DENVER – Back in 2013 when the Wild’s run of five consecutive playoff berths began, the Wild had to win its final game in Colorado to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot.
On Thursday, the Wild plays its penultimate game of the regular season in the same site, yet players are a lot more stress-free with a lot less on the line.
Home-ice advantage in the first round is secured, as is the second seed in the Central Division. A couple more wins, and the Wild could secure home ice in the conference final — if it’s so lucky to advance that far.
But most important, the Wild would love nothing more than to stay healthy these final two mostly meaningless games.
So on Wednesday, coach Bruce Boudreau was weighing the balance between possibly resting a couple of veteran bodies vs. not taking the proverbial foot off the gas now that the team, with points in five of its past six games, has turned the tide, players say, on a dreadful month of hockey.
“Every time I’ve coached a team and you start resting guys, everybody relaxes and it’s hard to get it back,” Boudreau said. “You want to keep your good habits and you want to make sure you’re playing the right way. Because once you don’t play the right way, it’s hard to get back to doing that stuff.”
Of course, oftentimes, this is easier said than done. In 2014 when the Wild closed the regular season at home against the Nashville Predators, it lost 7-3. Players, consciously or subconsciously, refused to get in shooting lanes and Ilya Bryzgalov was literally waving at pucks.
These are never easy games.
“You have to keep in mind you want to play good hockey going into the playoffs, and you can never play to not get hurt,” said Zach Parise, who missed last season’s playoffs after aggravating a back injury in Game 81. “You don’t want to put yourself in a vulnerable position, but you can’t let yourself play the game thinking about not getting hurt.
“But we want to make sure that we’re doing the right things, that our power play is working well, that we’re playing well without the puck, just so those things flow into the playoffs.”
A few weeks ago when the Wild was in the midst of its March struggles, Boudreau said the original plan was to rest such veterans as Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal, Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter and Parise by giving them sporadic games off.
Those plans changed as the Wild battled to get some victories and rediscover its game. Now that the team’s starting to play better and Boudreau’s starting to settle in on lines like Nino Niederreiter-Staal-Parise, it seems players would prefer not to sit either of these final two games.
“At this point, for me, I feel like whatever they want, I’ll do,” Staal said. “But I feel good. For us as a line, it would be nice to continue to keep working on that mojo and chemistry we seem to have going. You want to keep that going.”
Even though the Wild has faced a couple of down-and-out teams lately, it is starting to resemble the Wild of earlier this season. Players are on their toes, all over the puck, playing fast and scoring goals at the tune of 3.50 per game the past six games with an 11.86 shooting percentage.
Left wing Jason Zucker, who missed the past three games with a lower body injury, will return at Colorado. He played on a line with pal Charlie Coyle and Martin Hanzal during Wednesday’s practice with Pominville sliding to the fourth line. Erik Haula remained with Koivu and Mikael Granlund
“Teams that are out of the playoffs always, I don’t know, it seems like they always play a little bit differently and things like that,” Koivu said. “We have had to win in every situation the last couple games here. You go into the games and we have to win. Now that it’s locked into second place, we’ll see. There are still two more games to go. We are healthy right now. That’s a good thing.
“We will see what the coaches come up with.”
Staff Writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this report.