ST. PAUL — Bruce Boudreau watched the Wild fall behind the dreadful Detroit Red Wings by a goal during the first period on Wednesday night at Xcel Energy Center and began to fear the worst. After suffering a brutal late loss to Florida on Monday, the desperate Wild couldn’t afford a repeat against the NHL’s worst team. Not with a nine-day break coming up.
Instead of melting down on his team after those opening 20 minutes, Boudreau put things as simply as he possibly could to his players. “I just said, ‘This game meant nothing to Detroit but it means the world to us,'” Boudreau told his team. “That was the big thing is that this game was so important to us. Taking nothing away from Detroit, but where they are positioned in the standings it didn’t really mean anything other than pride for them.”
The Red Wings have returned to their 1980s Dead Wings ways, so Boudreau was absolutely right. Detroit entered Wednesday’s game with an NHL-low 28 points, putting them 13 points behind the two next worst teams (Los Angeles and New Jersey) in the league. The Wild, meanwhile, needed the two points to pull within five points of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
Boudreau could relax and smile as he relayed what he had said because the Wild did string together a long enough stretch of competent play to come away with a 4-2 victory. Three goals in the second period, including goals by Mats Zuccarello and Jason Zucker 1 minute, 7 seconds apart early in the frame, proved to be the difference. The Wild outshot the Red Wings 15-5 in the middle period, before falling back asleep and getting outshot 11-6 in the third.
Boudreau wasn’t about to concern himself with the details, not on this night. Not after he got a scare when Detroit’s Filip Zadina was credited with two first-period goals that were knocked past goalie Devan Dubnyk by teammates Joel Eriksson Ek and Jared Spurgeon, respectively. All Boudreau was focused on was the fact his team had leaped over Nashville (52 points to 51) and pulled within two points of Winnipeg and Chicago, the first two teams outside a wild card spot.
The NHL will begin its break for this weekend’s All-Star Game on Thursday and then the Wild will have time off for their bye week. Minnesota won’t return to the ice until it plays host to the Boston Bruins on Feb. 1 in a game that will continue a seven-game homestand and 11 of 12 at the X. The Wild started the stretch with victories over Tampa Bay and Dallas before suffering a 5-4 loss on Monday night against Florida. The Wild held a late one-goal lead in that game before Florida scored twice in the final 4:08 and got the winner with 5.6 seconds remaining.
“I was counting on four wins (before the break) and that’s why I was probably so disappointed the other night,” Boudreau said. “Winnipeg lost again (Wednesday to Columbus) so we’re all jumbled in there. I know you have to jump more than one team, but if you have a good two weeks (you are) capable of doing it cause a lot of teams are playing each other. If it falls the right way, things can work out. I’m the eternal optimist and never think it’s out of reach or anything is out of reach. You just keep going.”
The Wild’s 1-6 start has had them playing catch up all season long and every point has become precious. The loss to Florida felt devastating but a loss to a team as putrid as the Red Wings would have felt like a fatal blow.
The next nine days will be very interesting to see if first-year general manager Bill Guerin and Boudreau are on the same page. Boudreau is in the final season of his coaching contract and likely needs a playoff berth to give himself the best chance of returning in 2020-21.
Guerin is under zero pressure and, because trades can be made during this break, he could look to make a move. Reports continue to swirl that Guerin’s former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have interest in winger Jason Zucker, who scored his 14th goal on Wednesday. It’s also interesting that center Victor Rask, never a Boudreau favorite, continues to see substantial playing time on the second line.
If the Wild does make the playoffs, it’s almost certainly going to be as the eighth seed and their postseason appearance figures to be short. Guerin has to know this and, thus, his best move is to build for the future. Boudreau, though, is one of the top coaches in the NHL and has the ability to get points out of his teams.
With the Wild having won three of four on this homestand, after going through a 1-5-1 stretch, Boudreau headed into the break confident his team will return ready to make a run.
“I think they’re going to put a push on” he said. “We’ve been pretty resilient … you take away the first seven games of the year. We seem to play, other than Pittsburgh, pretty good against the good teams. If we’re healthy, I’m liking a lot of the fits right now. The idea, though, is for us to win we need 19 guys. “We don’t have Connor McDavid if 17 guys aren’t going and taking nothing away from our players. I love it when you’ve got everybody playing and everybody contributing which seems like, other than Luke Kunin’s two-goal effort the other night, every line seems to score. I think you can really win that way.”
The Wild will have 32 regular-season games remaining when they return to prove Boudreau right. Is Guerin prepared to be that patient with this current group? That’s a question that plenty of guys who are about to go on vacation might be asking themselves as they sip drinks and enjoy the sunshine.