After he corralled an Avalanche clearing attempt near center ice, settling the puck before steering it back in the direction it just came from, Victor Rask contemplated making a pass.
Teammate Kevin Fiala was skating in stride with him and Fiala had his stick raised, ready to take a shot.
“I was looking at Kevin there for a little bit,” Rask said. “He was kind of screaming for the puck.”
But instead, Rask held onto it and the ripple effects of that decision were significant.
Not only did Rask’s shot bounce off the post and into the net, the game-winning goal in a 6-4 victory for the Wild at Colorado on Friday, but the contribution magnified just how efficient Rask has been since finding a niche on the team’s fourth line.
Furthermore, the effort was the latest example of how the Wild’s depth at the center position has helped it persevere without captain Mikko Koivu. He is dealing with a lower-body injury that could clear up at some point during a four-game homestand that starts Sunday at Xcel Energy Center against the Islanders.
“That’s what we need if we want to be successful and make the playoffs,” Koivu said. “It’s not just center ice. It’s defense. It’s wingers. It’s goalies. We have been going through pretty much the whole lineup. It’s great.”
Koivu practiced Saturday for the first time since getting hurt Dec. 3 in Florida, skating with most but not all his teammates since a few didn’t make it to TRIA Rink in St. Paul amid icy road conditions across the metro.
His participation is a sign he’s getting closer to a return, and the team is hopeful Koivu’s back in action in the coming days. But Koivu will be the one to decide that.
“Just trying to stay patient and do everything I can to make sure it’s stronger than it was a couple of weeks ago and also making sure it’s going to stay that way,” he said. “I guess live and learn. Just trying to make sure I’m good for the rest of the season.”
Although Koivu’s absence certainly made the Wild more vulnerable up the middle since his two-way presence is tough to replicate, the team hasn’t backtracked on the progress it made with him in the mix to overcome an early-season hole.
The Wild’s remained in the race for a playoff spot, and that stability has been helped along by players like Rask.
“I feel like guys are in roles they’re comfortable in and gaining confidence in those roles,” center Eric Staal said. “[Rask’s] not playing tons of minutes, but he’s playing effective minutes. I think we’ve got a lot of guys that are like that. Even our [top] line, it’s not like we’re out there every second shift. But when we’re out there, we’re being effective and I think that’s the calling of our group. We’ve got guys in roles that are committed to just helping our team win.”
Once Koivu got hurt, the Wild did try Rask in the top six, but it wasn’t a fit.
Where he has panned out is between wingers Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman, a fourth line that’s been one of the most dangerous the Wild has sent over the boards recently.
Two of Rask’s four goals and six of his 10 points have come in the past 12 games, and the three combined for six shot attempts Friday — this after they had a team-high 12 for a line Monday in the 3-0 win over the Flames.
“It’s nice to get to play with the same guys for a little bit,” said Rask, who was a healthy scratch earlier this season. “When you jump around, it’s hard to find chemistry. But I think we’ve found pretty good chemistry, and I like to play with those two guys.”
That Rask has found a home in the lineup in his second season with the team isn’t surprising.
Even though the 26-year-old logged 23 games in 2018-19 with the Wild after getting acquired in a trade with Carolina that sent Nino Niederreiter to the Hurricanes, integrating into a new group is a process.
“It takes some time for the players to accept you and you to accept the players,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Whether it’s drills or whether it’s just verbal stuff from team to team can be so different a lot of times.”
Over the summer, Rask made changes that included switching trainers and he said he felt comfortable coming into Year 2.
And it’s showing on the ice.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said.