ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild were reeling as last year ended. Star Zach Parise was on injured reserve. Coach Mike Yeo’s job was in jeopardy.
Then the problems really piled up. Starting goalie Josh Harding was out of action again with an illness. Captain Mikko Koivu broke his ankle. Defenceman Jared Spurgeon got hurt, too.
Somehow, the Wild survived — and thrived.
“Ah, it was a piece of cake,” Yeo said last week, smiling wryly. “I slept like a baby.”
With an 11-4-2 record in 17 games since the calendar turned to 2014, the Wild have taken control of the first of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference playoff race. With 69 points, they’re ahead of Phoenix and Dallas, who have 64 apiece and have played one fewer game.
Eight of those 11 wins were in regulation.
“All I wanted to do is I wanted our players to look at me and say, ‘OK, he’s got confidence. OK, well, we should have confidence,'” Yeo said. “That was the one thing that I wanted. And I did believe in the group that we had still. And I did believe in the game that we played.”
The Wild still have had trouble scoring, ranking 25th in the NHL with 2.36 goals per game. With Harding’s return unknown and Niklas Backstrom injured and ineffective at different times this season, Darcy Kuemper has taken over in the net. Relying on a rookie goalie can be a risk.
But Parise is back in form from his broken foot. Spurgeon has returned. Koivu is skipping the Olympics and expected at full strength when the schedule resumes on Feb. 27. Nino Niederreiter, acquired in a draft-day trade, has given the offence a boost. Mikael Granlund has bounced back from a rough rookie year.
“I think we’ve got good character,” leading scorer Jason Pominville said. “A lot of guys stepped up in different situations. It wasn’t easy at times. You could tell that we were missing some of our key guys, but I think other guys kind of found a way to adjust their game and get adjusted to the level of our play that you have to be successful night in and night out.”
During Yeo’s tenure as coach, the Wild have seemed to play better in less-than-ideal circumstances than when in tip-top shape.
“Knowing our group, knowing competitors in general, they love a challenge,” Yeo said. “So I think we all do.”
League realignment was welcomed by the Wild, for enhanced regional rivalries to better entice fans and more games in their own time zone. But this season, the new look has made their post-season bid more difficult.
Only the top three teams in each division are guaranteed a playoff spot, and St. Louis (84 points), Chicago (84) and Colorado (79) are comfortably ahead of the Wild, who have only 23 games left.
“We’ve just got to focus on winning games and when we play Colorado, try to beat them and try to lessen that cushion that they have on us and try to slowly creep up on them,” Pominville said.
Added Parise: “That’s hard to gain that many points. But you never know. … You’ve got to push the teams down that are below you, and we have to take care of ourselves.”
The non-Olympians on the roster will reconvene for practice next week. The Wild will have to be careful not to lose the momentum they built, with 21 days between games.
“Much the same as out of the lockout, it’s how can you get yourself game ready?” Yeo said. “Making sure that you’re ready to execute and play at the pace that you need to play at, making sure that you’re ready to battle at the level you need to, and making sure that the conditioning is at the level that you need it at.”