ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Hockey might be the streakiest of all the major professional sports, a mystery exemplified no better than by the Minnesota Wild this season.
One month ago, they were a self-defeating mess summed up succinctly at the time by All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter: “I don’t know what the heck is going on. Every day’s a bad day.”
Buoyed by the acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk, the Wild have now gone 9-1-2 in their last 12 games to zoom back into contention for the playoffs. Their record was third-worst in the Western Conference on Jan. 14, with a 2-8-4 mark in their previous 14 games, the day they traded for Dubnyk. Now they’re in ninth place, one spot out.
The contrast in confidence cannot be overstated.
“You learn to win in every different kind of way and every different kind of situation,” Dubnyk said after a 2-1 win over Florida on Thursday. “We’ve been doing that through this run here, and it just makes you feel like going into every game like you can win every game. That’s a fun way to play hockey. That’s a really nice feeling, and we’re going to hold onto it and keep working to keep that feeling.”
So what’s the difference with this team that advanced to the second round last spring and returned with the experience, talent and potential to make another run?
Well, Dubnyk has been nothing but brilliant, starting all 12 games in the net since his arrival in a trade with Arizona and allowing only 17 goals. The old NHL adage about a hot goalie being a team’s best asset has never been truer here.
Dubnyk has deftly controlled rebounds and played loose pucks, while freezing them at the right times to give the thriving penalty kill unit a rest. In eight games since the All-Star break, covering 22 power plays by their opponents, the Wild have not allowed a goal while playing short-handed. The penalty killers and the net-minder have been playing off of each other.
“I think the further we go in the season, the 5-on-5 is going to get tougher and tougher,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “Teams are tight. Teams know how to play their systems, so special teams are huge.”
The power play group, while ranked 26th in the league at a scoring rate of a mere 16.1 percent, has been sharper lately, too. With depth on the wings depleted by long-term injuries to Jason Zucker, Matt Cooke and Ryan Carter, the Koivu-centered first line of Zach Parise and Jason Pominville has found a rhythm at a critical time.
“I think it’s going to be a collective effort. I don’t think it’s going to be one or two guys that are going to come in and make a difference,” said Pominville, who scored in each of the last three games. “Everyone is going to have to step up and play bigger roles.”
For all the strides they’ve made, the Wild are staring at a daunting final stretch.
They’re a mere two points out of the second wild card slot, but with 28 games to go there’s a long time left to maintain this rhythm. There are teams right behind them, including defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, to fend off as well as those in front of them to catch.
Coach Mike Yeo, ever the cautionary authority, has been trying to pump the brakes on the excitement while still complimenting the effort.
“Obviously you want to be confident and you want to have the attitude when you … believe that if you play the game the right way then you’ll get rewarded,” Yeo said, “but if you start going over the line a little bit, there’s a difference between confident and cocky. We have to make sure we stay confident.”
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