Bruce Boudreau leaned on his hockey stick, with his cheek resting on its knob and a forlorn look in his eyes. The Wild coach was trying to describe exactly how he felt Wednesday morning, only 13 hours or so after the team’s path to the playoffs hit a dead end.
Instead of putting his blue mood into words, Boudreau offered an analogy: He was as glum as Eeyore, the downcast donkey pal of Winnie the Pooh. But succumbing to self-pity was not an option. Following Wednesday’s practice, the Wild had to continue preparations for two more regular-season games, starting Thursday against Boston at Xcel Energy Center.
Despite Tuesday’s 5-1 victory over Winnipeg, the Wild was eliminated from playoff contention when Colorado rallied to beat Edmonton. In Thursday’s home finale and Saturday’s season-ender at Dallas, Boudreau wants to give Wild fans a good memory to carry into the offseason, nudge the team’s home record to .500 and continue evaluating his young players.
It’s hardly the same as gearing up for the playoffs, but it’s all the Wild has left.
“We’re playing to win,” Boudreau said. “We’re not just playing to run out the string. Coaches always just want to win.”
In a quiet locker room at Tria Rink, goaltender Devan Dubnyk said players had not fully come to grips with the idea that the Wild’s offseason will begin Sunday. Its run of six consecutive postseason appearances was tied with Anaheim for the second-longest active playoff streak in the NHL, behind Pittsburgh’s 12.
Newly signed center Nico Sturm was present at practice, but forward Zach Parise was absent, raising the question of whether he will play again this season. After missing four games because of a lower-body injury, Parise returned to play Tuesday and scored the Wild’s first two goals. Boudreau said the winger skipped practice for a “maintenance day,” but he is unsure whether Parise or anyone else might sit out the final games.
Sturm received his visa Wednesday afternoon, clearing the way for him to make his NHL debut against Boston. The German free agent, signed Monday after finishing a three-season run at Clarkson University, centered a line with Jordan Greenway and Jason Zucker at his first Wild practice.
Boudreau was impressed with Sturm’s skating and the puck handling ability he showed during a shootout drill at the end of practice.
“I’m going to go over the systems [Wednesday] with the coaching staff, and we’ll move on from there,” Sturm said. “The two most important things are just to soak up the experience and to get as much information as possible and learn from the other guys.”
Missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012 will feel strange and discomfiting to the Wild’s veteran players, staff and fans. That territory is even more unfamiliar for Boudreau. He has failed to get to the postseason only one other time in 12 years as an NHL head coach, when he took over a last-place Anaheim team at midseason in 2012.
Tuesday night, Boudreau thought it was “phenomenal” that fans stood for the final 30 seconds of the victory over Winnipeg, even though the Wild has one of its worst home records ever. He hoped his players felt the support. That will be on their minds, Dubnyk said, as they strive to shake off their doldrums and end the season on an upbeat note.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Dubnyk said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet for any of us. We’ve still got two games to play, and we certainly want to put out a good one [Thursday] at home.
“You try to be as focused as you can, and I’m sure everybody in here will be. We need to make sure we’re ready to go. We’ve got to put on a good show for our fans at home. We want to go out winning.”