It is the graveyard past which they whistle, the bump in the night they ignore.
This season’s Wild team won a franchise-record 12 straight, leads the conference in goals against and is on pace to set a franchise record for points in the first half of a season.
It also knows, whether it admits it or not, that last season’s team was the one that set the points-at-the-halfway-point record. Its victory at Dallas on Jan. 9 gave it 52 in 41 games.
Then it executed its traditional midwinter collapse, losing 13 of its next 14 games, getting coach Mike Yeo fired and winding up with 87 points and fifth place in the Central Division.
That collapse led to the hiring of Bruce Boudreau and the Wild’s stunning run this season toward the top of the Western Conference. Beginning Thursday night in San Jose, the Wild will have its memory and sustainability tested.
The Wild’s woes last season began with a loss on Jan. 10 and continued with a road trip to Nashville, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. Beginning Thursday night, the Wild will play a six-game stretch that could define or disrupt its season.
At San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim. Home against Montreal. At Dallas and Chicago. By the end of this stretch, the Wild could be atop the conference or buried beneath bad memories of Januarys gone bad.
“I don’t know how they think, but it’s not relevant to me,’’ Boudreau said when asked about last year’s collapse. “Quite frankly, it’s you guys that make more of it than anyone else. It’s a new year. We should work it as a new year and not say here we go again or are we going there again. If we lose two or three in a row, well, every team in the league has done that. Not that we want to.’’
Boudreau has received much praise for the Wild’s play, but he was hired not so much to generate winning streaks as to limit losing streaks. Yeo produced stellar months. He was fired because he didn’t seem to know how to avoid bad ones.
Boudreau’s experience and sterling record indicate that he does, but he will have to prove himself in that regard all over again in Minnesota, with a group of players who know too well their own history, whether they admit it or not.
“We talked about it at the end of last year and at the beginning of this year,’’ goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “I think the mentality has changed this year. We’re looking at getting the top spot in the division. We know how we can play. We know what we need to do to win. We’re not looking at not losing. We’re looking at that top spot. We feel like if we play like we can we deserve it.’’
Boudreau and center Eric Staal have changed the Wild’s mentality. Yeo had to cater to the general manager who gave him his big career break and the two mega-contract players, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who held more power in the organization that he did.
Boudreau is unencumbered by those concerns. He knows if he wins he’ll be celebrated and if he loses he’ll be fired, regardless of his relationships. Staal has become the most significant voice in the room, surpassing the reticent Mikko Koivu and the struggling Parise.
The team’s leadership looks and sounds different. Will that matter?
“Every year is different,’’ Staal said. “I’ve been on a lot of different teams and every year is different. That’s last year. This is a different group, a different vibe.
“We’ve got a different staff and I think a different style of how we play. If we get back to playing our game …
“Well, we’ll worry about each day as it comes, but I’m not thinking about last year.’’
Saying that last year is in the past is both a statement of fact and wishful thinking. A fruitful trip to California would serve as a better mission statement for an ambitious team.