The Wild didn't revolve around Mats Zuccarello and Victor Rask last season.
While Zuccarello wandered the depth chart in his debut with the team, eventually settling into the bottom-six forward group, Rask struggled to crack the lineup.
"This year has been better than last year, obviously," said Zuccarello, who was talking about his own performance, but the sentiment also applies to Rask.
While their skill sets are different, with Zuccarello a playmaking winger and Rask a two-way center, what accentuates their strengths is what they have in common: playing alongside Kirill Kaprizov.
The Wild has won seven consecutive home games, one short of the team record, entering Tuesday's game against Arizona. Kaprizov, the runaway scoring leader among NHL rookies, has been a constant threat on the ice, elevating the play of his teammates in the process.
And after loitering on the fringes of the Wild's offense, Zuccarello and Rask have become hardwired into the scoring surge that has headlined the team's climb.
"[Kaprizov has] definitely helped a lot," Rask said. "He's a really good player, but he works really hard, too. It's not all skill, but he has a lot of skill. Just a lot of fun."
Zuccrello, Rask and Kaprizov have been reunited after a brief stint apart, and the three immediately rediscovered the chemistry in their partnership.
In the 4-0 blitz against Arizona on Friday, Zuccarello assisted on two of Kaprizov's three goals for the 23-year-old's first career NHL hat trick. And the line was responsible for the game-tying goal Sunday that paved the way for a 4-1 comeback over the Coyotes, a finish by Rask that was set up by Zuccarello and Kaprizov.
The goal was Rask's sixth in 2021, one more than he had all last season in 43 games.
"He's got an offensive side to him thinking-wise, but he's also smart enough to recognize that maybe he has to stay in a little more of a defensive position," coach Dean Evason said. "Not only does that help him defensively, [but] a lot of times he's in position to keep pucks in and keep pucks alive because he's in the right spot."
Zuccarello's 15 goals in 2019-20 were tied for fourth on the Wild, but his point total (37) was his lowest since he had eight in 15 games in 2013. He has 18 points in 15 games this season, with 14 assists since Feb. 16, best in the league.
"I always cherish a good pass instead of a good goal," Zuccarello said.
During the offseason, Zuccarello had surgery to address an issue from the broken arm he suffered in 2019. Although the recovery delayed his start, he has looked rejuvenated.
"Sometimes your minutes change and your role changes, and the confidence that you had goes down a little bit" said Zuccarello, who was the Wild's prized free-agent pickup before last season after signing a five-year, $30 million contract. "Other players were playing good and got the minutes that you usually get, and that's fine. This year, being out there in the big moments gets you confidence."
Rask also showed up primed to rebound, reporting to training camp in what Evason called "tremendous shape," and he's received more opportunity this season. But not until Rask was placed between Zuccarello and Kaprizov on Feb. 20 in Anaheim has he been this steady for the Wild.
The strides made by Rask and Zuccarello have only been magnified by Kaprizov's addition.
Zuccarello's creativity is shining through next to Kaprizov, who has the shot to bury Zuccarello's passes or the vision to hand off the puck to someone else to score. As for Rask, he's in the correct areas to support the attack that is sustained by a player like Kaprizov, whose skating and puck skills rattle defenses.
The trickle-down effect from there is clear.
This pressure culminates in production, minimizes the time the Wild spends defending and feeds into balanced scoring.
Making others better
As the Wild's most consistent line, Zuccarello, Rask and Kaprizov draw attention from the opposition, and that can create more favorable matchups for other forwards.
Kaprizov, who has 10 goals and a team-leading 24 points, is the answer to the question: What's different about the Wild this season?
But it's not just his talent that's impacted the team and complemented his linemates. His tenaciousness — for the puck, goals, and winning — also makes the Wild better.
"Will beats skill, but if you've got both, it's tough to beat," Evason said. "He has both. He has the work ethic part of him. He's got a bite. He's got a grit level. You combine that with his skill level it makes a pretty good hockey player."