ST. PAUL, Minn. — As he promised he would after the Minnesota Wild lost consecutive games heading into their long break, coach John Hynes practiced the Turks out of the Wild on Monday.
Tuesday, he’ll go for the Caicos.
With his players back from various beach resorts and skating like they were indeed rejuvenated, the Wild coach used Monday’s practice as an opportunity to address a handful of common themes that were killing them heading into the break.
Hynes was uplifted by the team’s practice.
“One of the things we worked on was in front of the net, both offensively and defensively — just the habits there, the attention to detail that we felt like we had quite a bit, but it faltered before the break,” Hynes said. “(We tried) to get some speed and pace, heavy emphasis on execution, a little bit of some small games where you’ve gotta close quicker defensively, but also offensively there’s a little bit more one-on-one stuff — just to get that feel back.
“(Tuesday) we’ll do more five-on-five, where you’re going system to system, where you’re transitioning between breakout to an offensive-zone play, to a transition play, maybe some D-zone coverage into a neutral zone forecheck so you’re getting back into those things that happen regularly in the game, and you’re playing fast and we get our minds back into the transitional part of the game.”
The Wild won five of their final 16 games heading into the bye and All-Star break. Had they not lost those last two damaging games to the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks, they would have won six of their final seven and been so, so close to the eighth and final playoff spot heading into Wednesday’s game in Chicago.
Instead, just like they did all month starting with consecutive losses to Winnipeg on Dec. 30 and 31, every time the Wild had a chance to pull within striking distance of a playoff spot, they went belly-up. Now, they’re seven points back with 33 games to go.
“Obviously, you think about it right away,” defenseman Jake Middleton said. “But with the break we had, you have to kind of put that behind you. You can only look forward now. You can’t look back. Obviously, those last two games we gave up some very uncharacteristic goals, you could say, because we were doing a really good job at limiting those opportunities for other teams prior to those last two games. That’s something we’re just going to focus on moving forward as well.”
According to a forecast in Monday’s The Athletic, the Wild’s playoff chances were down to 17 percent. It sure hasn’t helped that the Wild keep losing to the division teams ahead of them in the standings, including six in a row to the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes and Predators since Dec. 30.
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But Middleton said the vibe inside the locker room is still one of a confident team that remembers going 11-3 in Hynes’ first 14 games and recently beat the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes on the road.
“We know it’s in here,” Middleton said. “Even in that last stretch right when we got back from Christmas, we were playing really well coming out of the gate. We lost a few games that were tight games against tremendous teams, lost them, and then we have a horrible game against Tampa and then two great games against two other high teams. So, we know it’s in here. It’s just a matter of rolling it over next game after game.”
Middleton said the message inside the room is that this season is far from over but that they need to get their act together immediately and string together victories.
“We still have some runway to kind of control our own destiny,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking to do, is just worry about us and let the chips fall where they may.”
Veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who missed the final four games before the break with a concussion, said it was important for the players to get away both mentally and physically.
“You see guys smiling and happy to be back and be on the ice together,” Fleury said. “We all knew how big those points were before the break and how disappointing it was to miss them. We all want to win. We all want to make the playoffs. That’s still our goal here. We’re gonna work our (butts off) and try our best to get in that position.”
Fleury feeling better, ready for Reunion Week
Fleury said he passed his concussion baseline test the day before he left with many of his teammates and significant others for the Turks and Caicos. Monday was the first time he talked with reporters since being nailed in the chin by Florida’s Will Lockwood on Jan. 19.
Fleury initially thought he was OK, but in the second period, he started to feel sluggish and had difficulty tracking pucks. So he removed himself from the game when Mats Zuccarello gave the Wild a 4-1 lead.
