Wild winger Luke Kunin didn’t know if he’d be back.
After parlaying a mid-December call-up from the minors into regular NHL minutes, Kunin — along with center Joel Eriksson Ek — was returned to Iowa of the American Hockey League during the All-Star break last month.
He had no idea if the assignment was temporary or permanent and, with no roster spots available when the Wild resumed playing, the two remained in the AHL.
It wasn’t until injuries started to pop up that Kunin was added into the mix. Same with Eriksson Ek. And ever since then, the two have capitalized on their chemistry to be a consistent duo for the Wild — impact that Kunin believes is spurred by the second chance he received.
“You’re always trying to show you belong and get a spot and keep that spot,” Kunin said. “Every day I work to stay here and be better and help this team win. That’s kind of the mind-set we have — just kind of one day at a time, just do the little thing like we’ve been doing.”
Over the course of his first five games back in the lineup, Kunin chipped in three goals and seven points for the most productive stretch of his career.
Two of those goals gave the Wild a head start it would ultimately waste in a 5-4 loss to the Flyers on Tuesday, and the bulk of these contributions have come with Eriksson Ek as his linemate — a synergy the two have developed while working together in the NHL and when they were on the same line with Iowa.
“The chemistry of playing on a line’s been good,” Kunin said. “I think we know where each other are out there, and we’re more and more comfortable. I think every person’s different; every situation’s different.
“You can’t really look at it like that, but definitely playing together at both places we’ve gained some confidence out there together.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau declared Thursday that the Wild would be playoff-bound, describing the group as “a team that wants it,” and the message reached the players.
“He believes in us,” Kunin said. “We believe in ourselves in here, and we know we can do it. We believe we can do it. That’s what we want. I wouldn’t be too happy if he didn’t think we could be, obviously, and a lot of guys would feel the same way. So it starts up there. They believe. We believe. Now we just gotta go do it.”
Although the team is stuck in a cluster of teams vying for a spot, goalie Devan Dubnyk said he believes the team can stop scoreboard-watching if it starts to string wins together — which hasn’t happened since before the All-Star break.
“It’s the same way we’re all thinking and feeling in here,” Dubnyk said about Boudreau’s comments. “We expect to be there. I don’t think there’s a guy in here that’s envisioned a different scenario.”
Victor Rask (lower body) and Matt Hendricks (upper body) sat out against the Devils Friday at Xcel Energy Center, leaving the Wild with only 11 available forwards.
But instead of calling up a player from Iowa, the team opted to dress Brad Hunt and let the defenseman rove between the fourth line and the right side of the blue line.
“We do figure we need a power-play specialist on defense,” Boudreau said, noting the team went 1-for-6 with the man advantage Tuesday and could use more zone time.
Hunt has played forward on only a few occasions in the minors and practice, but he was eager to accept the challenge. He answered by scoring a power-play goal in the first period Friday.
“That’s kind of how my career’s gone,” Hunt said. “It’s always been that guy when they need help, I step in and try to help the team out and be a good guy and a good teammate. That’s what I think it’s all about.”