As the Wild prepared to leave on Sunday for a three-game road trip to western Canada, Keith Ballard came to Xcel Energy Center to visit with his teammates. The defenseman hadn’t been on the ice since a wicked hit on Dec. 9 left him with a concussion and fractured bones in his face, but he has been coming to home games, team meetings and other activities recently as the Wild climbed back into the playoff chase with a 10-game point streak.
Ballard wasn’t planning to skate. With only 10 players and two goalies participating in a low-key practice, though, he decided to ask athletic therapist Don Fuller if he could give it a try. After consulting with team doctors, Fuller gave Ballard the go-ahead to get on the ice with teammates for the first time in two months, further lifting the mood of a team already in high spirits.
The Wild plays at Vancouver on Monday, then travels to Calgary and Edmonton on a trip that could move it back into the top eight in the Western Conference for the first time since Nov. 24. It is unlikely that Ballard will play again this season, even if his team makes the playoffs. But like the Wild, he hopes to rediscover his strength by focusing on small steps forward.
“It was fun,’’ said Ballard, who participated in no-contact drills for about 35 minutes. “I’m not looking too far ahead or reading too far into it. It was one skate. But it was just fun to get out on the ice for a little bit.
“It’s kind of a start, I guess. I don’t know where that leads, but it’s encouraging that I can do something.’’
Ballard was hurt in a 5-4 victory over the New York Islanders when Matt Martin drove him face-first into the top edge of the boards between the benches. He resumed light off-ice workouts just last week, and for the first time since the injury, he felt energetic rather than drowsy in the afternoons.
The next step is seeing whether his headaches and fatigue return. Ballard said he has not thought about whether he will retire or attempt a comeback. Wild coach Mike Yeo said he was happy just to see Ballard back on the ice.
“It’s good for him to get out there and get moving around,’’ Yeo said. “He’s still a big part of this team, and it’s nice to have him around.’’
At this point in the season, Yeo said, it’s particularly important for teams to avoid penalties that arise from carelessness or a lack of discipline. The Wild has kept those to a minimum during its current 8-0-2 stretch, and when it has committed an infraction, its penalty killers have been flawless.
The Wild has killed all 25 penalties it has taken in the past nine games. That has lifted it to third in the NHL with a success rate of 85.7 percent; its 90.4 mark at home is the best in the league.
Yeo said goaltender Devan Dubnyk has given the Wild confidence and stability, enabling the penalty killers to be a little more aggressive.
“Our penalty killers have taken a lot of pride in that role,’’ he said. “They deserve a lot of credit. It’s been a good joint effort [with Dubnyk].’’
Justin Fontaine was moved from the fourth line to the second for Saturday’s 6-3 victory over Carolina, teaming with center Mikael Granlund and left winger Thomas Vanek. Fontaine responded by assisting on a pair of Vanek goals, using the energy, vision and intelligence Yeo expects from him.
Saturday’s game was the third for Fontaine since he returned to the lineup after missing four games because of a groin injury. With winger Jason Zucker (broken clavicle) expected to be sidelined for three months, Fontaine is among the players Yeo is counting on to elevate their games.
“It’s not an easy assignment when you get moved up and have an opportunity to play with guys like [Vanek and Granlund],’’ he said. “You want to take advantage of the opportunity and stay in that role. But you have to make sure you’re playing your own game; you can’t just be trying to get the puck to them and force plays to them.
“I thought [Fontaine] showed a lot of confidence and composure with those guys. And he thinks the game at a high level, which is something very important.’’