WINNIPEG – As damaging as the last two losses might seem, the Wild still could wind up clinching a playoff spot for a fourth consecutive season Sunday if it beats the Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche loses in regulation to the St. Louis Blues.
Adding to the drama, the puck drops in both games at 7 p.m.
For the Wild to beat the Jets, though, it must be ready to battle against a fast, physical team led by Dustin Byfuglien, the gigantic Minnesotan who has absolutely demolished Ottawa’s Mark Stone and Chicago’s Tomas Fleischmann the past two games with thunderous checks.
“You kind of like battling every night, right?” coach John Torchetti said Saturday. “That’s what the game of hockey is all about.”
Torchetti hasn’t been overly delighted with his team’s battle level in losses to Ottawa and Detroit, although he liked the Wild’s game much better Friday in Detroit than Thursday against the Senators. He gave the team Saturday off to rest and re-energize so there are no excuses Sunday.
A few players are banged up, a few others have been leaned on heavily the past few days because of Jared Spurgeon’s lower-body injury and because Torchetti has shortened the bench lately.
“Every game’s a big one now. We know that,” Torchetti said.
The Wild will have two home games left after Sunday — Tuesday against one of the best road teams in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks, and Saturday against the Calgary Flames. The Avs will have three games left — Tuesday at Nashville, Thursday at Dallas and Saturday at home against Anaheim.
A day after the loss to the Red Wings, Torchetti still was displeased with Jason Zucker’s “bad” first-period penalty that led to a goal and the Wild’s battle failure that led to Riley Sheahan’s winning goal.
Thirty seconds before the goal, the sequence began with Zucker losing a board battle and not getting the puck out. Charlie Coyle also lost a board battle right before the goal, although upon further review on film, Torchetti said it was an angular wall play that was hard for Coyle to adjust to at the last second.
Torchetti was mostly upset with the lack of box-out by defensemen Mike Reilly and Nate Prosser.
“We have to do a better job of boxing out,” Torchetti said. “That’s what I mean about battles. Those are box-outs and we’re letting players to the net that shouldn’t even get to the goal line. We’re allowing guys to the net too easy.”
It sounds like Torchetti will begin Sunday’s game the way Friday’s game ended, with Mikael Granlund playing right wing on a line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Coyle, who has no goals and eight assists in the past 14 games, moved from right wing to center for the first time under Torchetti. Zucker and Thomas Vanek were on the wings.
One of Torchetti’s big objectives these last three games is to try to build Zucker’s game and confidence. The Wild’s a better team when Zucker’s bringing speed and skill, but he has been a nonfactor — or worse, a liability — on many nights the past two months.
In 28 games since Jan. 9, Zucker has two goals and two assists with only 49 shots. He’s minus-7 in that stretch.
“I thoughts Zucks played a better game after he played with Chuckie, I really did,” Torchetti said. “I liked his battle level, I liked his commitment to getting the puck to the net. I thought he was re-engaged.
“We need to get him going, and that’s why he’ll be back in the lineup. ”