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Wild exit holiday break knowing playoff push starts now

Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau looks on during the third period against the Vancouver Canucks at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Oct. 24, 2017. Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal (12) argues with referee John McIsaac (2) during the third period against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., on Dec. 23, 2017. Reinhold Matay / USA TODAY Sports2 / 2

ST. PAUL — A couple weeks ago the Wild were the hottest team in the NHL. An impressive 2-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 14 was their fourth win in a row, and they had the most points in the league over a five-week span.

Since then, the Wild have lost four of five, including two in a row last week in Florida, leading up to a much-needed, three-day Christmas break.

"I think Christmas break comes at a good time for us," goaltender Alex Stalock said after the 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, Dec. 23. "We have three days to go home and rest and get away from the game a little bit. ... Sometimes that's the best thing."

Next up for the Wild (18-15-3) is a pivotal three-game stretch against a pair of Central Division opponents. It starts Wednesday' against the Dallas Stars at the Xcel Energy Center followed by a home-and-home series with the Nashville Predators on Friday and Saturday.

Simply put, things could look a lot different for the Wild by the end of the week, for better or for worse.

"Hopefully (we) understand that we need a playoff push here immediately," center Matt Cullen said. "It can go the other way just as quick. We need to come back here with that urgency that our playoff push has to start immediately. ... It's been tough here lately. It's important that we all understand how urgent it is when we get back."

As of Wednesday morning, the Wild were sitting in sixth place in the seven-team Central Division, and one point back of the final Western Conference playoff spot with 39 points. They haven't been able to gain any traction this season, playing very well for prolonged stretches, while also finding ways to blow games with regularity.

To this point, the Wild have lost 10 games in which they were tied or held a lead in the third period, which equates to 17 points left on the table.

"There's things that we need to do better here, starting with myself," center Mikko Koivu said. "We have to be better. That's the bottom line. If (we're) not, then this happens. It's a matter of being consistent in this league if we want to be a good team. ... We haven't been able to do that so far this season, so we've got to find it fast."

The eventual return of winger Zach Parise, goaltender Devan Dubnyk, and winger Nino Niederreiter will help. Parise has missed the entire season so far after having back surgery a couple months ago, Dubnyk has missed the past six games with a lower-body injury, and Niederreiter is nursing a recent lower-body injury.

Those injuries, coupled with wingers Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, and defenseman Jared Spurgeon missing some time because of injuries, have added up to 87 total man games lost.

Perhaps the fact that the Wild still haven't trotted out their full roster and are still in the hunt in the Western Conference is a good sign moving forward.

"We think of ourselves (as a top team) to be real honest," Cullen said. "We haven't played to that level yet. We feel like we can get there. I don't know that there's any moral victories right now. I think it's a matter of we need to find a way to get two points on a regular basis."

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