After playing 30 games in the past 62 days, the Wild has an unusual four days off in the midst of the season’s final drive. It’s a chance for the team to relish the extraordinary stretch of hockey it just played. It’s a chance to relax and recharge.
“It’ll be fun to try to get together with some of the guys and take a breath and look back and really enjoy what we’ve done so far,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said after backstopping the Wild to yet another big victory, this time a 4-1 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night at Xcel Engery Center.
Back on Jan. 27, the Wild was buried in 12th place and 16 points behind the Chicago Blackhawks. This morning, at least for one day, the Wild kicked the Blackhawks into a wild-card spot, leapfrogged the star-studded rival for third-place in the Central Division and put itself in terrific mathematical position to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
With six games left in the regular season, that is quite an achievement when one considers how down and out this team was before Dubnyk came to the rescue Jan. 14. In the past nine weeks, the Wild is an NHL-best 24-5-1 to become the toast of the NHL. It hasn’t lost by more than a goal since Jan. 19, hasn’t lost consecutive games since Jan. 19-20 or consecutive games in regulation in 34 starts by Dubnyk (26-6-2).
Under Dubnyk, the Wild has outscored its opponents 104-57 for a league-best (by far) plus-47 goal differential. To be clear: 57 goals allowed in 34 games from a team that allowed 58 in the 14 games before Dubnyk’s acquisition.
“I don’t remember having this many games in such a short period of time,” captain Mikko Koivu said after he and linemate Nino Niederreiter each scored two goals against the Kings. “The last two months, it’s been a lot of hockey. I think this break will be good for us.
“Use it smart, but it’s time to enjoy it a little bit and take some time off and hit it hard again Thursday [against the Rangers].”
The Wild’s No. 1-ranked penalty kill did it again Saturday. It killed three Kings power plays, including two in a row late in a one-sided second period for the Kings. Part of that was a 20-second 3-on-5 disadvantage, but Dubnyk made five of his 31 saves and defenseman Jonas Brodin made the save of the game by robbing Tyler Toffoli of an open net with a reaching stick. That was one of 24 blocked shots by the Wild.
“Brods saved it for me,” Dubnyk said.
The Wild, which beat Calgary the night before, was running on fumes in the second and third periods. But the Wild defended well, and as usual, Dubnyk was there to cover up for heavy legs by providing back-to-back security.
With the Wild, Dubnyk is 26-6-1 with a 1.70 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. In the past five second half of back-to-backs, Dubnyk is 4-0-1 with a 1.17 goals-against average (six goals allowed) and .967 save percentage.
“Huge,” coach Mike Yeo called his play in these situations.
“I’ve kind of got into a good rhythm. We’ve had [four] this month,” Dubnyk said.
The Niederreiter-Koivu-Chris Stewart line (each member was plus-3) picked up where it left off the night before against the Flames by teaming up for two first-periods goals. Niederreiter added a huge power-play goal late in the third and Koivu an empty-netter. As impressively, the line shut down the Kings’ top line of Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar (minus-3) and Marian Gaborik.
The Wild has Sunday off. The Wild’s big minute-munchers have Monday off. Yeo hopes this sets the Wild up for two intense practices Tuesday and Wednesday.
“You look at what we’ve done lately, there’s no reason why our group should not feel good and be confident,” Yeo said. “It’s ongoing. You can lose it as quickly as you can gain it, but we have it right now. Our guys are doing the job.”