GLENDALE, ARIZ. – It wasn’t that long ago the Wild was clinging to the second wild-card berth in the Western Conference, with separation in the standings looking like a pipe dream.
But after a 9-2-2 showing in February, its most successful month of the season, the team has a grip on the third seed in the Central Division and is within striking distance of the No. 2 spot — progress that has encouraged the Wild to push for a division invite to the postseason.
“Absolutely,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “[But] I don’t think it’s something we need to focus on. That comes with getting points and getting wins.”
The Wild started February a point out of the final wild-card spot but ever since a 5-2 victory over the Golden Knights on Feb. 2, it’s sat in a playoff position. The 4-1 victory a week ago in New York against the Rangers pushed it up to the third slot in the Central, a perch it has yet to relinquish.
This ranking certainly offers more security than being in the wild-card mix, and moving closer to the second seed does stir the potential of home ice in the first round.
Ultimately, though, just advancing is all that matters.
“There’s a lot of games, a lot of points left available,” Dubnyk said. “We just need to keep pushing up and try to separate yourself as much as you can from the teams behind you.”
Center Eric Staal has been pacing the Wild all season offensively as its most consistent producer, contributions that have helped the team’s climb in the standings.
And with his output exploding lately, the rest of the league seems to be taking notice.
Staal was named the NHL’s first star of the month for February after being honored as its first star of the week Monday.
“It’s nice,” he said of the recognition. “I don’t think it’s going to change anything for me. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve played a lot of games. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that. It’s been great coming here to Minnesota. I’ve loved every minute suiting up for the Wild and playing in front of our fans. I keep wanting to do well to show these people that I’m a good player and that I can play.”
Staal has done more than that; he’s flexed a scoring prowess this season that few can rival.
After leading the league in points in February with 21 — 13 of which were goals — he ranked tied for fourth in the NHL in goals (33) and tied for 16th in points (64).
The crown jewel of that outburst was Tuesday, with Staal scoring his 14th career hat trick and racking up five points in the 8-3 rout over the Blues at Xcel Energy Center.
“I thought last game he really was skating,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He reminded me of the beginning of the first year when his skating, his stride was great. He wasn’t laboring at all. That’s what I thought. I guess when you get four and five points a game, you feel that way. I hope it never ends. He’s such a good person.”
Amid this impact, Boudreau has continued to express how integral Staal has been to the Wild’s performance this season — influence that looks like the type of role Hart Trophy candidates play for their respective teams as MVPs.
It might be tough to steal the spotlight from some of the league’s premier talents such as Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov. Regardless, though, Staal’s offense and the Wild’s surge are becoming more and more synonymous.
“For me, at this point in my career, it’s about trying to help this team win,” Staal said. “I want to get another shot at having success in the playoffs and I’m going to do what I can to help contribute. We will continue to push down the stretch and put ourselves in a good position and try to enjoy going after another run.”
Stalock, then Dubnyk
After the Wild swept a road back-to-back last week with backup Alex Stalock taking the first test at New Jersey and Dubnyk handling the second game in New York against the Rangers, the Wild stuck with the same strategy for the Coyotes-Avalanche set this week.
This enables Dubnyk to face the division rival and gives him a chance at redemption. He was on the hook for the 7-2 loss to the Avalanche on Jan. 6 in Denver.
“All of those [factors] come into play,” Boudreau said.