Growing up, Wild forward Luke Kunin envisioned himself playing center in the NHL.
And right wing.
“To play all three positions, that only helps me be able to play more situations,” Kunin said. “It can help the team, as well. That’s how I look at it.”
The Wild is tapping into that versatility right now at a critical time in its season. Kunin resumed his post up the middle Thursday against the Stars at Xcel Energy Center just as center Joel Eriksson Ek left the lineup with a lower-body injury that’s expected to keep him out at least a week.
“I enjoy it,” Kunin said of lining up at center. “It’s fun out there. I keep getting more and more comfortable.”
Kunin missed the previous two games with an upper-body injury after he was hurt on March 7. He was crushed with an open-ice hit from Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette, the first of two recent injuries for the Wild since Eriksson Ek was roughed up Monday in a 3-0 loss to the Sharks.
When the team dealt forward Mikael Granlund to the Predators before the trade deadline Feb. 25, Kunin switched to center from right wing — a role he’s familiar with since he played it throughout his career until he arrived at the University of Wisconsin four years ago.
“He’s smart, and he competes,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I don’t think he’s ever going to put up Mario Lemieux-type numbers or anything. But he’s a smart guy that competes and plays both ends of the ice, and he plays with pace. So that works out.”
Although Kunin is transitioning back into game mode amid tougher circumstances than when before he was hurt, as the team continues to vie for a playoff spot now down another regular center, he isn’t nervous for the situation.
“I knew I could do it,” he said of handling the responsibilities at center. “Just the way the team was working, I was on the wing. But I’m comfortable out there.”
While the Wild was idle Tuesday and Wednesday, the Western Conference playoff race only seemed to get more hectic.
Chicago, once a footnote near the bottom of the standings, was just four points back of Arizona for the second wild card spot after holding off Toronto 5-4 on Wednesday — joining Colorado and the Wild as the closest competition for that final berth.
“It’s crowded,” Boudreau said. “… You’ve got to focus on your team. I just know if we get to a certain amount of points, we’ll be in. It wouldn’t matter what other teams did if we got to where we want to get to.”
• Winger Jason Zucker skated in his 400th career game Thursday.
• Defenseman Nick Seeler was back in the Wild’s lineup after sitting out Monday’s game. Fellow blue-liner Anthony Bitetto was the team’s lone healthy scratch.