Two months’ worth of games remain on the Wild’s schedule, but to coach Bruce Boudreau, this week and next stand out from the rest.
“We have seven games,” he said. “So, if we get 12 points, 10 points, we’re right in the thick of things. And if we get two points, it’s going to be a difficult task.”
Boudreau hasn’t shared his prognosis with the players, but they already know their playoff hopes could hinge on how they fare in the next 12 days — a stretch spent mostly at home and predominantly against the Western Conference that starts Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center against the Blackhawks.
And while the potential to have the season decided very soon might seem intimidating, the Wild is looking at this pressure-packed itinerary as an opportunity to control its own fate.
“It can’t cripple you,” winger Jason Zucker said. “It’s got to be something that pushes you to be better, to push harder, to know that these are must-win games now. That’s the facts of it. These are must-win games. Does it mean if we lose, we’re out? No. But these are big, big games for us. So, we’ve got to play like it.”
This would have been the Wild’s reality even if the team didn’t get throttled 6-1 by the Bruins on Saturday in its return from the All-Star break and bye week.
But that outcome did shrink the team’s margin of error, seeing as it dropped seven points back of the second wild card in the West, and the clubs it needs to leapfrog to even approach the doorstep of that berth moved farther away.
Saturday’s loss was also an example of what could continue to happen if the Wild doesn’t fix its abysmal penalty kill, which was dinged for three power play goals in four chances.
“Right now, the penalty kill is getting us in a deep hole in the game, and it’s something we need to figure out how to get better,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “It’s something we need to start doing step-by-step, get that confidence back, and then start building from there.”
Overall, the unit ranks 30th in the NHL at 73.5% after giving up at least one goal in 10 of the past 11 games. Goalies Devan Dubnyk (.826) and Alex Stalock (.843) both have save percentages below .900 on the PK. Dubnyk was the latest to get tagged in Saturday’s loss. Boudreau called Stalock starting Tuesday a possibility.
“I’d like somebody to get this team on a roll,” Boudreau said.
Aside from working on the penalty kill at practice Monday, the Wild also ran through the power play with Brad Hunt back in the mix after he was scratched the past seven games.
“I don’t know what the lineup is going to be yet [Tuesday],” Boudreau said. “There were just guys that haven’t played in situations for a while that if we do use them, they’ve got to be used in practice.”
One player the Wild no longer has the option of working back in is Nick Seeler.
Chicago claimed the defenseman from Eden Prairie on Monday after he was placed on waivers Sunday, a decision the Wild made to try to get him to the minors so he could resume playing.
Seeler had been a healthy scratch for the Wild for most of the season, appearing in only six games after getting bumped down the depth chart by rookie Carson Soucy. The 26-year-old, who played two years of college hockey at Omaha and one with the Gophers, has another season remaining on his three-year, $2.175 million contract.
In 99 career games with the Wild after being drafted in the fifth round in 2011, Seeler recorded two goals, 11 points and 93 penalty minutes.
“Good for him,” Boudreau said. “… He’s worked really hard for us, and he’s a great teammate. Picking him up is good for Chicago.”
Whether or not more subtraction is on the way is unclear, and that’s also what’s at stake with these next batch of games.
Not only could the Wild determine how relevant the rest of the season is, but the team’s performance is also likely to sway General Manager Bill Guerin’s decisionmaking ahead of the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline.
“For us, it’s about all these games leading up to that to make it to where he wants to build this team, not take it apart,” Zucker said.