The Wild faces its toughest test of the season, four in a row against longtime division rival and Stanley Cup favorite Colorado, a series that starts Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
But the Wild won't have one of its top goal scorers.
Kevin Fiala was suspended three games by the NHL for a reckless check on Los Angeles' Matt Roy during the Wild's 5-3 win Thursday. The incident occurred 5 minutes, 32 seconds into the second period, with Fiala checking Roy from behind into the boards. Roy was down for quite some time, getting evaluated before teammates escorted him off the ice. He returned with the team to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan said of the hit, "It will be on multiple videos, teaching clips for young players, older players, junior players, pro players on basically what not to do."
Fiala received a five-minute boarding major and game misconduct, then the NHL Department of Player Safety levied another punishment after a Friday hearing with Fiala.
In a video explanation of its ruling, the NHL stressed that Fiala was in control of how the play developed and described the sequence as a "violent collision."
Since Fiala saw Roy's back from the time the puck was dumped into the zone, the league said, this wasn't a case of a player turning his back before contact that would turn a legal check into an illegal one.
The NHL acknowledged Fiala's assertion that he didn't intend to cause the impact but felt the hit was delivered at high speed and a dangerous distance from the boards and said the onus is on Fiala to change the angle of the hit so it's legal, avoid the hit entirely or minimize contact.
Roy's injury on the play and the fact Fiala had never been fined or suspended before in his NHL career were also key in the decision. Fiala will forfeit $77,586.21, and the money will go to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.
Before he was ejected Thursday, the 24-year-old winger scored on a breakaway to put the Wild up 2-0 for his third goal in the past four games.
"He was all around the puck the whole game, the first period and a little bit of the second, you could just see it," winger Marcus Foligno said. "It's unfortunate, and you could just tell he didn't mean to do what he did and that stuff happens in the game of hockey. It's really quick out there."
Other offensive leaders could help the Wild overcome Fiala's absence. Rookie Kirill Kaprizov, center Joel Eriksson Ek and winger Jordan Greenway lead the Wild in points with seven each, with Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek scoring Thursday against the Kings. So did their linemate, Marcus Johansson, who also added an assist in his best performance since being acquired in an offseason trade.
"It was a step in the right direction," Johansson said. "I had a good start and got to have the puck a little bit. Obviously, getting a goal fuels some confidence."
But defense will be crucial against the Avalanche, who are led by superstar Nathan MacKinnon.
"They are loaded all the way from Nate all the way down to they have a great backup goaltender in Pavel Francouz," said Ian Cole, the former Avalanche defenseman the Wild traded for earlier this month. "They are a great hockey team with tons of depth, tons of speed, tons of skill. It's going to be a challenge for us.
"They score a ton of goals, and we are going to have to defend like our lives depend on it — not just one game but four games in a row and all the other games we play them."
The Wild did not practice Friday, but the team assigned forward Gerald Mayhew from the active roster to the taxi squad and moved goalie Dereck Baribeau and defenseman Louie Belpedio from the taxi squad to Iowa in the American Hockey League.
Defenseman Brad Hunt is the only extra skater available on the roster, and he previously filled in at forward for two games when Nico Sturm was recently sidelined with illness.
"We've got guys ready to step up and play in those roles, so we'll make it work," defenseman Matt Dumba said after Thursday's game.
Coach Dean Evason hopes injured goalie Cam Talbot will be back for at least one of the two games this weekend. Getting closer to full strength would give the Wild a more accurate reading of how it stacks up against a team expected to contend for the West Division title and the Stanley Cup, but the results will also affect the current standings.
The teams have identical 5-3 records.
"It's going to be a challenge," Cole said, "but a challenge we're looking forward to."