Back in October, when the Wild was sitting an ugly 4-9, or even as recent as mid-November when it was anchored to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, improvement didn’t just look like a pipe dream.
It felt like one, too, considering how woeful the Wild’s play was: a smorgasbord of shaky defending and touch-and-go scoring that led to demoralizing losses.
But as it turns out, progress was attainable.
All it took was a 12-4-4 run over the last 20 games, a steady climb that lifted the Wild to just two points back of the playoff pace in the West at the holiday break after it dismissed the Flames 3-0 Monday in front of an announced crowd 17,596 at Xcel Energy Center.
Since Nov. 14, the Wild’s 28 points are the most in the NHL.
“This is more how we feel we are as a team, and that’s what was so frustrating about the start of the year,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “I just don’t think anybody believed that that’s what we were, what we were capable of.
“This is a lot more like it and we know if we continue this pace and continue to play like this, we’re going to be where we want to be at the end of the year.”
Not only did the Wild (18-15-5) rebound from getting pasted 6-0 by the Jets Saturday at home, improving to 10-2-3 in St. Paul, but the positives that emerged Monday are exactly the kind of building blocks that could continue the team’s ascent when it’s back in action Friday at Colorado after a three-day hiatus.
Dubnyk posted his first shutout of the season, making 22 saves, and the secondary scorers provided the bulk of the offense — with winger Luke Kunin leading the way with a goal and assist. Center Eric Staal put the finishing touches on the victory with an empty netter with 2:43 to go, his 14th, which tied him with winger Zach Parise for the team lead.
“Our team’s all about balance,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Every game that we’re successful in, it seems like we get different lines scoring goals.”
Center Joel Eriksson Ek, in his first game back after missing four with an upper-body injury, opened the scoring on a one-timer set up by winger Kevin Fiala 4 minutes, 51 seconds into the second.
Eriksson Ek also helped snuff out the game’s lone power play for Calgary.
“I felt good,” he said. “I’ve been skating for a few days. It was nice to come back and get a win.”
A similar, strong forechecking play was also behind the Wild’s second goal, with Kunin burying a wraparound feed by winger Jordan Greenway at 9:49 — this after Kunin was denied twice in the first period from in-tight range. He now has two goals in his last three games.
The Flames did get one puck by Dubnyk, with 6:01 left in the third and while the Wild eased up its pressure, but the goal was overturned once video review determined Derek Ryan kicked the puck into the net.
Since returning last week after missing more than a month while his wife dealt with a serious medical situation, Dubnyk has stopped 60 of 65 shots. Cam Talbot totaled 31.
“It’s nice to get back,” Dubnyk said. “I just wanted to get back to feeling like myself and just being confident.”
The post-break push won’t be easy, starting with that Central Division clash with the Avalanche.
But how the team returns matters, which wasn’t necessarily going to be the case based on how it debuted this season.
“We’re in a pretty good spot looking back at where we were,” Kunin said. “Obviously, we let a few slip away that we wish [we] would’ve won. Just get a good break and come back rejuvenated and ready to go.”