A large whiteboard hangs on the wall outside the Wild’s player lounge. The board tracks the Western Conference standings and gets updated daily.
Players can’t miss it as they walk from the locker room to their lounge. Six weeks ago, that oversized whiteboard probably made them want to shield their eyes.
Or wish for a new goaltender.
“It’s not easy walking in and you look at it every day,” Jason Pominville said. “We couldn’t get any worse, really.”
On Monday, the board brought optimism and excitement, instead of doom and gloom. Perhaps not coincidentally, a framed picture of Devan Dubnyk now hangs beside it.
A stunning rebirth catapulted the Wild into the top eight in the playoff standings for the first time since around Thanksgiving.
Captain Mikko Koivu conducted an interview with that board in view Monday. He stared straight ahead, unwilling to steal a glance.
“I still won’t look at it,” he said. “If you’re looking at it every day and worrying about it every day, it’s going to get even harder. I know where we’re at.”
Where the Wild is at is pretty remarkable considering its season seemed like a lost cause not too long ago. The Wild looked dead in the water in mid-January. Finished, done, kaput.
The whiteboard showed the team in 12th place in the conference, eight points out of the final playoff spot and 14 points behind Winnipeg.
The goaltending was horrifying. The team couldn’t score, couldn’t stop anyone. Mike Yeo’s job status became a story again. Everyone’s body language resembled a basset hound’s face.
The season felt like couldn’t end soon enough.
Admittedly, I wrote the team off and started looking ahead to spring training and the NFL draft.
“I don’t think you’re the only one,” Kyle Brodziak said.
“It didn’t look good,” Charlie Coyle said.
And now? How about that plucky, resilient Wild?!
“On the bandwagon, we have room,” Zach Parise said.
“Now you’re our buddy, huh?” Koivu said.
They weren’t being haughty or dismissive. They all laughed. They know how absurd this turnaround is, an 11-1-1 stretch since the All-Star break that has resuscitated their season.
From dead to dominant, the Wild looks like a polar opposite of the underachievers that dug a deep hole and required a frenetic rally to make postseason hockey a realistic conversation again.
The simple answer is to divide the season into two parts: pre-Duby, with-Duby. Indeed, this column isn’t written without Dubnyk’s save-the-day act.
But everyone has snapped out of their funk and played better the past month, which truly feels like a light switch being turned on.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like this — to come back this many points in a short amount of time,” Pominville said.
Confidence is such a nebulous thing in sports. It’s difficult to quantify but easy to spot. The Wild traded for Dubnyk, won a few games, confidence grew and boom — the team believes it can do anything now.
“Our confidence was spiraling downward,” Coyle said. “We knew we had to climb out of this.”
A month ago, the locker room felt like a morgue. On Monday, players laughed and joked and discussed the show “The Bachelor.” They’re a loose bunch these days.
As bleak as things looked at the time, the team’s leaders contend they didn’t panic because the team still had time to fix what appeared broken.
“We still knew we had a good team,” Parise said. “We just had to rediscover the right way to play. We did that, fortunately with enough time left.”
Koivu symbolizes their charge back from the abyss. The captain has scored 12 points in 10 games and has played his best hockey in a long time.
At the rock-bottom stage, I wrote that Yeo should strip Koivu of the “C” in a last-ditch attempt to find some kind of spark. In hindsight, that was a dumb, irrational idea offered while watching a talented team allow its season to circle the drain.
Who wears a letter wasn’t the problem. The Wild needed Dubynk in goal, and then Koivu and his teammates had to play better. Nothing more to it than that.
“Every team goes through ups and downs throughout the year,” Koivu said.
Players can’t relax now that they can sniff the playoffs. They still have little margin for error. That’s the price for squandering the first half of the season. Every game feels ridiculously important.
“You don’t want to waste years,” Pominville said.
The Wild nearly did just that. Now the team is back in the conversation. The whiteboard always lets them know where things stand.