Not even two weeks ago the Wild were sitting pretty.
They were entrenched in the third seed in the Central Division, their seven-point buffer from fourth place a reward for the diligent defending and opportunistic offense that prompted their turnaround from a lousy start. Those attributes also made the five-point chasm the other way to the top of the division look not so insurmountable.
Then came moving day.
A three-game sputter coupled with a tear from the competition evicted the Wild from that longtime perch, dropping them completely out of the Western Conference playoff picture for the first time in more than six weeks and into a race that could easily require a photo finish.
Consequently, their first-half accomplishments are now merely the exposition in a season that will be defined by the action that happens when the Wild reconvene after the bye week and All-Star break.
"Every game is going to be amped up," Ryan Reaves said. "Teams are going to be scratching and clawing for points. I think where we're sitting right now, we have to be one of those teams that doesn't take any game lightly or any points lightly because where we're at right now teams can jump us and we can also jump some teams.
"We've got to start climbing."
To their credit, the Wild have already done that.
They botched the beginning of their season, an 0-3 blunder made worse by the league-high 20 goals they surrendered in those games.
As if that wasn't enough evidence that the Wild had evolved from the previous team that assembled the most successful regular season in franchise history, their scoring woes made the change abundantly clear.
That issue popped up right after the Wild finally pulled the welcome mat from their crease, a new dilemma after the 2021-22 lineup racked up more goals than any of its predecessors.
But then that problem also disappeared.
"Our guys did a good job of not letting it get too extreme," General Manager Bill Guerin said.
The acquisition of Reaves in a November trade with the Rangers was supposed to provide a jolt, and the Wild responded accordingly.
After finishing a seven-game homestand with five victories, they cruised through December thanks to the momentum of a season-long six-game winning streak.
They stuck to the style that suits this roster, and that's a stingy defense combined with a savvy offense.
"We are aware that our identity is to be a strong defensive team first and that's how we win our games," Frederick Gaudreau said. "We know that our offensive opportunities come from being solid defensively."
Although this strategy is apparent, the Wild have still occasionally deviated from it.
That's why they suffered a pair of three-game dips in January, the most recent lull the one that bumped them from a playoff spot for the first time since Dec. 9. But back-to-back victories last week against Philadelphia (overtime) and Buffalo (shootout) lifted the Wild (27-17-4) back into third in the Central Division before their hiatus.
"Every point counts right now," Mats Zuccarello said. "One day you're in; one day you're out. You're going to go through stages and surges in the season where the puck doesn't bounce your way."
With that recovery, the Wild improved their goals-against average (2.83), their defense ranking just outside the NHL's top 10; factor out the first week-plus, and the Wild have the third-best goals-against average in the league since Oct. 29 at 2.59. As for the offense, that's in middle-of-the-pack territory at 3.06 goals per game.
Their special teams have also rebounded.
After both units faltered last season, the Wild's power play (24.2%) is much more consistent; same with a penalty kill (79.6%) that's tied for the second-most shorthanded goals in the NHL with eight.
Goaltending has been steady, too, and not just Marc-Andre Fleury (16-10-3).
Newcomer Filip Gustavsson, who was acquired in the Cam Talbot trade with Ottawa, had the Wild's best breakout performance of the first half: His results are the reason why the team has deployed an approximate 60-40 split in net.
Since Nov. 19, when Gustavsson posted his second victory after starting 1-4-1, he has gone 10-3 while tying for the lowest goals-against average (1.85) and boasting the third-highest save percentage (.933) among netminders who have logged at least eight games.
"The goaltending has been extremely strong since the first four games," Guerin said.
Up front, Kirill Kaprizov continues to lead the way, his 59 points (27 goals and 32 assists) in the league's top 15.
Zuccarello (19-29-48) is on track for another career year, and so is Joel Eriksson Ek (18-22-40). Matt Boldy, who signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension earlier this month, is up to 16 goals, which is already more than he had last season when he shined as a rookie alongside 30-goal scorer Kevin Fiala before Fiala was traded to Los Angeles in the offseason.
Four other players have at least 20 points and another six are in double digits, depth production that reinforces the timely scoring that's helped the Wild eke out on-brand wins.
"We have players that have good offensive capabilities," Guerin said. "There's Kirill on the high end of it, but the other guys can all contribute. They're all the same type of player that won't do it unless they're playing extremely hard and gritty. When they play like that, then their talents come out even more."
Against a deadline
While this is "a pretty good team" to Guerin, he still has an opportunity to make adjustments.
The NHL trade deadline is March 3, and the Wild have money to spend before another severe salary-cap crunch in the summer induced by the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts.
Still, the Wild haven't frequently brought in rentals under Guerin's leadership, and that might be all they can afford considering their looming pinch. Even when he was an active shopper last year, Guerin re-signed two of the Wild's pickups (Fleury and Jake Middleton) and didn't lose Tyson Jost (waivers) until this season; Nic Deslauriers was the only addition to leave.
Guerin could also trade Matt Dumba, who is set to reach unrestricted free agency when his current five-year, $30 million deal expires in the offseason.
But Dumba is still a top-four defenseman on the Wild despite being a healthy scratch recently, and his exit would leave a gaping hole on the blue line unless the Wild land a comparable player.
"I don't want to make our team worse," Guerin said. "Matt's a good player. I don't care what's going on right now and the fact he's been out two games in a row. Matt's still a good player. I've always said I like Matt. My job is to make us at the very least the same, not worse."
Resuming the race
Regressing certainly wouldn't help the Wild hold their ground in this push to the playoffs.
Yes, they regained third place in the Central ahead of their layoff, but they did so by leapfrogging defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado by only a point. Nashville also isn't too far behind and St. Louis may be further back, but the Blues are tough to discount because of their pedigree. (Only the first three seeds in the division receive an automatic playoff berth.)
As for the wild-card outlook, the Wild's 58 points would barely get them into the second and final spot.
These margins weren't always so specific, but that's the tightrope the Wild are now walking.
How well they keep their balance will decide the team's fate.
"Our group is extremely aware of where we're at and what we're doing," coach Dean Evason said, "and how we need to do it to move forward."