During the Wild’s eight-day break from competition, many players and their families headed south to Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean islands. As much as they enjoyed the respite — from the game, and from the cold — they couldn’t wait to get back to St. Paul.
The schedule resumes Friday night at Dallas, kicking off a critical stretch of 14 games in 26 days for a team fighting to solidify its playoff position. The Wild hopes to pick up where it left off before its league-mandated winter vacation, expanding on a three-game winning streak that moved the team into third place in the Central Division.
The Wild won’t have the luxury of easing back into the swing of things; the Stars sit only one point behind the Wild in the division standings, and the Wild’s practice Thursday at Tria Rink was players’ only chance to get on the ice before heading to Dallas.
Given the circumstances, forward Marcus Foligno expects Friday’s game to have a playoff feel. That will force the Wild to refocus quickly, he said, a good way to start a stretch in which the team will have little margin for error.
“Everyone is excited to get back out there,’’ Foligno said. “I think it will be like a playoff game. That’s how we’re preparing for it. It’s going to be difficult, but I think it’s good for us to jump right back into it and get thrown right into the fire.
“Coming out of the break, we know we can’t start off slow. The way we were playing [before the break], we’ve got to keep it going. We don’t want to be playing catch-up at the end of the season.’’
Most players stayed completely off the ice during the break, giving them an opportunity to refresh their bodies and minds before the grind of the final 32 games. Forward Jason Zucker enjoyed his time on a Mexican beach with his wife and children, but he is eager to get back into action.
“It was nice to get a break and get some family time,’’ he said. “Now, it’s nonstop.’’
Fehr expected to play
Wild fourth-line center Eric Fehr, who has missed the past nine games because of a lower-body injury, said Thursday that he felt good enough to rejoin the lineup before the break. He had to wait a little longer, but he’s expected to play Friday for the first time since he was hurt on Jan. 7.
With Fehr back, the Wild has 13 healthy forwards. That means Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin will stay in Iowa for now. The two were assigned to the Wild’s AHL affiliate before the break so they could continue to play, and coach Bruce Boudreau wants them both on the ice as much as possible.
“They’re getting more ice time, and they’re developing better right now,’’ Boudreau said. “Rather than playing 10 minutes [a game], they’re both playing 20 minutes. And we know if we need them, we can get them up in a heartbeat.’’
The break meant the newest member of the Wild, defenseman Anthony Bitetto, had to wait until Thursday to get on the ice with his new teammates. Bitetto was claimed off waivers from Nashville last Friday and paired up with Nate Prosser in his first practice.
The addition of Bitetto and Brad Hunt, acquired from Vegas on Jan. 21, expands the Wild’s corps of defensemen to eight. Boudreau isn’t sure whether all of them will remain on the roster. While it’s good to have the extras for practice, it isn’t optimal to have two defensemen watching games from the press box as healthy scratches.
“Usually, if you don’t run into injuries, they don’t play,’’ Boudreau said. “But I don’t think it ever hurts to have great depth. This makes us a deeper, stronger team.”