ST. PAUL, Minn. — Starting his interview with reporters on Monday, Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo offered vague updates on injured players such as Jared Spurgeon, Matt Cooke and Ryan Carter.
Minnesota, which climbed to eighth in the Western Conference playoff standings with a win Sunday, has maintained its play without Cooke and forwards Jason Zucker and Carter, before losing Spurgeon for the past two games.
Yeo didn’t have much promising news regarding any members of the injured group. The positivity has come from the players filling the roles in the Wild’s lineup.
Just when Minnesota’s depth seemed to take a hit, forwards Justin Fontaine, Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Schroeder rose to the occasion. Rookie defensemen Matt Dumba started playing his most consistent hockey in his brief NHL time, and Christian Folin arrived from Iowa to help replace Spurgeon.
"We felt like they had the potential to," Yeo said. "It’s always difficult when you lose guys. And certainly the way that you’re making up your lines, there’s a lot of things that change and guys have stepped up. And with that, it’s not just those guys stepping in, it’s how they affect the players that are playing with, and I think those guys have done a good job incorporating the new lines or incorporating new players onto their line. It’s been a relatively seamless transition."
Fontaine has three goals and three assists in the past five games. Niedderreiter has three goals in four games. Schroeder has three goals and two assists in the past eight games. All three have fit on each of the team’s three scoring lines.
Looking to distribute scoring among his lines, Yeo tried certain combinations on the team’s road trip last week through Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Niederreiter joined Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville and had two goals at Vancouver. Fontaine scored once at Calgary and then joined Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund for the game at Edmonton — near his hometown of Bonnyville, Alberta — and had two goals.
"Just as far as spreading the wealth or balancing things out with the pieces we have right now, we just felt it was something we were capable of doing — as far as not necessarily having two scoring lines or loading up a top line," Yeo said.
Fontaine’s role has changed often in his two seasons with the Wild, but he’s used to being a scorer. He had 13 goals as a rookie last season in 66 games. He scored 23 two years ago in the American Hockey League in 64 contests. Fontaine’s final two seasons at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he scored 43 goals in 81 games.
"It’s a role I’ve kind of been in for a few years now and learned to adjust," Fontaine said of his ever-changing responsibilities. "I think I’m both type of players and can play in both roles. When I do get a chance, I like to focus on making the cycle plays, the little plays and get into scoring areas. I think things have been going pretty well."
Fontaine is getting his chance –perhaps his biggest opportunity as a scorer in the NHL — now with Parise and Granlund.
"He’s a smart player; I think that’s the biggest thing for me," Yeo said. "He’s got skill. I think that’s why he’s an adaptable guy who can play on different lines, play on different roles. Whether it’s maturity, whether it’s the fact that he’s a little bit older, he’s been doing a good job of not changing his game. If you move him up to the first or second line, he’s not going to change his game. He’s going to play the same game. And if you move him to the third line — even though that line might have a different role –he’s going to continue to play the same game and be effective in it. And I think that’s been the biggest thing for me."
Minnesota needs everything it can get from Fontaine, Niederreiter, Schroeder and others. Zucker, who was second on the team in goals when he was injured, is out for at least the rest of the regular season with a broken collarbone.
Yeo described Carter and Cooke as "week to week" when asked Monday and added "we’re still a little ways away here, for sure, on both guys."
Spurgeon, who was hit in the face with a puck, has missed the past two games, and Yeo said he won’t play Tuesday at home against Edmonton. Yeo wasn’t sure if Spurgeon would be able to join the team on the upcoming road trip.
"I’m not ruling him out for the trip, no," Yeo said. "I wouldn’t call him probable for our next game but certainly not ruling him out yet."
Meanwhile, Yeo said Dumba played his best game with the Wild in Calgary, near where Dumba grew up and played junior hockey. Scoring in the game — and adding another Sunday — is just part of Dumba’s growth.
"More consistency, that’s the biggest thing," Yeo said of Dumba. "Coming off a bad shift, he’s able to get back to his game. Coming off a good shift, he’s able to remember what he did well and likewise from game to game.
"The power-play goal last night (was) a great play and it’s a great shot, and he has the ability to make those plays and has the ability to make very impactful plays through the course of the game, especially on the offensive side of things. But we need him to be, when those home-run plays aren’t there, we’ve got to make sure you’re not making mistakes trying to make those plays. He’s been managing the game better that way."
Some of the progress is continued experience for Dumba, who is 20. After playing 13 games with Minnesota last year, he’s played in 35 games this season and has added four goals and four assists.
Dumba credits his mental preparation before games.
"I think that allows me to be at my best come the game and allows me to accept mistakes, too, little mistakes in the game," Dumba said. "It’s about just moving forward on to the next shift, and I think I’ve done a better job of that. My overall preparation just has been pretty strong. Hopefully I just keep that consistency moving forward."