There’s something strange about playing the Buffalo Sabres in the 43rd game of the season and the Wild not being in all-out crisis mode.
Nobody’s calling for coach Mike Yeo’s head; General Manager Chuck Fletcher is not once again searching the continent for a goalie.
The Wild is comfortably inside the playoff bubble and with games in hand can starting putting pressure on the reeling, injury-depleted St. Louis Blues … if it can capitalize on opportunities against struggling teams, as it failed to do in recent losses to Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Still, Zach Parise says the Wild hasn’t come close to reaching its potential despite the best first half in franchise history. The Wild has done a good job avoiding the annual winter swoon and has managed to eke out points in games where maybe it hasn’t been at its best (11-5-4 in its past 20 games).
“Doesn’t feel like it, though,” Parise said even before venting his frustration for the team’s poor play during a 2-1 loss Sunday to the Devils.
The Wild has not won more than three games in a row (has accomplished it four times) and has played convoluted if not choppy hockey throughout games for some time.
“We’ve put ourselves in an OK position, but I still think that we’re not playing anywhere near as well as we can,” Parise, the Wild’s leading goal scorer with 16, said before Sunday’s game. “You look at early in the year or years past, we controlled games. I felt like we had the puck for 80 percent of the game and so many consistent offensive-zone shifts.
“Lately we haven’t been doing that as much. We’re in a good spot. We’re not far out of being second and third; we’re in that wild-card spot. So I guess the part everyone should look forward to is we’re not consistently playing as well as we can and as well as we should. Hopefully there’s only room to get better.”
The Wild is 1-7-1 in overtime, and Yeo points out, “If we had even a decent record in overtime, right now we’re probably on pace for about a 110-point season, which means that we must be a pretty decent team.”
Maybe the second-half ascension starts Tuesday against the Sabres. In a weird quirk in the NHL schedule, this is the third consecutive season the Wild has played the Sabres in the 43rd game of its season.
The past two years, the Wild was reeling heading into Game 43.
• Two years ago, the Wild entered a Jan. 2 contest against Buffalo on a six-game losing streak after a five-win December. The Wild won 4-1, and that triggered a 23-10-7 second half, a four-game winning streak and 14 wins in the next 20 games.
• Last season, the Wild entered a Jan. 15 contest at Buffalo having lost 12 of its past 14 (2-8-4) and was 18-19-5 after a 7-2 drubbing in Pittsburgh. The Wild traded for goalie Devan Dubnyk the day before, the Wild trounced the Sabres 7-zip, and that prompted a 28-9-3 second half.
Even earlier last season, the Wild had lost four in a row until beating Buffalo at home 6-3. That started a four-game winning streak and nine wins in the next 14 games.
So maybe the Sabres are simply the Wild’s cure-all.
Of course, even though the Sabres have the second-fewest points in the NHL, this is a more talented team than year’s past with Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Jack Eichel — the No. 2 overall pick in June — and a Stanley Cup-winning coach, Dan Bylsma.
So the Wild, 2-3-1 in its past six home games, can’t take them lightly. Parise said for whatever reason, the Wild’s not playing with any pace or moving the puck well at home.
“We’ve just been flat,” Parise said, adding before Sunday’s game, “We haven’t had one of those games where we controlled that whole thing where there was never a question.
“Look, I understand it’s hard to do that. Teams are good. It’s not easy, but I just feel we should be playing a lot better.”
The good news is unlike the past two years, the Wild isn’t in the stressful position where every second-half game feels like a must-win.
“It’s going to be important for us to continue to move up and get our play better going forward because everybody’s going to ramp up the intensity going toward the end of the year,” Dubnyk said.