GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Finally, the Wild can catch a breath.
After playing the most games in the NHL since the trade deadline, with the most back-to-backs and not getting more than a day between games in five weeks, the Wild has hit the finish line with Saturday night’s 3-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes and can reset before opening the playoffs at home this week against former Wild coach Mike Yeo and his St. Louis Blues.
Because of the rough four-win March, it’s easy to forget that six weeks ago, the Wild was one of the NHL’s most consistent teams. It hadn’t lost two in a row since November, led the West in goals, goals against, save percentage and shooting percentage and was considered by many as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Sure, nobody is thrilled the team let a chance to win its first regular-season conference and division title slip away. But six months ago, few would have predicted the Wild would finish with the second-best record in the very competitive conference and a franchise-record 49 wins and 106 points.
The Wild finished with points in seven of eight games (5-1-2).
“When we talked to December and January, the way we felt is the way we still feel now,” said defenseman Ryan Suter, who is tied with Jason Zucker at a league-high plus-34. “We have a lot of confidence in the guys and in our group. We have a team that can do something special.
“This last month has been good for us. I think it’s helped us grow as a team. You got to see what people are made of.”
From Dec. 2 to Feb. 28, the Wild went 30-6-3, including a franchise-record 12-game winning streak. At the All-Star break, the Wild had the best record in the West.
Several players had breakout seasons, highlighted by Mikael Granlund’s career-high 26 goals and team-leading 69 points. Nino Niederreiter had a career-high 25 goals and 57 points, Zucker had a career-high 22 goals and 47 points and Charlie Coyle, who hit a second-half slump, had a career-high 56 points.
On the back end, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba all established career-highs in points.
“It’s a great step,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Really, that’s the group that’s going to take this team over going forward. That’s going to be the core of our team for the next seven, eight years. They’re going to have to be the ones that lead, that have to be our top players.
“Like Granlund, he’s not a secret anymore. He’s getting tough matchups and he’s battling through and finding ways to produce. The signs these guys have shown this year bodes well for the present and the future. But the playoffs are a different animal.”
Mikko Koivu had his best season since 2010-11; Eric Staal, who scored his team-best 28th goal Saturday, had his best season since 2011-12; and Devan Dubnyk, the league’s top goalie statistically through February, was one of four NHL goalies to win 40 games.
“And I’m telling you, I really think Martin Hanzal has been a big addition,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Over a full season with the Wild, Hanzal would have been on pace for 53 points. Over the last 14 games, he won 61.7 percent of his faceoffs. He was terrific on the penalty kill.
The Wild tied for first in the NHL with 13 players with at least 10 goals and tied for third with five players with at least 50 points.
“For this 82-game schedule, we were one of the best teams in the league, and I think we have one of the best balanced scoring in the league,” Boudreau said of a team that had with a franchise-record 266 goals, at least four goals in a game 34 times, at least five goals in a game 22 times, a second-best goal differential of plus-58 and three players among the top-four in the NHL in plus-minus.
For the second time in franchise history, the Wild will open the first round at home.
“It’s not an easy thing to do in this league, in this conference, in this division,” Koivu said. “That says a lot about the consistency that we’ve been having. You’ve got to be consistent to be able to be second in the whole conference. Numbers don’t lie. You get what you deserve. It says a lot about the team since Game 1 all the way to here. Now it’s just about getting better and preparing ourselves.”
And that’s the key. The Wild feels it patched its game, which fell apart in so many areas last month, together the last half-dozen games. The elephant in the room continues to be Dubnyk’s declining play in March, but the team believes he showed good signs of reemerging the past few weeks.
The Wild responded to the March adversity and hopes that continues vs. the Blues.
“If the month of March was like every other month, we would have been fighting for the President’s Trophy during [Saturday’s] game,” Boudreau said. “… March was our negative. We came through it. We’re a better team for it.”
Whether you win the President’s Trophy or sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the year, the regular season is wiped clean, you start over and 16 teams are 0-0 again.
Does Boudreau still feel his team is s a legitimate Stanley Cup contender?
“Do we have the same odds as the Washington Capitals? I don’t think right now we do,” he said. “But I’ll bet you at the beginning of March the pundits were saying we were a good bet to come out of the West, and I wake up every morning thinking about winning a Cup. It hasn’t happened yet.
“Chicago went on a tremendous roll. Anaheim and Edmonton are on tremendous rolls right now. Nashville and St. Louis have been real strong the last several weeks. … I think we’ll be classified as an underdog, but do we have the capabilities?
“I think we do.”