It stands to reason that a team trying to claw its way into an NHL playoff berth would welcome a soft spot in the schedule. Wild forward Mikko Koivu blew up that conventional wisdom Monday, before his team started a rugged stretch of games against three surging opponents.
“It will be obviously a test, a challenge,” Koivu said after practice at Tria Rink. “But I think that’s what we need right now. There’s no better way to start building that confidence than playing good against the better teams in the league.”
This week’s gantlet begins Tuesday at Pittsburgh, which has won four of its past five games and sits third in the Eastern Conference. The Wild then returns home to face Tampa Bay, 9-1 in its past 10, and Central Division rival Dallas, which had won six in a row before a 2-1 loss Saturday at San Jose.
That’s hardly an ideal scenario for a team that has won only once in its past six games. After sliding down the standings and further away from a playoff berth, though, the Wild cannot afford any self pity.
Koivu wasn’t the only one embracing the challenge. Coach Bruce Boudreau took the same stance and shared it with the players Monday, urging them to see opportunity in the upcoming schedule.
“How do you want to look at it?” he said. “Do you want to look at it the negative way, that … ‘look who we’re playing?’ Or do you want to look at it as, ‘Hey, listen, the best way to get out of a little rut is to play the best teams and play your best games and find out that you’re successful.’
“That’s the way I want to take it. That’s what we talked about.”
Boudreau said it’s a mystery why the Wild offense has lost its scoring touch. It is averaging 1.83 goals per game in the past six games; in four of those, the Wild has managed only one goal.
Several key forwards have seen their point production wither during that time frame, including Eric Staal (one goal), Mats Zuccarello (one goal), Zach Parise (two assists) and Kevin Fiala (one goal, one assist). One thing that would help, Boudreau said, would be for the Wild to push as hard early in the game as it has in the third period.
“I don’t think we get desperate till we get behind at the end of games,” he said. “If we were desperate at the beginning of games, I think we’d probably get a lead.
“Take the last two games. The scoring chances in the third period, when we’ve been down, have been so much in our favor because then you get desperate and you attack. Well, that should happen in the first period, too. And the second period.”
Boudreau also noted that the Wild’s finesse players should take a cue from the third- and fourth-liners and go to the net more frequently. In addition, he has seen some forwards taking extended shifts, a trend he wants to discourage.
The coach said players who are pushing to score are staying on the ice too long, hoping for opportunities that don’t always happen. That leaves them with less energy for critical late-game situations. Boudreau spoke Monday with the top line of Jason Zucker, Staal and Zuccarello, urging them to hold their shifts to the proper length.
Zucker and defenseman Greg Pateryn both returned to the lineup Sunday, pushing the roster to 13 forwards and seven defensemen. Boudreau liked Pateryn’s performance, particularly on the penalty kill, and is likely to play him again Tuesday.
“I’m sure [Pateryn] will probably be in the lineup,” he said. “He’s big and strong, he moves people out and he’ll block shots.”
Pateryn and Carson Soucy formed the third defensive pair Sunday, with Brad Hunt a healthy scratch. The group will grow further when Nick Seeler returns from his conditioning assignment in Iowa, which could happen later this week.
Boudreau doesn’t plan any kind of set rotation, saying he will simply use the players he believes will give the Wild the best chance to win.