CORAOPOLIS, PA. – There were battle drills galore during Friday’s Wild practice. There were drills to force players to execute in high-traffic areas. There were drills to manufacture a high-tempo pace. There was plenty of special teams work, and of course, there were juggled lines.
With two days before Sunday’s game against the New York Rangers, coach Mike Yeo, still uptight after the Wild’s unsightly loss the night before to the Penguins, put the Wild through the longest practice of the season Friday after another air-things-out team meeting.
The Wild skated at a rink near Robert Morris University for nearly two hours, and the Zamboni even emerged to flood the ice and resurface halfway through — an oddity, particularly as the fueled-up team charter waited at Pittsburgh airport past its scheduled departure time to transport the Wild to New York City.
“We thought the day off [Wednesday] might help us put some energy in the tank and get ourselves revved up for [Thursday’s] game,” Yeo said. “But apparently that wasn’t the case.”
So Yeo is “looking forward to our next two games.” He expects the same workmanlike effort when the Wild practices Saturday at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan.
The Wild, the second-worst offensive team in the NHL at 2.19 goals per game, scored twice Thursday, and not until it trailed 4-0. It has scored 22 goals in the past 14 games (1.57 per game). In those 14 games, it has scored two or fewer goals in 12. In a 1-5-1 road streak, it has scored seven times.
So, Yeo went back to his line laboratory and experimented with new ones Friday. He reunited the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville line — the one that hasn’t exactly lit it up when together this year or last.
Kyle Brodziak centered Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle centered Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine, who has been scratched in the past three games. Zenon Konopka centered Erik Haula and Torrey Mitchell.
“We haven’t been scoring a lot of goals, so we have to try something,” Yeo said.
The lines would change if Mikael Granlund, who has missed 11 games with a concussion, is able to return. But Yeo said Friday that Granlund has not officially been cleared to return. He competed in battle drills Friday, but during line rushes he played as a defenseman and wasn’t part of either power-play unit.
“We want him back, there’s no question,” Yeo said. “But last time we got him back, we got him back for a whole shift. So we want to make sure — he’s got to be cleared to play. He looks great. I think he’s competing hard, he’s doing a lot of things that he’d be doing in games. I’m just not exactly sure what the next step is.”
Searching for effort
The Wild reassigned Brett Bulmer to Iowa of the American Hockey League and plans to flip goalies after Saturday’s practice. Johan Gustafsson is expected to be reassigned and Darcy Kuemper recalled to back up Niklas Backstrom against the Rangers and potentially start Monday in Philadelphia.
Yeo declined to get “too in-depth” into the things discussed in the team meeting. But too often this season, the Wild has uttered words like “we weren’t ready” and “we weren’t prepared” to play.
It’s more “between the ears,” Yeo said. “It’s telling yourself the things you need to do in the game and being willing to do them through the course of the game. It’s a matter of accepting it’s going to be hard and being able to put in the work and paying the price that’s required.”
Parise, a minus-3 with Koivu on Thursday, said, “It’s not as if we go into the game just laughing and not prepared. We’re all ready to play.
“I find sometimes the extra effort isn’t there. Whenever there’s a loose puck, the other team is getting on it quicker and you’re slow to react and you’re hesitant. … Our execution coming through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone was pretty poor.”
Thursday, Backstrom served up a terrible goal to start the game 49 seconds in. The Wild said it needs to be mentally stronger and not allow such a deflating goal to ruin the rest of the game.
“It makes it difficult when you don’t have confidence to score goals and you fall behind,” said center Kyle Brodziak, who hasn’t scored in 25 consecutive games. “If we were able to score three or four goals every game, then you’re down one goal, you’re not worried about it as much.”
The Wild, 6-9-3 on the road with three regulation wins, has allowed the first goal in 10 consecutive road games.
“You can tell that there’s been a letdown every game that we’ve given up the first goal,” Yeo said. “On the road, it just keeps happening over and over and over again. So we’ve got to do something to stop it. If the puck goes in the net, it doesn’t mean the game is over. You have to keep fighting and have to find a way to claw back into the game.”