ST. PAUL, Minn. — The expectation was that things would be different for the Minnesota Wild this season. A team that has missed the playoffs for four straight years was the NHL’s offseason darling, courtesy of the matching 13-year contracts given to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Then something happened on the way to the Stanley Cup parade. Minnesota felt the weight of those hefty expectations early in the season as the team with more than 40 percent turnover struggled to win games and score goals.
Meanwhile, the Wild faithful were panicking. Some wondered if coach Mike Yeo was the right fit. The lines were a constant experiment, and Minnesota was hovering outside of the Western Conference playoff picture.
But Yeo could see signs of slow, steady change. This Wild team is different than the groups that have missed the playoffs, and it’s different largely because of its own expectations.
“I think the word expectations is something that we have to be careful of,” Yeo said. “Because when we started playing our best hockey, our expectations turned from results and wins and losses to our expectations of playing hard and playing a certain way every night. That’s what we have to make sure we continue to do here. We’ve had a nice run, but games are going to continue to get harder and we have to make sure that we continue to get better as a team. Having said that, we like the direction that we’re going. We felt that things were trending upwards a couple weeks ago. We felt like we were going in this direction. Now we have to make sure we continue to do it.”
Minnesota has shown just in the past week how far it’s come from those early-season struggles. The Wild are 13-5-1 since Feb. 9 and have climbed to the Northwest Division lead. Minnesota returns home Sunday against the San Jose Sharks after sweeping a three-game road trip. On Monday, the Wild won in Vancouver for the first time since 2009. Two nights later, they earned their first regulation win in Detroit in 14 games.
With each victory, the players’ mental approach has transformed from hoping to win to expecting to win.
“That’s a big thing,” Suter said. “That’s how teams that have had success like Detroit, Pittsburgh, those types of teams that have won, they expect to win every game. And it’s tough to get that confidence when you’re young and you haven’t really had that much success. I think for us, now that we’re going into every game expecting it, it says a lot about our team and it will help our team going forward.”
Once the second-lowest-scoring team in the league, Minnesota has 18 goals in its past four games to go along with one of the league’s top defenses. Suter, who endured a rough adjustment with his new team, now has 24 points and 22 assists, both second among defenseman in the NHL, and is being talked about as a candidate for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. His defensive partner, 19-year-old Jonas Brodin, is the youngest defenseman in the league and is receiving recognition for the Calder Trophy for the league’s rookie of the year.
Forward Devin Setoguchi, who didn’t have a goal in the first 10 games this season, has scored 11 goals in 19 games to tie Parise for the team lead after being mentioned in trade rumors earlier this season.
A team with plenty of skill is now matching that skill with confidence.
“That’s the thing that you can’t just get by coming into a team and you can’t just get by signing some new guys like we did,” center Matt Cullen said of Minnesota’s confidence. “It’s something you have to earn by playing together and playing well together, and we’re starting to get that.”
The Wild are not only different from past teams but also from the season’s first month to now.
“I think that it’s grown with every win that we’ve had,” said Cullen, who owns a six-game point streak. “There’s nothing like winning to instill some confidence in your team. We’ve worked real hard at it and we’ve improved as a team.
“You look at where we are now compared to where we were at the beginning of the season and we’re significantly better. And that’s the mindset that we took to it: We’ve got to continue to improve and continue to work at it. We have enough good pieces in here, so if we do that we’re going to be a very good team, and we’re starting to get to that point.”
Yeo can appreciate the swagger that’s developed. Like the veteran Cullen, he preached caution and the need to continue working.
“They’ve earned it,” Yeo said. “They’re working hard. They’re playing hard. They’re playing for each other. But having said that, you want to keep that swagger. It’s something that was mentioned last game that when you become a good team and you have that, there’s also you’re committed to doing it every night now. That’s the mentality that you have to have, that there is an understanding of, ‘OK, that’s good. We are good. But now we have to continue to make sure we do that every night.'”
If that happens, the expectations will only continue to grow.