ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) The longest winning streak in franchise history halted a few hours before the end of 2016, the Minnesota Wild were handed a natural opportunity to start fresh.
If they return to the defense-first formula that coach Bruce Boudreau has pushed them to follow, they’ll be in position to get going on another run. The beginning of the new year brought four days of rest from game action, before resuming play at San Jose on Thursday.
“That’s what we want it to be, a reset,” Boudreau said before the team departed for a three-city California road trip. “We worked on a couple things the last few days that’ll get us back to playing the way we were.”
After following a shootout loss with 12 victories in a row to start December, the Wild were defeated 4-2 on Saturday by Columbus, the only team in the NHL that’s been more unbeatable lately. The Blue Jackets now have a 16-game winning streak, one short of the all-time league record.
The warning sign of a slip in performance for Boudreau and the coaching staff arose the week before, though. Two of the last three wins on the streak were out-of-character: 7-4 at the New York Rangers and 6-4 against the New York Islanders.
Over the last four games, the Wild have allowed 14 goals. They’re still second in the league behind Columbus, with an average of 2.06 goals allowed per game.
“We have gotten away from the way that we play, most likely because we’ve been scoring goals,” Boudreau said.
“You end up changing your mindset as an individual when you score goals,” the coach said, adding: “We have to get back to winning 2-1, 3-2. That is what’s going to make us win. If we’re thinking we’re going to be a team that’s going to win 5-4 every night, we’re in trouble.”
That’s the potential pitfall for a team that has balanced lines but lacks a prolific scorer. Offensive success, per human nature and the competitive makeup of the sport, can prompt players to pursue goals at the cost of defensive commitment and discipline. So the key on this West Coast swing, with games at Los Angeles and Anaheim over the weekend, will be to keep those red goal lights from glowing too much.
“Well, it’s not like we’re trying to score less,” right wing Charlie Coyle said. “That’s the mindset, to play well defensively. When we do that, a lot of times it’s not going to be a high-scoring game because we’re not going back and forth with teams.”
The loss to the Blue Jackets was only the second all season for the Wild by more than one score, and the first recipient of credit for that is goalie Devan Dubnyk. He went 10-1-1 in December with a 1.88 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. He leads the NHL in both of those categories for the season.
“We were playing the right way and playing how we can, winning games how we can, getting contributions from top to bottom in the lineup, and that’s really why we’re a great hockey team,” Dubnyk said. “We’ve got a lot of depth, and we showed that over 12 games how we’re going to be capable of putting strings together.”
With 50 points in 36 games, the Wild are one point behind Chicago for the Western Conference lead. The Blackhawks have played 40 games.
“It’s just the same mindset that we’ve been taking this last month,” defenseman Matt Dumba said, “just believing in our structure and not worrying about anything else except for how we’re going to play and what we have to do that night.”
Boudreau, who became the first coach in NHL history to oversee winning streaks of 10 games or more with three different teams, has made an immediate impact on a team that had its share of midseason slides over the last several years. Led by defenseman Ryan Suter (plus-26), the Wild have five of the top nine players in the league in plus-minus rating.
“It was a fun stretch. Everybody was smiling when they came to the rink, so hopefully we can keep winning a little bit. That makes this game so fun,” said Mikael Granlund, who’s a plus-18. “We know how we need to play to be successful, and we have all the tools for that.”