SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Life is full of opportunities. And as the “on the bubble” Minnesota Wild head into a five-game homestand, they know that their opportunity to make some real headway in the playoff race is now. It begins on Thursday, when the Arizona Coyotes visit Xcel Energy Center.
For the Coyotes, who are practically, but not mathematically, out of the playoff race, the last two months of the season represent a learning opportunity for a young team trying to find its way in the Western Conference and build for the future.
“We’ve got 29 (games) to go here,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said after his team’s one-goal loss in Winnipeg on Tuesday. “If we go out and play like we did tonight and play with the effort we had tonight — that’s four lines, six D and two goaltenders — it’s going to make the 29 games a real good learning (experience) and real good process for us to be able to develop our team and understand what it takes here in the last 29, at a tough time of the year.”
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It was a tough return to the ice for Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta, who took the loss, facing 23 Jets shots. It was his first game back between the pipes after missing a start when he was involved in a car accident in suburban Phoenix while on his way to the Coyotes’ rink.
“It was nice to get to the game. Of course, you want to do a better job playing the game, but you kind of give yourself something different to think about,” Raanta said. “The last couple days have been better, but it’s been rough for sure, with a lot of emotions going up and down. Sometimes you’re not as sharp as you want to be and you need to just fight it off.”
Since the calendar flipped to 2018, the Wild have just four regulation losses, and have stayed in the playoff hunt by playing great hockey at home. On the road it’s been a different story, and it looked like more of the same when they gave up a goal in the opening minute of their game in St. Louis on Tuesday. Instead of folding, Minnesota scored the next six, to the delight of their coach.
“The way we reacted was the way we expect them to react all the time,” Bruce Boudreau said. “They were more ticked off than ‘here we go again.’ I hope it’s a confidence booster, especially for road play.”
They lost defenseman Jonas Brodin to a hand injury versus the Blues, and will be without his services for 3-4 weeks after Brodin has surgery on Wednesday. But like giving up an early goal, bouncing back from injuries will be vital, the Wild players know.
“That’s going to be the most important thing,” said Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk of his team’s chances of getting a sixth consecutive playoff berth. “There are going to be times when the other team scores first, and there are tough buildings to come into when the team comes hard at you, and the most important thing is how you respond.”