Wild Still in the Hunt to Start 2018

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 Scott Taylor

By Scott Taylor

Photos by James Carey Lauder

January 3, 2018
@staylorsports ‏

Don’t worry, be happy. That should probably be the motto of the Minnesota Wild as they head into the 2018 portion of the 2017-18 National Hockey League schedule.

On Tuesday night, the Wild got two goals from Eric Staal and two more from Matt Cullen, three assists from Jared Spurgeon and 25 saves from Devan Dubnyk as they whipped the visiting Florida Panthers 5-1.

It left the Wild with a record of 21-16-3, eight points behind first-place Winnipeg in the Central Division and one point behind the Anaheim Ducks for the final Wild Card spot in the West.

It’s not a terrible place to be with 42 games remaining. It’s not great, by any stretch, but the Wild are certainly in the hunt.

But at some point, the Wild have to turn a win like Tuesday’s into a streak. One win here or there won’t be the answer to the big playoff question. If the Wild intend to be playing in late April, the time has come to string a few wins together.

To be fair, the Wild are now 10-1-1 in their last 12 home games and that’s quite impressive. Considering that the Wild play six of their next eight at home including a match up against the struggling Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night, the Wild could get right back into the Central Division hunt during the next two weeks. With Zach Parise back in the lineup and Dubnyk playing with more confidence, the Wild are in a good position to make some noise.

Eric Staal certainly isn’t concerned. On Tuesday, the 33-year-old veteran scored his 16th and 17th goals of the season against the Panthers and with 35 points is on the first page of scoring leaders in the NHL (32nd).

Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal gathers his momentum to go toward the puck

Eric Staal leads the Wild in the scoring.

“It’s been fun since the moment I signed here,” said Staal on Tuesday night. “It’s a really good group of guys. We’re also a confident group right now. We just have to keep this confidence going as long as we can.”

And really, that’s what it’s about at this stage. The NHL’s December dog days (deep freeze if you prefer) are now over, and hockey old-timers will tell you that now is the time when good teams start to get their game faces on. The playoff run becomes urgent. Half the season is over, and now the contenders must show that they aren’t pretenders.

That means Dubnyk has to play like he did against Florida on Tuesday for most of the rest of the season. The defensive group has to carry on the way Suter, (often-healthy-scratch) Olofsson, Dumba, Brodin, Prosser and Spurgeon did against the Panthers. Up front, Parise is back, Staal is the team’s leading scorer and Jason Zucker is a star. No question the Wild need to get more out of Nino Neiderreiter (when he’s healthy), Mikko Koivu, and Charlie Coyle down the stretch, but then again, now is the time for all hands to be on deck every single night.

This is a different Wild club than the one that made the playoffs last year – for the fifth straight year – but it’s still a team that has shown, thus far, that it can compete with teams like Winnipeg, Nashville, St. Louis and the upstart Vegas Golden Knights. With Parise back, the Wild looked as good as they have all season on Tuesday night.

“I thought Zach was good for his first game,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau after Tuesday’s win. “He did all the right things and played within himself and could have had a couple, too. That’s the way we were last year when Zach was in the lineup. He was good and we were pretty good.”

It’s not the best Wild team ever, but if it can build on its confidence with Parise back, who knows what could happen? After all, love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Wild are certainly still in the hunt.

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