ST. PAUL, Minn. — The worry for the Minnesota Wild coming off the Olympic break was continuing the momentum that had seen Minnesota go from out of a playoff position to the wild-card leader in the Western Conference.
The three-week break in February for the Olympics allowed many players to rest, others to recover from injuries. The biggest challenge was re-establishing the success generated from an 11-4-2 run before Minnesota took 21 days off in the middle of the month.
The Wild have returned with three straight wins, building a season-high five-game winning streak with Monday’s 3-2 victory against the Calgary Flames. Minnesota now holds a nine-point advantage over ninth place in the Western Conference and is the wild-card leader by seven points (75 points) over eighth-place Dallas.
"To stack wins right now is important and build as much gap as we can because it’s not going to get any easier for us," said forward Matt Cooke, who assisted on Kyle Brodziak’s second-period goal.
Two days before the NHL trade deadline and with four days off before traveling to play Dallas on Saturday, Minnesota has is generating some cushion between its wild card lead and the teams out of the playoffs.
"I looked at this game as a very important game," coach Mike Yeo said. "We don’t have an opportunity to get points for five days now, so you don’t want to go a week without getting any points the way things are, even if you have a cushion. The cushion to me is nothing, and that’s the thing. It means nothing to me because it’s not about where the people are behind you. To me it’s much more of a race of what you need to get to. We have to make sure we keep pushing to get to the number of points that we need to get."
Even though they just had a three-weak break, the Wild get a mini four-day break before playing at Dallas. Rest will be part of the next few days, but so will be optimizing practice time before a stretch that has Minnesota playing 20 games in the final 37 days of the season beginning Saturday.
"It’s work time for us again," Cooke said. "This is our last real practice time before we are in the playoffs. So, we’re going to have to work and be ready to continue what we’ve built here in the last little while, moving forward."
Zach Parise, who played into the final day of the Olympics with Team USA along with Ryan Suter and Finland’s Mikael Granlund, is looking forward to the rest. Parise, Suter and Granlund returned from the long travel, took a day off practice and were back on the ice.
"It’s really important, not only for us to work on some things, but to get some rest," Parise said of this week’s break. "There’s a lot of teams that have some games in hand on us and we put ourselves in a good spot going into it winning the games that we do have in hand. But I think for a few of us, a couple of us, it will be nice to get a little rest."
One player who isn’t necessarily looking forward to the break is center Mikko Koivu, who made his return from ankle surgery Monday and spent most of the Olympic break resting his ankle before returning to the ice shortly before the Wild’s return.
Koivu said he was more nervous for Monday’s game than he had let on with reporters earlier, but was pleased with his return. He said he felt a bit of pressure in his ankle towards the end of periods and when he sat on the bench between shifts, but felt good on the ice.
Koivu would rather not take a break now that he’s back in the lineup.
"No, for sure not," Koivu said. "But I think it’s good for me though to practice and skate, and get more comfortable again and all that. But I think first game to get out of the way, I think that’s huge and now it’s just more practice and more games and it should get better."
Calgary owns the third-fewest points in the league, but Yeo expected a tough game Monday. He said he knew Minnesota would need to "grind that one out."
Winning a game in a tough manner could be another sign of the momentum built by the surging Wild.
"We’re winning games," Parise said. "Even tonight I don’t think we were at our best. I don’t think we played at a level we need to play. But it doesn’t matter when you look back at the score, we won the game and that’s what important. But I think we need to be better going forward. Like I said, you’ll take wins when you can get them."
And with each win, Minnesota adds to its momentum and its cushion in the West.