COLUMBUS, OHIO – How the picture of perfection was ruined hasn’t been forgotten.
“We were doing a really good job in the first period, then we had the dumb giveaway,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau recalled. “Next thing you know it’s in the back of our net.”
But the uniqueness of the event — never had two teams buttressed by winning streaks of at least 12 games squared off in the history of North American pro sports — is another legacy of that New Year’s Eve showdown last season between the Wild and Columbus.
“It was a cool thing to have in the middle of the season,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “… It’s like everybody’s hyped about it, and there’s national coverage. It was fun to have a game with that sort of excitement around it when it easily could have been just another game.”
Much has changed since that historic matchup nearly 13 months ago that nixed the Wild’s 12-game streak with a 4-2 loss and extended the Blue Jackets’ march to 15.
Neither team has orchestrated a run in 2017-18 that even comes close to those impressive treks, and, perhaps consequently, the Wild and Blue Jackets aren’t in as comfortable a position as they previously were. That reality is particularly glaring for the Wild, which enters Tuesday’s reunion at Nationwide Arena focused on climbing into a playoff spot now that the post-All-Streak break schedule resumes.
“That’s the NHL,” Boudreau said. “Give me a year from now, and you’re going to be surprised who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom again. That’s the way the parity thing goes.”
Each season is certainly different, especially amid personnel changes, and that’s also what’s at play for the Wild.
Winger Nino Niederreiter did not accompany the team to Columbus. He remains sidelined because of a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the lineup for the past seven games.
Niederreiter skated on his own Monday and was scheduled to do so again Tuesday, with the expectation he’ll join the Wild for practice Wednesday before getting evaluated by the team. A return Friday at home against the Vegas Golden Knights is a possibility.
“Hopefully, they give him the OK to play, and if he does get it, we’ll certainly put him in,” Boudreau said.
Center Eric Staal, who spent the weekend in Tampa, Fla., as the team’s only representative at the All-Star Game, was not with the team when it practiced Monday afternoon in Columbus. His charter had mechanical issues, Boudreau said, but he was scheduled to arrive Monday evening.
Forward Joel Eriksson Ek, however, did skate with the group after getting recalled from Iowa of the American Hockey League. He recorded an assist in a Saturday victory for Iowa.
“He struggled in the last game against Pittsburgh,” Boudreau said. “So, going to Cleveland and coming away with a win, he got a point, I think it’s gotta help him.”
Unlike its last break earlier this month when the team paused for a mandatory five days, the Wild didn’t lose ground in the standings during All-Star weekend.
But the challenge that awaits the Wild wasn’t softened by the time away, either, with the team still stuck below the playoff cutline as it idles in a four-way tie for the final wild-card berth. Last year, the Wild was second in the Western Conference on the heels of that memorable meeting with the Blue Jackets.
Columbus’ outlook is better. The Blue Jackets, who paced the East after snuffing out the Wild’s streak, own the second seed in the Metropolitan Division, but they have little cushion with six division rivals within five points — a slim margin of error also familiar to the Wild.
“It’s crazy how it kind of works that way,” winger Jason Zucker said. “It seems like every year the top teams end up kind of fighting for playoff spots. Sometimes it flips. It just shows that every year you gotta come, and you gotta by ready right off the bat. You can’t take anything for granted.”