ST. PAUL, Minn. The Minnesota Wild returned Monday from the All-Star break refreshed and focused on climbing in the Western Conference standings.
It's amazing what two wins and some rest can do for a team.
After a precipitous fall from the top of the NHL to out of a playoff spot in less than a month, Minnesota recovered by winning two games and entered last week's break in the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
The all-star break perhaps came at the perfect time for the Wild. After Monday's practice, the struggles of late December and early January seemed in the distant past.
"I don't think it's a question of us holding onto it," forward Cal Clutterbuck said of the team's current playoff spot. "It's a question of us climbing the ladder from here. If you look at it that way, if you look at it like we're hanging on, that's not a very good attitude to go win hockey games. We're going to try to climb the ladder and get back to the way we were playing games the first 30 games of the year."
Minnesota (24-18-7) opens the second half at home Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators (30-16-4) and the focus is on the final push to the playoffs. The Wild's 55 points are one better than ninth-place Colorado, while six points separate teams seven though 12.
"This is a fun time to be a hockey player," coach Mike Yeo said. "When you come to the rink and you get to play a game and it matters. Every day it matters. So, I think we should all be well rested here. It was a nice long break and we have to feel good about where we're at this point right now, so let's take advantage of it."
Less than two weeks ago, Minnesota's sudden fall from the top of the NHL hit a low point. A 4-1 loss at Toronto on Jan. 19 finished a stretch where the Wild won only twice in 17 games and earned just eight of a possible 34 points.
Minnesota was the surprise of the NHL in mid-December, leading the league with 43 points under its new coach. Then the Wild slipped so fast, they were out of playoff position by mid-January.
"Mentally the game wears on you almost more than physically," forward Devin Setoguchi said. "When you lose that many games in a row and you're not winning games, mentally it drains on you and you make mistakes and you make errors in the game that makes the whole team not look very good."
During the decline, injuries to captain Mikko Koivu (shoulder) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussion) added to the woes. Another top-six forward, Guillaume Latendresse, has played in just 16 games because of a concussion.
Koivu, who is second on the team with 33 points, skated before Monday's practice and Yeo said its possible Koivu could skate with the team during Tuesday's morning skate, although there is no timetable for his return. Latendresse, who's ninth on the team with five goals despite playing in just 16 games, practiced with the team for the first time since his latest concussion symptoms. Latendresse returned for two games in December, but hasn't played since leaving the Dec. 14 game early.
"I've felt pretty good the last 10, 12 days; started cranking things up," Latendresse said. "Felt good right now, so I think we're going to be patient. At the same time, you want to push it. I need those games to get ready for maybe the last 20, 25 games so if I can get a few in before that and make sure we're ready for the last stretch."
Bouchard has skated on his own but isn't close to returning. Meanwhile, Yeo said Koivu is "much closer" to returning than Latendresse.
"We're just going to play it by ear right now," Yeo said. "Day by day we'll make these decisions, but certainly there's a chance we can bring them in and they're going to need some time getting acclimated to the group again and getting involved in practices and doing things at game speed and executing at that level before they can jump into the lineup. So the quicker we can get them doing that, the better chance we'll have of getting them in and being successful."
The Wild received a shot of energy from the young call-ups in the two wins prior to the break, with rookies Chad Rau and Carson McMillan each scoring their first career goals with game-winners. Minnesota used the most players (37) and most rookies (12) of any team heading into the All-Star break and a return to health by Koivu and Latendresse would be a big boost.
"We're getting guys healthy again," Setoguchi said, crediting the timing of the break. "Gui was out there skating with us again today. It's nice to get guys back and get healthy. I think for the morale for the group, anytime you can get a high-caliber end guy back in the room it brings the morale up a little bit."
Yeo said he would stick with the same lineup Tuesday night that he used in the 3-2 win at Colorado before the break, though Josh Harding would draw the start in goal. Niklas Backstrom would likely start Thursday in Colorado.
Yeo is hoping his team can pick up where it left off in Colorado.
"I guess the one thing is we played two really good games before the break," Yeo said. "Sometimes you wouldn't mind seeing that momentum continue on. But to have the rest that we got and not just physically, but mentally, I think it will give us the ammunition to head down this stretch and really push forward."