NHL: Wild focusing on small steps up steep climb
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Wild went 3-0 on last week's road trip through Western Canada and now have the scheduling fortune of playing five of their next six at home as they try to claw their way back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
MINNEAPOLIS - The Wild went 3-0 on last week’s road trip through Western Canada and now have the scheduling fortune of playing five of their next six at home as they try to claw their way back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
Yet like nearly everything else this season, playing at home has been a struggle for Minnesota. The Wild are 11-7-5 at Xcel Energy Center this season, and 2-3-1 in their past six home games.
“We are going to have to turn into homers, because we can’t afford to not be good on home ice,” winger Zach Parise said.
The Wild’s cruise through Canada marked the first time this season they have won three straight games in regulation, and won consecutive games at Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver for just the second time in franchise history.
Now they’re back to face the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday.
“Guys are concentrating on their own responsibilities, and a lot of aspects of our game have gotten better,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Our defensive zone has gotten better. We are cutting down the amount of chances that we are giving up.”
Goalie Devan Dubnyk was named the NHL’s third star of the week after going 3-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .967 save percentage. His strong play helped the Wild take early leads in all three games.
“Him giving us the opportunity to get the first goal in those games, especially on the road, was very important,” Yeo said.
As the Wild try to rally from 12th place in the Western Conference to a top-eight playoff spot, winning the first period has become the mantra.
They led in two of the three road games after the opening 20 minutes.
“We still have a long ways to go and pretty steep climb, but you break it down into winning the first period of the game,” said Parise, whose first-period goal was enough in Thursday’s 1-0 win over the Flames.
Parise gave credit to Dubnyk, especially for the Calgary game.
“He was great in all three of the games,” Parise said. “Probably might have stolen that one for us in Calgary (a 1-0 victory) and big saves again in Vancouver. He was really on his game.”
Yeo plans on riding Dubnyk, who, he said, has given the team a “huge boost confidence-wise.” And the coach isn’t worried about managing his workload, which stands at 26 games this season and 119 minutes and 57 seconds in the three games on the road trip.
“It’s not like he has played 50 games this year,” Yeo said. “I don’t think we are even at a point where we need to be concerned about (his workload) right now. We are coming out of the all-star break, and he had a nice long break there. Our schedule is very fair right now for him to continue to play.”
After a trade from Arizona, Dubnyk said his confidence level with teammates has increased in each game he has played. In seven straight starts for the Wild, Dubnyk is 5-1 with a 1.71 GAA.
“The structure is so good, and the guys work so hard in all three zones,” Dubnyk said. “We are real good in supporting each other in our end, and also the neutral zone.”
When the Wild were struggling, Yeo asked them to refrain from looking at the standings. Now that their play has improved, he hopes they don’t sneak a peek.
“We had to make sure that we asked the guys coming out of the break not to look behind us and dwell on the things that happened in the past,” Yeo said. “And similarly, we have to make sure we are not doing that on the opposite side of the spectrum.”
New goalie Devan Dubnyk has received a lot of credit for the Wilds improved play in the past two weeks, but the return of center Mikael Granlund has helped.
Out for four weeks because of a broken left wrist, the top-six forward also was a key member of the power-play and penalty-kill units.
“He is very responsible player defensively and very sound in his own zone,” Yeo said. “Makes a big difference for us.”
Granlund had two assists in Sunday’s 4-2 win at Vancouver, one on Jared Spurgeon’s power-play goal in the second period.
On Sunday, Yeo put Granlund between Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. That allowed him to use Mikko Koivu to center Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker.
“He has played really well after taking four weeks off,” Parise said.
In Granlund’s absence, Koivu, Parise and Pominville played together.
“They did a terrific job for us, but that said, it made you a little bit thinner somewhere else,” Yeo said. “Now we believe that we have a little bit more scoring depth.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter came out of Sunday’s game against Vancouver without aggravating his undisclosed injury. ... Winger Justin Fontaine is doubtful for Tuesday’s home game against Chicago because of a groin injury, Yeo said.
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