Wild return from break ready to make final push for playoffs

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              Minnesota Wild winger Jason Zucker (16) and Florida Panthers center Dominic Toninato battle for control of the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Wild were playing at the beginning of the season like they were destined for the draft lottery, with the possibility of a high first-round pick hovering as a tantalizing prize for a franchise long mired in the middle of the pack in need of a jump.

The Wild, though, have proven time and again they’re too good to tank. With three wins in their last four games before the All-Star break and subsequent bye week, they made sure they’ll at least be in the thick of the chase for spots in the playoffs during the final nine weeks of the regular season.

“I think they’re going to put a push on. We have been pretty resilient, if we take away the first seven games of the year. We seem to play, other than Pittsburgh, pretty good against the good teams,” said coach Bruce Boudreau, recalling the 7-3 loss on Jan. 14 and the 7-4 defeat on Oct. 12 to the Penguins.

The Wild, who resume play on Saturday night against Boston for their first action in 10 days, have recovered well from their 1-6 start. Though they’re in 12th place in the Western Conference, they began the day on Friday five points out of a playoff spot with games in hand on most of the teams in front of them. The problem is Nashville, Winnipeg and Chicago are ahead of them, too, in the crowd of teams on the cusp of the wild card spots.

“I actually think that’s a good side to be on, because it gives us that urgency to push and not just hold on,” left wing Jason Zucker said after practice on Friday.

The good news for Minnesota is only defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis has separated from the pack, with catching Colorado or Dallas for a top-three finish in the Central Division still an attainable feat. That’s going to require the kind of hot streak that has been in short supply for the Wild this season, though. They went 9-1-3 over a 13-game stretch from Nov. 14-Dec. 14.

Last year, when the Wild’s streak of six straight appearances in the playoffs ended, they were in third place in the Central Division during their break. They were in control of a postseason spot until mid-March and wound up 11th in the Western Conference.

“Every team has to create their own story,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “I think for us the mentality is that we can’t worry about other teams or look the scores and how every team is doing. It’s all about us right now, and we have to get that confidence back up again.”

Blurring the outlook a bit is the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24, but first-year general manager Bill Guerin is unlikely to make any major changes if the Wild are still in contention then. Their current collection of long-term contracts and no-trade clauses are also prohibitive of a potential tear-down.

Zucker had two goals and two assists over the last three games before the break, getting his rhythm back after a broken right leg cost him 10 games and beginning to forge some chemistry with new second-line teammates Victor Rask and Kevin Fiala.

“If we’re healthy, I’m liking a lot of the fits right now. The idea, though, is for us to win we need 19 guys. We don’t have Connor McDavid if 17 guys aren’t going, and that’s taking nothing away from our players. I love it when we have everybody playing and everybody contributing,” Boudreau said.