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Wild keeps on winning, defying expectations

Current 11-game points streak is the second-best span in franchise history

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the run up to the 2019-20 regular season, league-wide expectations for the Wild were unkind ... and that might be putting it lightly. 

Coach Bruce Boudreau often referenced one Sirius satellite radio host who said the Wild were the 32nd best team in a 31-team league. Of the nearly two dozen writers and staffers who made predictions for, just one had the Wild making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A 1-6-0 start to the season did little to change the narrative.

But the Wild has been one of the best teams in the NHL since that rocky start, and on Thursday night, proved it once again in a 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena. 

With its points streak sitting at 11 games, the second longest in franchise history, Minnesota will wake up on Friday morning in Raleigh inside the playoff bubble for the first time this season. 

There's a lot of hockey left to be played, but it might be time for folks to recalibrate their expectations. 

Video: Locker room postgame at Tampa Bay

"I think teams are probably looking in the standings and saying, 'wow, they started pretty slow and all of the sudden, they're in the mix,'" said Wild goaltender Alex Stalock. "You go into a road rink like Florida who puts a lot of pucks in the net, come to a rink like Tampa and come away with a win out of there. 

"I think people are realizing that it's not an easy night anymore."

Most players will tell you they don't put much stock in what the prognosticators are saying. What a hockey writer thinks about a particular team isn't likely to keep any player awake at night.

But there's no question the Wild heard the outside noise. Their veteran coach made sure his room filled with several very proud veterans knew it. 

And that group has fed off being the perceived underdog.

Video: Bruce Boudreau postgame at Tampa Bay

"I think at the beginning it ticked them off and then we certainly heard a lot of rumblings when we were 1-6 and 2-10 and whatever," Boudreau said. "They're all proud athletes. They've dug deep and really started playing for each other and when you do that, good things happen."

Boudreau hopes that mentality doesn't change though. Even with a winning record and a spot inside the playoff bubble, one bad stretch like the one to open the season can erase all of the progress this group has made. 

It dug itself an early season hole and has, so far, done a masterful job of digging itself out -- with all of the odds seemingly stacked against it.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of all of this is the fact that Minnesota has done all of this playing one of the most road heavy schedules in the modern history of the game.

When the Wild finishes its current three-game road trip on Saturday night, it will have played 20 of its first 30 games this season away from home. Just one other team in NHL history has had such a discrepancy (Chicago Blackhawks, 2005-06). 

The Wild, which has an active nine-game home points streak (7-0-2), will play 31 of its final 52 games at Xcel Energy Center. 

Even the Wild, who aimed to get back to .500 once the schedule turns for good in two weeks, may have to adjust those expectations. Minnesota presently sits three games above .500 with seven games to play before the schedule officially turns for the better in two weeks.

Once it does, it will play a total of just four road games between mid-December and mid-February. 

Video: MIN@TBL: Zucker finishes gorgeous passing play

"Honestly, I don't care if [the experts recalibrate] or not," said Wild forward Jason Zucker. "We're gonna keep playing hockey and I think we're proving that we can play the game well in all areas.

"Obviously, it wasn't the start we wanted, but there's a lot of teams that go through slumps. We just went through it at, frankly, an odd time. I don't know if I've ever been a part of a team that's started like that. But we've had faith in ourselves all along."

Most opposing teams game plan to slow things down against the speedy and explosive Lightning. Instead, the Wild won a track meet against one of the NHL's most talented teams. 

The Lightning scored early but managed to meet every Tampa Bay punch with a counterpunch or two of its own. 

Video: MIN@TBL: Zuccarello wires in wrister from the slot

"I feel like we had a couple of those today," said forward Mats Zuccarello, who had his first three-point game in a Wild sweater. "That was important. They were coming hard and we managed to get it back from them, so that was good.

The home club scored less than two minutes into the game to grab the lead, but Minnesota answered with three first-period goals of its own, all just 1:41 apart, to build a 3-1 lead.

The Lightning scored late in the first, then late in the second to tie the game at 3-3, but Victor Rask made it 4-3 less than a minute later.

Video: MIN@TBL: Rask backhands rebound past Vasilevskiy

Alex Killorn tied the game for a third time four minutes into the third period before Zuccarello scored just eight seconds after that to put the Wild ahead for good.

"I've always been told the next shift after a goal, whether you score it or they score it, is one of the bigger shifts in the game," said Wild defenseman Carson Soucy, who scored Minnesota's third goal of the game. "We've been good at that lately whether we scored or they got one. We're always looking to bounce back either way."

Video: MIN@TBL: Soucy banks goal in off defender's stick

Of course, bouncing back has been a season-long trend for the Wild, which has managed to bounce back from a wretched start to the year by adopting that underdog mantra, one that has suited it well.

"Sometimes that's a good thing," Stalock said. "This group here has had high expectations before. Cup or bust. Sometimes it's better to be in this situation, prove to people that we're still a good team to play. Sometimes that's a better way to play, to prove people wrong."

Now the Wild just needs to keep it up.

"Just let everybody keep saying what they're saying. We're doing it with smoke and mirrors and just keep going on," Boudreau said. "We're trying hard. We're having some success right now ... we play Carolina and they're a great team too. We just have to dig deep and hope we can get the best out of our players."


Video: Zuccarello notches three points in back-and-forth win

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