On the night of Feb. 16, the Wild returned to play after a 13-day hiatus because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Using a makeshift lineup with seven players that under normal circumstances would have been either on the team's taxi squad or with Iowa of the AHL, the Wild lost 4-0 to the Kings in Los Angeles.
That left Minnesota with a 6-6 record and in last place in the NHL's West Division — and plenty of "here they go again'' gloom and doom from the fan base.
Kaapo Kahkonen, the starting goalie in that defeat, saw it differently.
"It was tough circumstances,'' the rookie said. "I didn't think we were too bad in L.A. First period, we were trying to get back in rhythm, but I didn't think we had a terrible game. We had a lot of positives, and we stuck with it."
Indeed, the Wild has.
Eleven days and six consecutive victories later, Minnesota sits in second place in the division, one point behind the Vegas Golden Knights, a team the Wild will face on Monday and Wednesday. Suddenly, a team that few projected to be a division title contender has at least nudged its way into the conversation.
Saturday night, the Wild secured that sixth consecutive victory in overtime with only three-tenths of a second to spare, when defenseman Matt Dumba sped toward the net, took a perfectly placed backhand pass from Mats Zuccarello, deked Kings goalie Cal Petersen and slammed the puck home, setting off a raucous celebration on Hockey Day Minnesota.
"That's what good teams do,'' center Joel Eriksson Ek said. "They just keep going and winning when we don't play our best. This was a really important win for us."
In that six-game winning streak — the longest for the Wild in four years — Minnesota has outscored opponents 27-10, getting contributions from all lines. Kahkonen is 5-0 in the streak, allowing nine goals total, while Cam Talbot made the other start, a 3-1 win over the Kings in Friday's series opener.
"We didn't have our best game, and we were happy that our group caught themselves probably midway through the second period attitude-wise,'' Wild coach Dean Evason said after his team blew a 3-0, second-period lead Saturday but still recovered. "It was a frustrating kind of game with penalties, and we were a little disjointed. It's nice to see different people contributing each and every night.''
Evason has been pushing the right buttons lately, with his team leading for all but 7 minutes, 4 seconds during the win streak. Of course, when one of those buttons activates Kirill Kaprizov, good things tend to happen.
The Russian rookie has three goals and five assists in his past five games, giving him a team-high 17 points (six goals, 11 assists). He has been particularly tough on the Kings, with four goals and three assists as the Wild has posted a 5-2 record against Los Angeles.
Joining the fun lately has been Zuccarello, the veteran right winger with Kaprizov on Victor Rask's line. Zuccarello returned from arm surgery on Feb. 16 and has three goals and eight assists in seven games. His hustling play set up Dumba's winner Saturday.
"I don't know how he saw me through all those guys, but it was a hell of a pass," Dumba said.
The Wild has taken advantage of its schedule so far by going a combined 10-4 against the Kings, Anaheim and San Jose. Still, Evason's squad has shown it can compete with West Division favorite Colorado, going 2-2 against the Avalanche and matching the highly skilled club with 12 goals in those meetings.
Vegas will be the Wild's opponent for four games over the next 10 days, and Minnesota will face Arizona five times between Friday and March 16. The West race is tight, with the top six separated by four points. But by banking 12 of a possible 14 points since returning from the COVID-19 pause, the Wild took advantage of games in hand.
"It's been awesome,'' winger Kevin Fiala said. "It's been fun being around the rink, and everybody's done a great job.''