As monotonous as it is for Wild fans being on the playoff bubble every season, it’s the same for players like Zach Parise.
Despite expectations rising after last year’s advancement past the first round for only the second time in franchise history, the Wild is 30 percent of the way through this season and again appears as if it’ll be battling all year for a wild-card spot.
The team sits 10th in the West with 29 points in 25 games heading into Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders. The standings are deceiving, because the Wild has games in hand on every team in the top nine. And of the three teams right ahead of Minnesota, the Wild has played two fewer games than Los Angeles, three fewer than Winnipeg and four fewer than San Jose.
It has also yet to play top-eight teams Chicago, Nashville, Vancouver and Calgary. But the Wild is 0-4-1 against Western Conference powers Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
“Looking at the standings, we’re down toward the bottom,” Parise said. “If we want to make the playoffs, it’s hard, and we’ve got to start beating the teams like Anaheim, St. Louis, Chicago and L.A. You’ve got to beat those teams. We’ve got to make a push. We’ve got to stop considering ourselves a young team, stop considering ourselves an inexperienced team and really just start to play with a little more — confidence isn’t the word — assertiveness.
“We have to just stop being content, like, ‘We played them well.’ We’ve got to start beating some of these teams. It is [exhausting] always floating around the eighth, ninth spot all season. And I think we’re better than that. I really do. I genuinely think we’re better than that. But we have to prove it. Internally, we have to start believing it.”
Two years ago, the Wild grabbed the eighth spot on the final night of the season by virtue of a tiebreaker with Columbus. That ended a four-year playoff drought, but the Wild was quickly dispatched by the Blackhawks. Last season, the Wild grabbed the top wild-card spot and beat Central Division champion Colorado before again losing to the Blackhawks in a much more competitive series.
Despite being 7-3-1 in its past 11 games, the Wild hasn’t gained any ground in the standings and hasn’t been fully on top of its game the past few weeks. That’s been demonstrated during the team’s current 1-1-1 homestand.
“I don’t think it’s a cause for concern, but I don’t think we’re playing as well as we need to,” Parise said. “There’s a lot of good signs that we can be a good team. We’re trending in the right direction, and it’s not like we go into any game and just have no chance of winning and getting absolutely blown out.
“But at some point we’ve got to — I don’t want to say take the next step — but we’ve got to get ourselves into that top tier, that top group of teams in the West.”
Coach Mike Yeo says he would guess that the majority of NHL teams aren’t “completely satisfied and feeling really great about where they’re at right now.”
But he agrees with Parise and made it very clear before the season that it’s time for the Wild to take the next step.
“I’m not trying to point fingers, because bottom line is it’s my job to put them in the right position, to get them in the right frame of mind, to make sure they’re prepared the right way, but there are some individuals that I know can be better,” Yeo said. “Once we get everybody going at their best, our team will be better.”
Yeo didn’t name names.
But Jason Pominville is on pace for 16.4 goals, Thomas Vanek 6.6. Mikko Koivu, the Wild’s all-time leading scorer, is on pace for 36 points. Mikael Granlund is coming off his first multipoint game since opening night. Charlie Coyle has two goals, none since Oct. 23. Darcy Kuemper has allowed 19 goals in his past five starts.
“We’re not that far off, I know that,” Yeo said. “We’re still outshooting teams, we’re still doing a good job of puck possession and we’re still not giving up a lot of chances. There’s a lot of things that make us really close to being a really good team, but we have to push over the edge.”