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Wild faces a steep climb, but will have games in hand to help

Most teams in the West Division have continued accumulating points in the standings while Minnesota has been on hiatus

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

ST. PAUL -- There wasn't much the Wild coaching staff was able to do during it's week and a half long stretch in COVID-19 quarantine. 

One thing it did do, however, was, perhaps not surprisingly, watch plenty of hockey. 

That meant getting a handle on how things in Iowa looked last weekend when the AHL club opened its season with three games against the Texas Stars. 

It also was able to get a better look at other teams in the West Division, specifically, some teams it hasn't yet seen in person. 

Minnesota woke up Saturday ahead of its second practice back from its temporary shutdown in sixth place in the eight-team West Division, but with games in hand on nearly every team around it, including fourth-place Anaheim, fifth-place Arizona, seventh-place Arizona and eighth-place Los Angeles. 

Second-place Vegas and third-place Colorado, like the Wild, have had bouts with COVID this season and have each played the same number of games as Minnesota, although both clubs will return to action sooner than the Wild, who won't get a game under its belt until Tuesday night against the Kings.

All of that means that the Wild, while it will have several games in hand, will have plenty of work to do if it hopes to move up the division standings upon its return.

"It's a competitive league, period," said Wild coach Dean Evason. "But our division is real competitive. It's going to be a battle right to the end."

By the time the puck drops at Staples Center on Tuesday night, the Wild will have five games in hand on the Ducks, four on the Coyotes and three on the Sharks, the three clubs directly surrounding them in the standings. Entering play Saturday, Anaheim was in the fourth and final playoff spot in the division with 15 points, three clear of Minnesota but having played four additional games. 

So in that regard, the Wild seems like it hasn't lost too much ground despite a lengthy layoff. But the standings and games in hand only tell half the story. Games in hand only matter if you make them matter.

Video: 02.13 Practice update

"We've gotta win the games ... we're looking up at a lot of teams right now and when you're only playing inside your division, it can go both ways, you can make up ground or you can fall back pretty quickly," said Wild forward Zach Parise. "At the end of the day, we've just gotta win the games that we're playing, keep getting better within our own team and how we're playing, and go from there."

When it comes to winning games, the Wild will try and continue a trend of clubs having success off COVID layoffs. 

Whether there is something to the added rest or it's just a coincidence, teams have had good luck upon returning to the ice.

Vegas had three games postponed and went 10 days between games, then won its first three contests when it did, including a 5-2 win over the Kings in its first. 

The Dallas Stars had their first four games postponed, then rolled to a 7-0 win on their new Opening Night, en route to a 4-0 start. 

Colorado returns from a four-game hiatus on Sunday in Vegas before Minnesota returns from six games off Tuesday, but each club has to hope it has the kinds of early success as Vegas and Dallas.

"Hopefully we can keep that trend going and play well out of the gate like those other teams did," Parise said. "We'll give it our best and we'll get guys trickling back in over the next little while and hopefully get everyone healthy again and do our best to win some games."

Minnesota was able to ice a normal lineup on Saturday - sort of - after having just 14 skaters and two goaltenders on Friday. 

The Wild saw the return of Nick Bjugstad, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Johansson and Jared Spurgeon from the COVID-19 protocol list. All but Spurgeon, who sustained an injury in Colorado in the final game before the shutdown, joined the team for practice at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday. 

Johansson, who was not on that trip because of an injury, appears healed and, at this point, is expected to be a part of the lineup in Los Angeles on Tuesday. 

The Wild also recalled defenseman Matt Bartkowski from the taxi squad, and reassigned fellow blueliner Louie Belpedio from Iowa to take Bartkowski's spot on the taxi squad. 

Evason said there could be a couple others that return from the protocol list before the team departs for Los Angeles on Monday afternoon, but it's not something he's counting on.

"I think it's possible. But how we were approaching it today was this will be our group [in Los Angeles]," Evason said. "Maybe not obviously line combinations and what have you. We still have a couple days of practice which is great. The group that was out there is likely the group that will play the game."

And if that's the case, Parise said he's confident the Wild will have a group that can continue that winning trend.

"That's why you've got the taxi squad," Parise said. "You kind of anticipated there'd be times like now where we're going to have a lot of players out at the same time. So I think them just knowing that there's a good chance they could play pretty important roles on the power play, penalty kills, 5-on-5, this season, so I think they've done a really good job up until now and that's the lineup we're going to have in L.A. So we'll do our best to go in there and win the game."

Wild players that remain on the COVID-19 protocol list as of the end of Saturday's practice include forwards Nick Bonino, Nico Sturm and Victor Rask, defensemen Ian Cole, Brad Hunt, Carson Soucy and Jonas Brodin and goaltender Cam Talbot.

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