Jason Zucker knows it might sound counterintuitive. Crazy, even. But with eight games remaining in the regular season, and the Wild sitting one point out of a playoff spot, the forward sees a possible advantage in facing several of the NHL’s best teams over the next 16 days.
“I think it’s great,’’ Zucker said after Thursday’s practice at Tria Rink. “We’ve got battles ahead of us, but I like that for our team. I think that’s when we’ve played our best this year.’’
It’s a strange wrinkle this season: the Wild has often risen to the occasion against its most daunting opponents, then stumbled against the lowly. With all of its remaining games against teams currently in playoff position – starting with Friday’s contest at Washington, the defending Stanley Cup champion – they hope that pattern holds.
The final stretch includes a back-to-back road set against the Capitals, who lead the Metropolitan Division, and Carolina, which holds the first Eastern Conference wild-card spot; Vegas, one of the NHL’s hottest teams; and Winnipeg and Nashville, who sit first and second in the Central Division. Despite its struggles, the Wild is 4-0 against the Jets and 1-0-1 against Vegas. It also has two victories over Tampa Bay, which has the NHL’s best record.
Zucker acknowledged “it doesn’t make any sense’’ that the Wild has so often thrived as an underdog. With his team in desperate need of points, coach Bruce Boudreau urged his players to remember its most recent upset – a 3-0 road win over the Lightning – and duplicate that mind-set.
“The challenges are great,’’ he said. “And when you play great teams, you’ve got to lift yourself up, as we did against Tampa. Accept that challenge instead of being afraid of it. Embrace it.’’
Goaltender Devan Dubnyk said the Wild beat Tampa Bay by limiting its chances on the rush and its speed through the neutral zone. Against Washington’s high-powered offense, it will need to do the same, while summoning the intensity that seems to escalate against the league’s best.
“When we play those top teams, everyone just realizes that the only way for us to win is to make sure we’re focused right from the start and playing as hard as we possibly can,’’ Dubnyk said. “There’s no other option.’’
Boudreau switched a couple of pieces on the Wild’s second and third lines Thursday. He put Zucker with center Victor Rask and winger Pontus Aberg, while Jordan Greenway took Zucker’s former spot alongside center Luke Kunin and winger Ryan Donato.
The coach is hoping to reignite an offense that has gone dormant at even strength. The Wild has not scored an even-strength goal in its past two games; its three goals in an overtime loss to the New York Islanders and a loss to Colorado all came on the power play.
The even-strength drought began just as the Wild ended an 0-for-18 skid on the power play. The Wild has created plenty of opportunities, with 117 shots on goal and 209 shot attempts in its past three games.
“In the (Colorado) game, they got their chance, and they scored,’’ Boudreau said. “We had our multitude of chances and didn’t score. And that’s the bottom line. You can play great offense and great defense and great enthusiasm and kill penalties and everything, but if you don’t drain the opportunities when you get them, they eventually dry up.’’
• The Wild recalled forward Matt Read from its AHL affiliate in Iowa on Thursday.
• Boudreau said there still is no timetable for the return of injured forward Joel Eriksson Ek, who has missed the past four games because of a lower-body injury. Eriksson Ek is not practicing yet and will not accompany the Wild on the road trip to Washington and Carolina.