Center Matt Cullen didn’t accompany the Wild through last season.
He was with the Penguins, collecting his third Stanley Cup and second in as many seasons as a back-to-back champion.
But after returning to Minnesota for another stint with the organization, he’s picked up on a vibe that characterizes the team’s motivation as it closes out the final month of the season on the heels of a playoff appearance a year ago that was limited to five games.
“We all feel like we have a lot more to give,” Cullen said. “We didn’t love our start to the season, but last little while we’ve been playing awfully good. We just understand how hard it is to get going, and you have to work hard.”
Although the Wild has risen to the third spot in the Central Division, a berth that receives an automatic invitation to the postseason, it has minimal cushion — a reality coach Bruce Boudreau pointed out after the team slipped up 4-1 at Edmonton on Saturday for its third regulation loss in its past six games.
“Sometimes I think we think that because we’ve had a little bit of success that we’re already in there,” Boudreau said. “But there’s teams breathing down our back every night, and we don’t play for [two] days now. So, there’s going to be a lot of teams gaining points in the next couple days.”
Still, the Wild has climbed more ladders than slid down chutes lately.
Before falling to the Oilers, the Wild had banked points in 13 of its previous 16 games to amass 24 total points — the second-most in the NHL in that span. The team’s 42 points since 2018 began also ranked third in the league and second in the Western Conference, improvement that elevated it from clamoring for a wild-card spot to sitting among the division leaders.
“We’re certainly not in by any means,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “But when you start to feel how much the wins mean, you got out of a close game, they just start to feel better and better and you see yourself going up the standings.”
Two trends have emerged during this progress: a healthier group and less turnover in the lineup. Those are helpful factors at this juncture of the schedule.
“It’s nice to have that consistency with linemates, ‘D’ pairings,” Cullen said. “The game happens so fast that the more you understand where your linemates and ‘D’ are going to be, it makes a big difference. It allows you to be quicker on pucks and make those little plays and keep the play alive or generate offensive opportunities.”
This rhythm, however, hasn’t just reminded the Wild of a more meaningful purpose. It’s also stoked the players’ eagerness to close out the regular season on a wave of momentum.
“As a group, we’re getting excited,” Cullen said. “We’re playing some good hockey, and things are coming together at the right time. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel as far as we’re getting close now. I think that as a group, I think guys feel like we have a lot to prove after last year and I think we have a group that feels like we’ve got a lot of good things going.
“So we just want to keep that going, and we understand how hard you have to work to keep going.”