Six straight losses to end December sunk the Minnesota Wild out of a playoff spot. They were without Zach Parise and Josh Harding, and lost Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon early in January. Their coach, Mike Yeo, was hearing the speculation and reports about being replaced.
A team seemingly on the brink of crumbling was faced with a crucial push before the Olympic break without two pieces of its top line, its top goaltender and a top-4 defenseman.
No problem, right?
"Ah, it was a piece of cake," Yeo joked last week. "I slept like a baby."
The humor and relief was easy to see on Yeo’s face. The once-embattled coach is more at ease these days with a month of hindsight behind him. Minnesota entered this week’s Olympic break on an 11-4-2 run since the calendar turned to 2014 and has placed itself solidly in the playoff picture with 23 games remaining in the regular season.
Parise and Spurgeon returned and the Wild went into the break on the strength of two home wins last week and own the sixth-best point total in the Western Conference (31-21-7 record, 69 points). With each division getting three playoff teams in this season’s new format, Minnesota is five points ahead of Dallas and Vancouver for the top Wild Card spot.
Yeo talked about how the Wild got over their December swoon and injuries to key players to resurrect their season.
"For me personally, all I wanted to do is I wanted our players to look at me and say, ‘OK, he’s got confidence. OK, well, we should have confidence,’" Yeo said. "That was the one thing that I wanted. And I did believe in the group that we had still. And I did believe in the game that we played. If we were able to go out and do that, we’re a stronger team than the sum of its parts. And we believed that we could go out and everybody was going to play hard for each other and we could still overcome that."
Minnesota more than overcame the struggles and the injuries. It prospered through them with a team-wide effort and the emergence of rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who started 12 straight games into the break, a franchise rookie record.
The Wild earned points in eight of their last 10 games before the break (6-2-2).
"I think we’ve done a good job of dealing with some injuries that we’ve had and I think we’re going in the right direction," Parise said. "There’s still a lot of room that we can get better at. But yeah, I think we’re playing pretty well. You can always be better, but, like I said this morning, I think we’ve improved in areas that we needed to improve in. I do think that there’s still some room for us to get better."
Does Parise worry about losing momentum during the league’s two week-plus break?
"Whether you go into the break winning, you don’t want to stop the momentum," Parise said. "Or whether you go in the break losing, you want to try and snap it. So, there’s never a good time to have a break, but I think for us to win our last game, it’s just a better feeling going into the break winning the last one."
While Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter traveled around the world to play in the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, other Minnesota players thought of traveling as well.
Several players had vacations planned with family, while some were traveling together. Others were excited to get the chance to go home and spend time with family.
"This is our life and this is the best thing, we love doing this," said forward Charlie Coyle, who was planning to go back to East Weymouth, Mass. "But it’s nice to get away and recharge the batteries a little bit and see the family. I don’t get to see them a lot during the year and just friends and just go home, I love that."
Jason Pominville was considered a possibility to play in the Olympics for Team USA. He knew the chances were unlikely and he’s looking forward to a vacation with his family.
"Throughout the whole thing, even though your name’s thrown out there, I knew it was probably a long shot," Pominville said. "I kind of figured from the start that their mind was set and they had their team planned ahead of time. It didn’t really change anything to my plans. I was kind of figuring out what we were going to do and try to get some rest and get ready for the final stretch."
The break is a welcome chance to recover and unwind.
"I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of the mental break," defenseman Keith Ballard said. "We’re playing good hockey right now, too. But that doesn’t mean a little break and a chance to refresh and recharge, it doesn’t mean we can’t come right back and keep playing good hockey."
Injuries are still a consideration. Koivu pulled out of the Olympics as he rehabs from ankle surgery. Defenseman Marco Scandella has time to recover from a right knee sprain and Yeo said Jason Zucker was set to have a "minor procedure."
Rookie forward Erik Haula was reassigned to Iowa of the American Hockey League to keep playing and build on his strong start with the Wild.
The Wild will return to practice on Feb. 19, giving them a week before returning to play at Edmonton on Feb. 27. Yeo said he will plan on some 3-on-3 style work to increase the competition level during the return.
"Much the same as out of the lockout, it’s how can you get yourself game ready," Yeo said. "Making sure that you’re ready to execute and play at the pace that you need to play at, making sure that you’re ready to battle at the level you need to, and making sure that the conditioning is at the level that you need it at. So those are going to be key parts for us."
The week back allows for players to take full advantage of the first part of the two weeks and mostly get away from hockey. Minnesota’s players felt the timing of the break was beneficial and will help heading into the final 23-game stretch.
"I think it will be a good break for everybody," Ballard said. "The unfortunate part for every team is it’s your guys who play the big minutes and the big roles that aren’t going to get the time off. They’re the ones who probably need it the most. That’s going to be the same for every team around the league. Your best players are the ones going to the Olympics and they’re going to be the ones through this part of the season (that) have been carrying the load for you. You like to see those guys get a break but that’s what happens when you’re good."