4-1 this month. They are coming off a five-point, three-game road trip in which they moved within one point of the skidding seventh-place Wild.
“As frustrating and as tough as [the Blues game] was, we’ve got to look at it as if we’ve got to beat Phoenix now,” forward Zach Parise said. “It’s frustrating. There’s no question. I feel like right now when we do make a mistake, it’s in the back of our net. But not only that, we’re not doing ourselves any favors. We’re making it hard on ourselves.
“Our special teams haven’t been good. You need those to win games. The majority of the time you win the special teams game, you win the game. That hasn’t been the case for us.”
The pressure is squarely on Yeo’s shoulders. The ninth-place Dallas Stars are charging from the rear, and with Yeo in the final year of his contract, he will likely be the fall guy if the Wild misses the playoffs.
Yeo noted before Thursday’s game at St. Louis that the Wild needed to find consistency in its game, and it started with several underperformers.
He said this while discussing veteran Dany Heatley’s recent struggles. Heatley has four shots in the past 11 games, no goals since Feb. 27, no power-play points since Feb. 6, is minus-7 the past five games and a team-worst minus-18.
Before two recent games Yeo sounded as if it’s getting close to the time he might have to pull Heatley from the lineup. Interestingly, Yeo’s mentor, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, had no qualms scratching veterans Mike Ribeiro and Derek Morris during consecutive victories in Pittsburgh and New Jersey this week.
Yeo might have to make a similar difficult decision, perhaps as early as Saturday, with Heatley.
But the Wild’s problems go beyond Heatley. They go beyond goaltending, a lifeless power play, a disastrous penalty kill and an anemic offense.
Right now, the big concern? Players admit negativity over their recent play has infiltrated their heads. They’re suddenly not confident, unsure. It’s going to take mental toughness to overcome another late-season implosion, especially with this road trip continuing to Los Angeles and Chicago and home games coming up against powerhouses Pittsburgh, Boston and St. Louis.
“It’s hard,” Suter confessed. “You can’t get down because the minute you start feeling sorry for yourself, you’re losing another game. So you have to try to stop the bleeding and just get to focus on the little things. The harder you work, the more breaks you get. We have to work harder.”
Yeo knows the importance of Saturday’s game, and not just in the standings, “but also for us to get our game going here, to get some wins, to get feeling good about ourselves.
“[The Coyotes are] feeling really good about themselves and playing a really good game. I hope we look forward to this challenge. I always believe that competitors find a way to be at their best in those moments.”