Bruce Boudreau must be clairvoyant.
The first-year, albeit veteran coach predicted it would take ’til Christmastime for the Wild to understand what he was about, fully absorb his system and unlearn — for lack of a better term — everything that had become habit after nearly five seasons of the previous coaching staff.
Well, coincidence or not, the Wild soared into the holiday recess by breaking franchise records with 10-game winning and 11-game point streaks.
Sitting at second in the Western Conference with a 21-8-4 record, the Wild is nipping at the heels of the Chicago Blackhawks. After its most successful first 33 games in franchise history (46 points), the Wild is three points back of the powerhouse Central Division rival. But the Wild has played three fewer games.
When did things turn?
“Once we started winning more than one in a row — we went through that stretch [in November] of winning one, losing one,” Boudreau said. “Once we started winning [consistently], they started to believe in the things that we were trying to accomplish. And then when we didn’t do well, our confidence was there to bail us out.
“You gain confidence, it’s a crazy thing, but when you believe you can win all the time, it usually happens.”
It’s not only Wild players who had to learn Boudreau. Boudreau had to grasp the personality of his new team.
He admits growing pains. Boudreau is used to star-laden, big, physical teams. The Wild doesn’t have players who will contend in the scoring race, and it’s small and quick.
The first 15 games, Boudreau thought the Wild’s lack of physicality meant a lack of competing.
“Once I got to the realization that we don’t have that team, but we can still be successful, then [I didn’t] have to worry about that anymore,” Boudreau said. “The adjustment is when I look at the box score and I see that the team doesn’t have 35 hits every night. That sort of bothered me at first.
“Now I know we’re not a high-hitting team, but we’re in your face at the same time. So it’s really the same thing. We are still trying to play the same way we did in Anaheim and in Washington. It’s just with a different group of guys. And so far it’s been OK.”
That’s an understatement. The Wild is giving up a league-low 1.94 goals per game, is scoring the fourth-most at 3.06 goals per game and has the league’s second-best goal differential at plus-36.
Out of the past 22 possible points, the Wild has banked 21. Out of the past 32 possible points, the Wild has banked 27 (12-1-3).
During the 10-game winning streak, the Wild has outscored its opponents 37-16 and has given up two power-play goals on 31 chances (93.5 percent).
The last two wins, coming on consecutive nights in two tough arenas — Bell Centre and Madison Square Garden— the Wild won despite not having injured Erik Haula and sick Zach Parise at its disposal and with both goaltenders, Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper, getting a start.
“All year we’ve promoted team,” Boudreau said. “When one guy goes out on a team, somebody [else] comes in. The Iowa guys have come in and they’re as boisterous on the bench when they’re not playing as when they are playing.
“When you get everybody committed to one common goal and nobody cares who gets the credit or the glory, it’s pretty easy to succeed.”
And, that’s what has been most impressive: The Wild is getting great contributions up and down the lineup.
Veteran Eric Staal leads the team in scoring and is riding a seven-game point streak. Jason Zucker and Mikko Koivu have 15 points each in their past 15 and 16 games, respectively. Mikael Granlund is back to getting points almost nightly. Grown-up youngsters Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle are piling up points and playing with the consistency the Wild has long waited for. Veteran Chris Stewart has turned his slow start around.
Dubnyk leads the NHL in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. Defenseman Ryan Suter is having a Norris Trophy-caliber start, perhaps because the Wild is getting such solid play from its six other defensemen, he doesn’t have to play 30 minutes a night.
“Ten in a row, we must be playing some pretty good hockey. It’s not just a fluke,” Coyle said. “It’s fun. It’s so much fun. We’re realizing that. You put in the work and play the right way, we’re going to come out on top more times than not. We’re starting to see that.
“Blocking shots, taking hits to make plays, that’s what this team needs to win. That’s what we’re doing night in and night out. It gets guys going on the bench. Everyone has that same mind-set, which is huge on this team. Not one guy strays away from that.”
Coincidentally, the Wild’s 2000 expansion brothers, the Columbus Blue Jackets, have won 12 games in row. The teams, which meet New Year’s Eve in St. Paul, won’t be under the radar when they come back after the break.
They’ll have targets on their back. That’s why Boudreau and Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after each team’s last win that the three-day break comes at the perfect time.
“They’re so tired, they need a break right now,” Boudreau said of the Wild, which resumes Tuesday in Nashville. “What Columbus is doing right now is extra special. To win in the National Hockey League, to win one game is difficult, to win 10 in a row is really, really difficult.
“It’s as much mental as it is physical. So it’s a real good time for a break.”