Florida Panthers winger William Lockwood has been suspended three games for a hit that injured Minnesota Wild goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury: https://t.co/gT9wq0DxPp pic.twitter.com/NJWzdabjp6
— Scouting The Refs (@ScoutingTheRefs) January 21, 2024
“I just didn’t see the guy when he was coming and he caught me,” Fleury said of Lockwood, who was suspended three games. “In the moment, I was just like (it’s OK). But the more it went on (I felt) sluggish. I just felt slow and the game felt so fast. I couldn’t track as good.
“You always think you’ll be fine. You think, ‘Shake it off. It’s OK, it’s OK.’ But then you start feeling not so good. It gets frustrating because I know the process. I know how long it can be sometimes. Well, you never know. Like sometimes, a week you’re good and sometimes it’s many weeks. Obviously, I’ve got to feel ready.”
Fleury took part in the final pregame skate before the bye and got through Monday’s practice feeling good. He’s unclear which games he’ll start this week. Coincidentally, the Wild’s three games this week are against his three former teams: Chicago, Pittsburgh then Vegas.
Fleury will be honored before Friday’s game against the Penguins for recently playing his 1,000th game and passing Patrick Roy for the NHL’s second-most regular-season victories. Many of his old Penguins coaches, trainers and former teammates Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin will be on hand.
It will be a chance to celebrate his career in front of friends and family, but if you know the humble Fleury, you know he’s uncomfortable by the entire to-do.
“It’ll be special,” Fleury said. “I don’t know. I would rather just go play the game and see them outside the rink.”
Fleury also knows he could be expecting payback for pranking Crosby, Letang and Malkin when the Wild visited Pittsburgh in December.
“I might have to hire security at the locker room door for when we go (home after the morning skate),” Fleury joked. “I think Sid’s, I don’t know, he has a routine on game days, so I’m not too worried about him. Now that I say that … maybe I’ll have to keep an eye open for sure.”
Chisholm not yet eligible to practice, play
Despite most of his new teammates practicing informally Sunday with skating and skills coach Andy Ness and practicing officially Monday, newly acquired defenseman Declan Chisholm hasn’t been allowed to practice with the team because his U.S. work visa has not yet been approved.
He was claimed off waivers seven days ago from the Winnipeg Jets. The Wild are still in the process of getting the approval expedited and hope it can be rectified in time for him to travel into the United States and practice Tuesday before the team’s charter to Chicago.
The Wild acquired Chisholm to play him. But it’s unclear if one practice Tuesday would be enough for him to debut against the Blackhawks.
The puck-moving blueliner was a healthy scratch almost every game this season for the Jets and is coming off a bye, as well. He played six games on a conditioning stint in the AHL back in November (five assists) and two games for the Jets, on Dec. 2 and 4.
“Hopefully we can get him here and get him practicing and put him in a game,” Hynes said. “What that timeline is, I don’t know. It probably depends on when he gets here. We’ll try as best we can to give him a situation where he can perform well and get his game going. But we’ll have to take that day by day, probably, when he gets here.”
Hynes said what he knows about Chisholm is he’s a good skating defenseman who can move the puck well and has offensive instincts.
“From a defensive standpoint, I haven’t seen him too much, but when you talk to the management about the player, he does have some good talent,” Hynes said. “We were intrigued by his skating, his talent to move the puck, and it seems to be there is some upside there. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t been able to play a lot of hockey, so it’s a great opportunity for him and a great opportunity for us to have a good, young left-shot D who seems like he has a lot of potential.”
Veteran Pat Maroon (upper body), who was injured in the first period against Anaheim, was placed on injured reserve. Hynes didn’t yet have an update on his timetable. Connor Dewar (lower body), who was injured Jan. 19 at Florida, continued skating without his teammates, so he won’t play this week, Hynes said. Vinni Lettieri, out since Dec. 30 with a broken foot, and Adam Raska (lower body), who was injured Jan. 21 at Carolina, resumed practicing with the team, but Hynes did not yet know if one or both would be able to play by Wednesday. Defenseman Jonas Brodin missed Monday’s practice because he was sick.
(Photo: Justin Berl / Getty Images)