They couldn't have timed it any better. About 13 hours after the Wild's painful overtime loss to Nashville, which extended its winless streak to three games and darkened an already bleak mood, the team boarded a time machine and traveled back to happier days.
OK, it was a bus. And the destination was the John Rose Oval in Roseville, where the Wild held an outdoor practice Sunday. At a time when coach Mike Yeo and his players needed something to lift their sagging spirits, they got to play the game like kids again, wrapped in the warm embrace of hundreds of fans.
For a couple of hours, at least, the Wild could forget about Saturday's lost opportunity to gain ground in the Central Division standings. They laughed and smiled throughout a slow-speed four-on-four scrimmage in the snow. They took a break to shovel the rink, tossed gloves and pucks to an adoring crowd, posed for selfies with fans of all ages and even upstaged Santa Claus, who couldn't match the popularity of Zach Parise or Ryan Suter.
Even the weather cooperated, with a persistent rain turning to snow before the scrimmage began on a rink tucked inside the speedskating oval. The Wild will get back to serious work with a practice on Monday to prepare for Tuesday's home game against Philadelphia, its last before a three-day Christmas break. Sunday's festivities gave players and coaches a chance to put some happy back into their hockey, an important step as they try to escape a maddening stretch of their season.
"You see the crowd and you see the setup they have here, and everybody's mood picks up right away,'' Yeo said. "We've got a team that has fun together. To come out here and have a chance to skate in front of a crowd and to do it outside, it's a nice change of pace.
"It's great for our guys to come out here and meet the fans, sign some autographs and play a little pond hockey that takes you back to your roots. As much as anything else, it's just an opportunity to be out here with our fans.''
Yeo was so immersed in the joy of the day that he didn't want to ruin the mood. He wanted to talk only about Sunday's fun and would not answer questions about Saturday's 6-5 loss, in which the Wild was outshot 44-27 and goaltender Darcy Kuemper was pulled for the fourth time in his past five games at Xcel Energy Center.
The coach did say that Mikael Granlund "will be fine.'' The center became ill shortly before Saturday's game and sat out, and he did not practice Sunday.
Kuemper said he is fine, too, despite his shaky play Saturday. He was idled for two days last week by the stomach ailment that is slithering through the locker room, but he didn't trace his troubles to his illness. After opening the season with three shutouts in his first four games, Kuemper has cooled considerably; in his past five home starts, he has allowed 15 goals on 63 shots for a save percentage of .762. "You're still trying to gain back your energy level [after the illness], but that didn't have anything to do with what happened," Kuemper said. "I actually felt pretty good. I thought I was making good saves [Saturday]. You just have to keep doing the right things, keep practicing hard and make sure you keep having fun out there."
Sunday's practice helped in that regard, for Kuemper and everyone else.
"Sometimes it's nice to get back and have some fun and enjoy the game a little bit,'' Parise said. "Not that we're not, but you go through some tough parts of the season. So it was fun to put some smiles on everyone's faces.''