KANATA, Ontario – Wild winger Jason Zucker prepares for most games the same way.
After waking up, he eats breakfast, attends the team’s morning skate, grabs lunch, takes an hour-and-a-half nap and then munches on a snack before reporting back to the arena.
“I personally like the routine of a game day,” he said.
But Zucker has frequently shelved this plan the past week.
A rare cluster of matinees, which continues Saturday when the Wild visits the Ottawa Senators for a 1 p.m. local start, has altered everyone’s routine. Although a structured approach is important to players, they expect to be ready to play regardless of what time it is.
“Everybody has to know personally what helps them be engaged and prepared once the puck drops because that’s all that matters,” center Eric Staal said. “It doesn’t matter how you get there. It’s just when the actual game starts, you have to make sure that you’re ready to go and ready to compete and do all the right things. A lot of guys go at that a lot different from others but at the end of the day, the job starts when the puck drops.”
Amid these earlier starts, the Wild has scrapped morning skates and players have axed their afternoon naps.
Their meal schedule has also changed, with breakfast their only fuel-up. While some like Zucker and Staal stick with traditional foods, eggs and oatmeal and the like, others, such as rookie Jordan Greenway, eat their usual pregame meal of pasta.
“I’m not a big breakfast guy, honestly,” he said.
This string of afternoon games has also nixed one of Greenway’s superstitions: a plunge in the cold tub after morning skate. “If I don’t cold tub before a game, it kind of gets in my head sometimes,” he said.
But the itinerary the team follows when it descends on an arena about two hours before puck drop is mostly the same for all contests; the only tweak is the group has three meetings ahead of early start times instead of two before evening matchups, tacking on the session held at the morning skate that gets canceled.
Other than that, players adhere to their typical habits.
For goalie Devan Dubnyk, that’s preparing his stick, stretching and juggling a soccer ball with teammates.
“I do the exact same thing every game,” Dubnyk said.
Staal showers when he arrives at the rink, then assesses his sticks and stretches.
“I wouldn’t say [I’m] superstitious but ritualistic, I guess, as far as what I do before the game,” Staal said. “That hasn’t changed forever. I don’t see it changing moving forward, either. It’s just how I get myself right to be prepared and ready to go, and a lot of it’s just mental. I think that’s where a lot of it lies is in your head, being prepared. Our bodies are in tune to how we’re supposed to perform, but you have to make sure your mind’s right to be able to execute that.
“You keep to the same routine or rituals, I think it helps with that process.”
While the Wild is 4-4-1 overall in starts before 7 p.m., it’s 4-1 when puck drop has been in the afternoon. It looked, though, like the team’s prep work was going to let it down during Thursday’s matinee because the Maple Leafs scored only seven seconds into the game — the fastest goal surrendered by the Wild after the initial faceoff in franchise history.
But players didn’t chalk up that gaffe, which was overcome amid a 4-3 comeback win, to what they did or didn’t do before taking the ice.
“Sometimes that happens,” Staal said. “I think our ability the rest of that period, even being down 2-0, [we] still played pretty well and stuck with it, and that shows mental toughness.”
Still, the Wild has had a knack for slow starts this season — opening the scoring in just 13 of its 39 games. Although the team has been able to rally regularly, going 12-12-2 when falling behind first, playing catch-up isn’t a strategy the Wild wants to keep utilizing.
And with eight more earlier-than-usual starts on the schedule after Saturday, including five more in the afternoon, how the team debuts could help or hurt its climb toward a playoff spot.
“It’s not being prepared, not being mentally ready,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “[It’s] like dipping your toe in the water and seeing the temperature rather than jumping in and going right away. That’s, I think, what we have to do. We’ve dipped our toe in too often.”