The Wild held an optional practice Wednesday morning before flying to North Carolina, the first stop on a four-game road trip that continues with games in Dallas, Pittsburgh and Boston. Only five skaters--Nate Prosser, Christian Folin, Chris Porter, Erik Haula and Jordan Schroeder--were on the ice at Xcel Energy Center, along with goalies Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.
Coach Mike Yeo said Tuesday's 5-3 victory over Winnipeg gives his team "lots of hop, lots of energy, lots of emotion'' as it embarks on its longest road trip of the season thus far. Everyone who played Tuesday is healthy, Yeo said, and the team made one roster move before the trip as it returned forward Kurtis Gabriel to Iowa. The Wild will recall a forward to fill that spot, but Yeo said the team had not decided who that would be, and there had been no announcement as of midday Wednesday.
Though Yeo cautioned that the Wild needs to move past Tuesday's victory, the afterglow of Thomas Vanek's two masterful goals still lingered. The coach isn't sure he will keep Vanek with Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund for Thursday's game at Carolina--he wants to see more film of the Hurricanes before committing to that line combination--but he said there is "a good possibility'' he will go with that group again after the way they clicked Tuesday.
Yeo also lauded Vanek for the many attributes he brings to the Wild when he is playing at his best. "There's a very strong effort on his part to continue to work on the details of his game,'' Yeo said. "The consistency he's had definitely compared to last year, that’s a real positive for us.
"He's a real important player for us. Whether he's up like the last game, playing on the first or second line, we know he can do that. We know he can help out both power-play units. If the luxury presents itself where we can put him on a third line and really expose some matchups, then that’s a real bonus for us as well.
"Last year, he got off to a good start as well. But the puck didn’t go in the net, and then when that doesn’t happen, we know what that can do to a player's psyche. It doesn’t matter if they're a first-year or a 12th-year player. This year, he's been able to do a lot of the same things, and he's had some success. The puck has gone in the net, and he's able to just be clear in the head and just go out and play the game.''
Vanek and Pominville played together frequently when they were teammates in Buffalo. They hope some extended time together with the Wild could help them recapture the chemistry they had with their former team.
"We read off each other well,'' Vanek said. "Sometimes, I feel like he knows my game better than I know my own game.''
A few other bits from practice:
--Pominville still does not have a goal this season, but Vanek insists it is just a matter of time. He's seeing Pominville get more shots closer to the net--a good sign, he said--and expects Pominville will keep putting himself in position to optimize his chances.
"He's played good,'' Vanek said. "He's gotten good tips. I think he needs to get a little tighter; when you're struggling, you don’t pick corners. You just get some shots on net, and you go to the net more and hope something bounces toward you. Which they will.''
--Yeo lauded the Wild for minimizing its time on the penalty kill while maximizing its effort when it is on the ice. The Wild started poorly on the penalty kill this season but has killed 21 of its past 25 penalties, and its three shorthanded goals are tied for second-most in the NHL. Erik Haula scored the latest, cashing in on a second-period breakaway.
The Wild has been shorthanded 30 times this season, the lowest number in the league.
"We have guys with speed, and we want to make sure teams are on their heels,'' Yeo said. "We want to be an aggressive penalty-killing team. We want to try to get in their heads as far as the pressure we apply. If we do a good job creating turnovers, we hope there's no difference from our five-on-five game, with some opportunities to counterattack. I think our guys are doing a good job of it. We're not being high-risk, but we're recognizing those opportunities, and we're ready to jump.''