ST. PAUL -- It's been two weeks since the Minnesota Wild grabbed hold of its berth in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That's two weeks of regular season hockey, of weekend back-to-backs and of playing teams that have long been out of the postseason mix. But Minnesota wanted to finish the season strong, and to do that, it needed to keep its focus tempered to the next practice and the next game.
"We had to finish off what we needed to do and finish the regular season the way we needed to," said Wild forward Jason Zucker. "We needed to play those 82 games and finish them off, and at that point, we can switch our focus to here."
"Here," is Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round against the St. Louis Blues. The playoffs have arrived, and so has the Wild.
Minnesota closed out its 2016-17 regular season campaign riding a four-game winning streak. But those four games also came against three teams whose seasons are now over. The Blues, winners of three of their past four and seven of their past 10 (and losers of just one game in regulation over their final 10), will be a good test for the Wild going forward.
"I think guys are tired of focusing on the end of the season when you're playing the Colorados and the Arizonas and such," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau on Monday. "I think they're looking forward to the challenge."
To prepare for that challenge, Boudreau took his team through an intense practice on Monday after an off day Sunday in which results around the League helped solidify the postseason schedule. Minnesota's first contest of Round 1 will be Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in St. Paul.
With a physical, big-bodied St. Louis team coming to town, Boudreau and his staff led the team through forechecking and battle drills that took on an intense, competitive edge.
It's not just playoff games that come up a level during the postseason, and with more free time in the schedule for practice, Boudreau can worry less about tiring out his team and more about how to best ready them to face the Blues, who won three of the five meetings between the clubs during the regular season.
"It's the first time we've had the ability to do that without having a game the next day," Boudreau said. "You're playing a big team. You better be battle-ready."
The practice reps should offer Minnesota the opportunity to fine-tune aspects of its game that need work, an option that wasn't available during the busy month of March, when the Wild won just four of 16 games. With the losing skid in the rearview, the Wild's focus is forward.
"We had a little motivation in the last couple weeks to play some good hockey and get back to the way we've been playing all year," said Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk. "It's nice to have a good feeling here entering playoffs. We've been looking forward to this for a while, so it's nice for everyone to change focus and get into the real stuff."
If there's one thing that's unlikely to change as the postseason begins, it's Boudreau's tendency to tinker with his lines. On Monday, he moved Zucker to the left of Martin Hanzal with Charlie Coyle on the right, leaving Erik Haula to flank fellow countrymen Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund.
"I'm hoping what it does for me is balance out all three lines," Boudreau said. "I think all three lines can check that line or should be able to, so I'm not as worried about the matchups when you have three lines that can go like that. ... [Haula's] a straight-line skater, his whole role has always been third-line checker. So he should be able to know that, and he's a great skater, so all those things should add up pretty good."
Zucker has some familiarity with Coyle, but since he spent much of the season beside Koivu and Granlund, he'll have to get used to Hanzal at center, a challenge he's looking forward to.
"It's obviously always a bit of an adjustment playing with different guys, but I ended up with two great players and I'm excited for the challenge to get to know them, and I think they're excited for that, as well," Zucker said.
Bartley practices with team
Defenseman Victor Bartley was sidelined all season with a torn triceps injury that he's been rehabbing for the last few weeks. He skated Monday with the team and looked to be one of two extra defensemen, along with Nate Prosser.
"[I've] been skating for almost two months now and everything's starting to get fine-tuned," Bartley said. "I'm feeling great, stopping pucks, shooting them, battling in the corner and so far I'm not having any issues, so I'm excited."
Scouting the Blues
St. Louis will arrive in Minnesota on Tuesday afternoon after an off day on Monday and a practice at home ahead of Wednesday's contest. The Blues completed their regular season slate on Sunday night against the Colorado Avalanche, posting a 3-2 win.
"We're playing a deep team, so we're playing a team with four lines, six defensemen, we're going to be challenged every time we're on the ice," said Blues coach Mike Yeo after the game. "It's going to make us stronger from top to bottom."
The biggest thorn in Minnesota's side will likely be Vladimir Tarasenko, who had three goals in five games against the Wild this season. The recent addition of Vladimir Sobotka, who re-joined the team after two years in the KHL, should also bolster the Blues on the wing.