Feeling Minnesota: Wild’s newcomers excited about playoff prospects

Newcomers Matt Moulson (left) and Cody McCormick should add valuable veteran grit to the Wild as the postseason nears.  

Timothy Ludwig, Kevin Hoffman/Timothy Ludwig, Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

EDINA, Minn. — While directing a spirited, high-energy practice Thursday afternoon at Braemer Arena in Edina, Wild coach Mike Yeo noticed a little more psychological zest sprinkled throughout his club.

Comfortably leading the Western Conference’s wild card standings and winning its past five contests, Minnesota’s collective enthusiasm for a second straight playoff push was already high. But the addition of some auxiliary help this week makes for an even more refreshed group, Yeo said.

Now, they know exactly who will be along for the late-season ride.

General manager Chuck Fletcher’s second consecutive year of trade-deadline maneuvering brought in a trio of new faces — all of whom Yeo believes make his team better off than it was even before winning 14 of 21 to get back in the playoff chase following a six-game losing streak in December. They may not be around long, but they’ll be relied upon to make the next few months memorable in the State of Hockey.

"Obviously, guys are excited," Yeo said. "We felt really good about our team and where we were at going into this trade deadline, and obviously, we feel that we’re a stronger team now."

Thursday at the home of Edina’s high school hockey program — the Wild were displaced from the Xcel Energy Center due to Minnesota’s prep pucks championships — Yeo saw the completed puzzle in place for the first time.

The beauty of the image, though, is up to Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick and Ilya Bryzgalov and their new teammates.

Goals and Grit

Teammates in Buffalo since an October trade sent Moulson from the Islanders to the Sabres, he and McCormick were sitting side-by-side Wednesday when they got the news.

It first came via a message from old teammate Jason Pominville, whom Fletcher nabbed from Buffalo at last year’s deadline. The Wild’s leading scorer wished to welcome both of them to Minnesota.

Both former Sabres forwards first had to check with their agents, then realized they were being shipped to the Twin Cities in exchange for Torrey Mitchell, a 2014 second-round pick and a 2016 second-round pick. The next morning, they were in Edina prepping for their first workout in Wild red and white.

Moulson said he had a pretty good idea he was going to be moved before the deadline.

"Whenever you have change in your life for yourself and for your family, it’s obviously a process," Moulson said. "I was more ready for this one, and it made it a little easier, I guess, mentally."

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It’s been an especially crazy season for Moulson, who joins his third team since training camps opened in the fall. The 6-foot, 205-pound left wing spent the previous four seasons in New York, playing all 82 games and scoring 30 or more goals each year from 2009-12.

Thursday, he skated with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle on the Wild’s top line and No. 1 power play unit.

"Always a guy that you just notice every game," said Yeo, who coached against Moulson frequently when Yeo was an assistant in Pittsburgh. "He finds a way to be a factor in and around the net and has the ability to put the puck in the net, but obviously, there’s more to his game than that. He’s a hard-working guy; I think he’s gonna fit the identity that we have here."

But before he can do that, the 30-year-old Moulson could use some shuteye.

"After waking up at 5 a.m. and flying, I’m pretty happy there’s no game tonight," said Moulson, a North York, Ontario native who’s accumulated 262 points in 377 NHL games. "I’ll be pretty excited to get out there, but I think tonight will probably be my best sleep in about three weeks. I’m looking forward to that first."

The same goes for McCormick, who flew in with Moulson early Thursday morning. While Moulson adds some scoring punch to the upper tier of the NHL’s fourth-worst offense, McCormick brings some size and strength to its fourth line.

That’s where the 6-3, 221-pounder spent Thursday’s practice, working alongside Dany Heatley and Erik Haula.

Yeo said McCormick, who’s scored just 19 goals in 358 games spread across nine NHL campaigns, will likely play Saturday at Dallas. "I’m excited to see what he can do," Yeo said.

McCormick fits the definition of a grinder, known for his tough, physical play since his days as a London, Ontario youngster.

"My game is a lot of grit, a lot of body contact," McCormick said. "I like to play an in-your-face kind of style. I think that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career."

‘Humongous Big’

Thanks to HBO and a beautiful thing called the Internet, Bryzgalov became as notorious for his distinctly goofy persona off the ice as he did for stopping pucks on it. Among his viral portfolio from the series "24/7" chronicling the Flyers’ run-up to the 2012 Winter Classic are clips of him comparing his Siberian husky to a "hot blonde" woman and waxing philosophical on the "humungous big" universe.

Yeo didn’t go quite as far in characterizing the Wild’s present goaltending situation, but did say it’s improved considerably with the low-cost — nothing but a fourth-round draft pick — acquisition of the guy they call "Bryz," from Edmonton on Tuesday. Bryzgalov signed with the Oilers as a free agent in November.

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With Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding almost certainly done for the season’s remainder, Minnesota needed a solid second option behind Darcy Kuemper. The 23-year-old has started a franchise-rookie-record 15 straight games since Jan. 7, winning all but two of them and posting a 1.70 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.

"Kemps (Kuemper) has really stepped up, but we needed some protection there," Yeo said. "To get a guy like that, a guy of that caliber, a guy who can come in and not only give you minutes, but win hockey games for you, we’re excited about that."

The incumbent netminder himself said he’s just fine with having a night off here and there during the Wild’s stretch run.

"If you look at the schedule, it’s pretty condensed here, so I’m sure we’re both gonna play," Kuemper said.

The important starts will most likely keep going to Kuemper. In 20 games with Edmonton, Bryzgalov went 5-8-5 with a 3.01 goals-against and .908 save percentage.

Bryzgalov himself didn’t offer up much by way of viral gold during his first meeting with Twin Cities media. Instead, the Russian 33-year-old said he’s happy to be in yet another market that puts such a premium on hockey.

"I came here to work and work hard and bring the best of me to help the team have the best success," said Bryzgalov, who arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday night. "It’s a great opportunity to be part of this organization, who put in front of themselves big goals and most important, that we buy into achieve them goals."

As for the quirks revealed on "24/7" and many an interaction with the Philadelphia and Edmonton media?

"Depends on the person; somebody likes it, somebody not," Bryzgalov said. "There was something crazy on that show that was to bring me all that media glory. I saw it a couple times; that was nothing special."

Home stretch

With its three most recent additions in the fold, Minnesota embarks on a stretch of 20 games in 37 days Saturday at Dallas. Another postseason appearance would be the Wild’s second straight since snapping a four-year drought during last year’s lockout-shortened go-round.

Thanks to one of the league’s top defenses and surprisingly sound goaltending from Kuemper, they were already rolling toward that crescendo before this week’s flurry of activity.

But Yeo contends they’re in even better shape moving forward.

"I think we were all comfortable with our group," Yeo said after practice Thursday. "If nothing happened, then we would’ve come here today, and I’m sure we would’ve had a great practice, and everybody would’ve still felt good.

"But we like where we stand right now."

Aligning with Fletcher’s desires to keep future cap space and personnel options open, Moulson, McCormick and Bryzgalov will be unrestricted free agents whenever Minnesota’s season comes to a close. That could render them as nothing more than loaners when it’s all said and done.

But that doesn’t limit their place in the dressing room, cornerstone winger Zach Parise said. If anything, it accentuates it.

"You just try and make them feel comfortable, let them feel at home," Parise said of his new comrades. "That’s the reason you got him, is to play the way he plays; not be somebody else."

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