LEDUC, ALBERTA – The All-Star break is over, the Wild’s umpteenth opportunity this season to “reset” and “recharge” and “clear the head” is complete and now the Wild faces 36 critical games if it wants to save its season.
“We’ve got to win. There’s no other way to put it,” Zach Parise said Monday after the Wild, which opens a three-game road trip Tuesday against the Oilers with top-six6 center Mikael Granlund returning to the lineup, practiced in suburban Edmonton. “There’s not a lot of room for error, and it’s going to be hard. We know that. It’s going to be very hard. But we’re not going to quit.
“We’ve got to keep improving and get our game going in the right direction.”
The Wild — after a stretch in which it lost 11 of 13 — went 2-1-1 before the break and made modest gains in its game. It blew out Buffalo, beat Arizona, lost to Columbus and rallied from three goals down in the third period to grab a point at Detroit.
But it still sits in 12th place in the 14-team Western Conference, seventh out of seven teams in the Central Division, seven points behind Calgary for the second wild-card spot and 14 points behind Winnipeg for the first wild-card spot.
The Flames, whom the Wild play Thursday, are on pace for 92.4 points, meaning the .500 Wild (46 out of a possible 92 points amassed) would need to grab 47 of a possible 72 points (.653) to eclipse that.
“We can’t put ourselves in an, ‘Every game’s a win or season’s over,’-type scenario,” said Parise, who is riding a four-game goal streak and was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week on Monday. “You stress yourself out and all of a sudden mentally you’re making the game a lot harder.
“You try to put it in small things where [Tuesday] night we’ve got to win the first period and then go from there. … That’s got to be our approach as we go on through this road trip and the rest of the season. We know what the standings look like. That’s no secret. But we can’t make up all those points this week. We’ve got to start small.”
Coach Mike Yeo concurred, saying: “If we start looking at the big picture too much, then we’ll lose sight of the individual focus that we need on each day and that’s the message from here. We can’t get caught up about what other teams are doing or what’s out of our control.”
The Wild hopes the return of Granlund will help. The skilled center, who is expected to center Parise and Thomas Vanek against the Oilers, had 41 points in 63 games last season and was a big reason the Wild survived injuries to Parise and Mikko Koivu.
But at the time of his Dec. 29 wrist surgery, Granlund only had four goals and 15 points in 32 games. The Wild went 4-7-2 without him and desperately needs him to start producing.
The Wild has been feeble up the middle all year. Koivu, below his usual pace, leads with 26 points in 46 games. But after that, Charlie Coyle, who has switched between center and wing all season, has 19 points, Kyle Brodziak 12 and Erik Haula, slated to be scratched Tuesday, seven.
“Mikko has certainly been putting up some points lately, but you need more than one guy,” Yeo said.
Parise is excited to have Granlund back.
“You need depth at center. That’s the only way you win in this league. You need deep centermen,” Parise said. “Everyone knows how good a player he is and how well he’s played, so for him to hop right back in and make a difference in our top-6, and power play as well, we’re ready and excited to get him back.”
Granlund hasn’t had a ton of practice time or contact drills since returning to the ice. So he said it could take a few games to get back up to speed and used to battling in corners. But he said, “It feels good to get back out there.”
The Oilers have played well the past month. But the Wild typically plays the Oilers well, especially in Edmonton, where Minnesota has won eight of the past nine games. The Wild would love to get this road trip off to a good start after playing so well in the third period Tuesday in Detroit.
“There’s still 30-something games left,” Granlund said. “A lot of things can happen and I think every guy in this locker room believes we can make it to the playoffs. We need to go game by game. That’s the only thing we can do now.”