Wild hit stride

Published 8:22 am Monday, March 25, 2013

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Wild were the talk of the NHL last summer when they signed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Then there was the lockout, putting that star power and contending potential on ice for several months.

Once the season started, the Wild and their new acquisitions were still trying to find their way. But after sputtering through the first few weeks, the Wild have hit their stride. Their 2-0 win over San Jose on Saturday was their fifth in a row. All five victories have been by two goals or more, the first such streak in franchise history. Over 12-plus years, they’d never before won more than three straight by at least that margin.

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“You keep playing the right way, you keep playing your hockey, we’re going to get the chances, we’re going to score the goals we need,” goalie Niklas Backstrom said. “But it’s not just something we turn the switch and it happens. I think it’s a lot of hard work. Every game. Every practice. We didn’t get here by being lucky. It’s by working hard every day, and that’s a big lesson for us now. … We can’t stop. We can’t be satisfied. A lot of teams are going to be better. And we have to be better too.”

The Wild are 14-5-1 in their last 20 games, jockeying with Vancouver for first place in the Northwest Division and fourth in the Western Conference. As the final month of the season approaches, this team is playing like one that can make a serious run through the playoffs.

“I think everyone’s falling into their roles quite nicely,” fourth-line forward Torrey Mitchell said. “We go into every game thinking we’re going to win, especially in our building and especially in that room. We have a lot of confidence, and we feel like we can beat everybody right now.”

The mood around the team has matched that attitude. Following Saturday’s win, rapper Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop The Party” was blaring at a deafening level from the locker room speaker system.

Even though the Wild had a lot of trouble scoring earlier in the season, going 4-5-1 in their first 10 games with only 22 goals over that span, they insist they never wavered in their trust in each other and coach Mike Yeo’s system.

“Behind closed doors, we talked about it. We didn’t have a doubt. We knew it was going to take time,” Yeo said. “But we believe in the group that we have, looking at it talent-wise of course but more importantly the quality of people that we have.”

Part of the problem previously, Parise said, was trying to be a little too fancy with puck. They’ve since refocused on a “going north” mentality, ensuring an aggressive forecheck and allowing the scoring chances to fall in line from that.

“I think we’ve found a little bit of identity for our team,” Parise said.

Parise scored Saturday for the first time in six games, giving him a team-leading 12 goals. That was his longest scoreless streak of the season. But the Wild went 4-1 in that stretch, a testament to his diverse contributions and the uptick in production from other forwards such as Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi.

“What’s great about Zach is that if you don’t talk about those things, nobody’s going to notice because he’s going out, playing great and helping us win,” Yeo said. “This guy is going to play huge minutes for us every night.”