It may sound like a matter of semantics, but Mike Yeo saw a clear difference Thursday when asked to describe the feelings generated by the Wild’s upcoming schedule.
“It’s not stress,” the coach said. “It’s tension.”
Though Yeo was chuckling when he said it, he was only half kidding. Had the Wild not escaped its free fall through the NHL standings, he likely would have been unnerved by the Murderer’s Row lineup his team is facing over the next five days. Now that it has won 19 of its past 25 games to muscle its way back into the playoff chase, Yeo is excited — in a slightly edgy sort of way — about taking on the top three teams in the Western Conference.
This wickedly tough stretch of schedule starts with Pacific Division leader Anaheim on Friday at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild plays at St. Louis, second in the Central Division, on Saturday, then at Central-leading Nashville on Tuesday. It doesn’t get any easier the rest of the way, with only one of the final 15 regular-season games against a team with little hope of making the playoffs.
Some people would consider that stressful. Yeo prefers to think of it as an opportunity for the Wild to continue gathering steam, ensuring the team will be well prepared if it moves on to the postseason.
“In a lot of ways, it would be real nice to have a huge cushion and have every game not mean as much as it does right now for us,” Yeo said after Thursday’s practice at Xcel. “By the same token, I’ve been part of those teams. And when your game is not quite sharp, and you’re playing against all these teams that are really hungry, you kind of limp into the playoffs. And that’s not what you want.
“If we do get in — and we believe that we will — then our game is going to have to be really good along the way. And that means when we do get in, we’re ready. We know there’s a lot of work to be done, and we know it’s also very difficult down the stretch with this schedule. But if we [make the playoffs], when we do, we’ll have confidence going in.”
The Wild had a two-day break between games this week, their first such breather since March 1-2. After taking Wednesday off, the team returned for a vigorous practice Thursday that included five-on-five and special-teams work.
The Wild has the toughest stretch run of anyone in the NHL. Eight of its remaining games are against teams currently in the top two in their division, and its recent history against Anaheim and St. Louis is not favorable. The Wild has lost five consecutive home games to the Ducks and has beaten them only once in the past nine tries. It is 2-7-2 in its past 11 games at St. Louis and has been outscored by a two-to-one margin.
Though the Ducks have lost three games in a row, Yeo expects them to be angry rather than vulnerable. While that may complicate the Wild’s task Friday, the players are not considering their opponents’ feelings. The Wild has compiled a 19-4-2 record since Jan. 15, and the confidence generated by the streak has become a powerful factor in its rise.
Defenseman Jordan Leopold has been with the Wild 10 days and said the aura in the locker room strikes an optimal balance.
“We’re loose, but we’re focused,” Leopold said. “It’s fun to come in here, because the guys have the feeling when they come to the rink that we’re going to win the hockey game. And that is a great feeling.”
As the Wild strives to prove itself against the league’s best, goaltender Devan Dubnyk noted that it beat Nashville on the road two weeks ago, when the Predators sat atop the NHL and owned a 26-3-1 record at home. He said knowing that the Wild has the capability to beat any team — and viewing the stiffening competition as thrilling, not terrifying — will be vital to staying on course.
“We’ve done a good job of not stressing about it,” Dubnyk said. “It’s a fun position to be in. This is where you want to be; you want to have these games matter.
“We’re enjoying each challenge every day, knowing that our fate is in our hands. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot. And if we continue to go out and get points when we have opportunities to do it, we’re going to be in a good spot at the end of the year.”