ST. PAUL, Minn. - Skating tests. Whiteboard work. Neutral-zone situations. These are the nuances. The minute details that can make the difference between mediocre and masterful.
At this level, it can be difficult for the naked eye to discern much difference between styles and set plays. "The NHL is such a cookie-cutter league," Wild forward Chris Stewart said. "All the systems are pretty much the same, except for maybe a couple different teams."
But systems are more than tactical. The Wild's new one, implemented by a coaching staff still familiarizing itself, is based on discipline combined with creativity, with a little Bruce Boudreau enthusiasm sprinkled in.
"He's got me laughing in between reps, and we're huffing and puffing," said center Charlie Coyle. "He's pretty funny.
"It does seem a little different. Just new faces, new way of doing things."
The new way has been on display through three days of training camp. Monday night, in a 5,782-seat arena in the heart of Big Ten country, it'll get its first in-game audition.
Minnesota takes on the Buffalo Sabres at 6 p.m. at Penn State University in State College, Penn. (radio: KFAN), in both teams' preseason openers. The clash will take place at Pegula Ice Arena, named for the Sabres owner Terrence Pegula, who helped the Nittany Lions add NCAA hockey starting in 2012.
The preseason provides veterans like Stewart and Coyle a chance to sharpen their axes and implement the small alterations Boudreau and Co. have installed. For many on Monday's travel ledger, though, it's a preliminary taste of NHL-icana and a ramped-up audition for a roster spot, either now or in the future.
Youngsters Alex Tuch, Mario Lucia, Nick Seeler, Nick Saracino, Pavel Jenys and starting goalie Alex Stalock will play in their first NHL exhibition Monday.
"They went to (the) Traverse City (Prospects Tournament earlier this month), but the whole idea of flying in the charter and the way you get treated in the NHL has got to make people go, 'Man, this is where I want to play,'" Boudreau said. "To see them play in their first preseason game, I'm sure they're going to have a good accounting of themselves and to see them succeed would be even better."
Whereas the Wild is gearing up for another -- and deeper -- playoff run, Buffalo comes off a 35-36-11 season seeking a return to the postseason. All-time, Minnesota is 5-2-0 against the Sabres in preseason games. The teams split last season's two regular-season meetings.
But that's of little import. For both teams, Monday night's clash in "Hockey Valley" can serve as a small step in establishing foundations both immediate and longer-term.