At this point last season — and the one before that — winger Daniel Winnik already had booked his ticket to the playoffs as a member of the league-leading Capitals.
Winnik also has been on a team that’s clinched on the final day of the regular season, with the Penguins needing Game No. 82 to advance in 2015.
None of those treks culminated in a Stanley Cup, but they provided Winnik with valuable insight the Wild hopes helps its own pursuit this spring.
“He’s been on a winning team now for — you take Toronto [in 2015-16] out of the picture — for the last seven or eight years,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We need that kind of experience, that kind of consistency.”
Two years ago, after the Capitals locked up a playoff berth March 15, Winnik felt the team hit cruise control. He sensed the group was better prepared in 2017, but Washington received the same fate — a second-round loss to the Penguins.
What he’s realized is peaking late in the schedule is key, and regular-season success doesn’t guarantee an encore in the playoffs.
“The season really doesn’t mean much these days,” the 33-year-old said. “You see everyone beat everyone. It’s just a tough league. There’s no easy games.”
Still, the urgency that’s hovered over the Wild for much of the season has been beneficial because it’s trained the team how to perform under pressure.
“We’ve basically been in playoff games the whole season,” Winnik said. “We’ve played a lot of one-goal games, which is what it comes down to in the playoffs.”
Depth is also essential, and that’s where Winnik’s role on the fourth line next to winger Marcus Foligno and center Joel Eriksson Ek can become magnified. Already, in recent games, the unit has become more of a factor.
After being a healthy scratch Friday against the Golden Knights for the first time this season, a decision Boudreau acknowledged stemmed from inconsistency in Winnik’s play, his line delivered the game-winning goal Saturday in the 3-1 victory over the Coyotes.
And that reliability enables Boudreau to roll all four lines, which Winnik takes pride in facilitating.
“We’ve just been playing together for a while now, more so than the first three-quarters of the season,” Winnik said. “Really, the last maybe three weeks, we’ve had more solid lines than we had the whole year. So that helps building chemistry and kind of talking through and understanding what we want to accomplish as a line and where we want to be in the offensive zone. That makes a huge difference.”
Practice makes perfect
After a day off Tuesday, the Wild is scheduled to have three practices before its next game Saturday at home against the Predators.
“We’d be touching on everything,” Boudreau said of the sessions. “Let’s understand this week is the last three practices of the season. When you play nine games in 15 days [to close out the season], you’re not exactly on the days you’re not playing having hard practices. It’s more maintenance days than anything else.”
Jared Spurgeon “upped his therapy” Monday, Boudreau said, as the defenseman recovers from a partial tear in his right hamstring.
“We are still hoping that A, we make the playoffs and B, that he’s ready to start when and if we do,” Boudreau said.