The Wild has been slipping down the standings for the past two weeks, winning only once in its past seven games.
It has dropped the past two head-to-head battles with Central Division rivals, was trampled by the lowly Edmonton Oilers and blew a pair of leads — including a two-goal cushion — to get capsized by the Philadelphia Flyers.
These deficits burned through the team’s breathing room, plummeting it into the wad of nine clubs below the Western Conference division leaders clamoring to advance without any assurance they will.
But coach Bruce Boudreau is convinced he knows the Wild’s fate. And that’s playing beyond the regular season.
“We’re going to make the playoffs,” he declared Thursday after the team’s practice at TRIA Rink in St. Paul. “That’s about as elaborate as I want to get. You want me to predict how many wins we’re going to have in the last month and a half? No. But we’re going to make the playoffs.”
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After resuming its second-half push following an eight-day break as the third seed in the Central Division, the Wild tumbled into contention for one of the two wild-card berths — a pursuit that starts up again Friday when the team plays host to the Devils at Xcel Energy Center.
Hot-and-cold offense, costly errors in the defensive zone and injuries have plagued the group during this 1-4-2 slide, and while players can try to fix the first two issues, they won’t be at full strength.
Forwards Victor Rask (lower body) and Matt Hendricks (upper body) are day to day and won’t suit up against New Jersey. Winger Pontus Aberg, who has missed the past six games because of a lower-body injury, has been skating but also isn’t ready to return.
That leaves the Wild with only 11 available forwards, but it’s unclear if team brass will make a call-up from the minors. During practice Thursday, defenseman Brad Hunt worked with winger Kyle Rau and center Eric Fehr on the fourth line.
This adversity coupled with the team’s recent woes, however, hasn’t diminished Boudreau’s confidence in his players.
“I know our team,” he said. “We’ve made it before. I don’t know if the right word is precipice, but we’re on the edge of things being really good rather than being very mediocre. I can look at the last [seven] games and say a five-percent difference and we win those games. I think just looking at their faces after the game the other night [against the Flyers] and knowing how upset and disappointed they were, I’m saying this is a team that wants it.”
Captain Mikko Koivu shares the same belief in his teammates, who have struggled to recalibrate since Koivu suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee Feb. 5.
Leaning on crutches inside the team’s locker room, Koivu spoke publicly for the first time Thursday since he was injured and underwent surgery a week ago, the start of a recovery that will sideline him for the rest of the season.
“Never had that in my career, that you don’t have that goal to get back on the ice and be with the team,” the 35-year-old said. “I think first when you know the news, how long you’re going to be out, it’s almost like a hopeless feeling.”
He’s become more encouraged, though, after learning about how his knee will rebound — becoming stronger than it was before, he said. And once he notices improvement, Koivu expects his optimism to bloom.
“It’s about your effort, the way you take care of yourself on and off the ice,” Koivu said. “At the end, it’s going to be a battle. But if you’re strong enough, you’re going to be able to do it.”
Injured after colliding with Buffalo Sabres winger Tage Thompson near center ice, Koivu wasn’t sure initially how seriously hurt his knee was; what he felt reminded him of MCL issues he’d had in the past.
But once he saw the doctor and had an MRI, it became clear what he was facing.
His knee wasn’t in as poor of shape as initially thought, and Koivu said it feels better than expected. He’s been resting on the couch, watching TV, but he’s also started rehab since the goal is to regain motion as soon as possible. The knee is sore the day after he works on it but otherwise, he’s OK.
Koivu’s objective is to be completely healed by training camp in September, and he plans to track his journey to that point by journaling weekly, jotting down updates to remind himself of his progress while also taking notes on what he observes from the Wild and the rest of the NHL.
“I’m going to try to learn from it and get stronger from it,” he said.
And like Boudreau, he also believes he’ll be watching the Wild compete in the playoffs despite the team’s current plight.
“Every shift, every period, all that matters,” Koivu said. “You start building on that, and it’ll be just fine.”