The Minnesota Wild holds a 5-point lead for the first of two wild card spots in the Western Conference. But in a league that features 25 teams holding a playoff berth or within 4 points of one, that cushion can evaporate in an instant.
"That's why we have to pick up right where we left off," Wild forward Charlie Coyle said.
That's also why coach Mike Yeo was all business during an up-tempo, very loud practice Tuesday. Yeo spent an hour barking orders and correcting mistakes, "trying to guard against any comfort creeping in."
The Wild hasn't played since Feb. 6 and is staring at back-to-back games Thursday and Friday in Edmonton and Vancouver.
"I don't think we can wait until Thursday night to flip a switch, then all the sudden have the urgency that we need," Yeo said. "We have to practice that way, we have to compete and battle in practice and make sure that we're doing things the way that we need to do them."
After three games in nine days, the Wild plays 20 games in the final 37 days. It will be a 6 1/2-week sprint to the finish.
For the Wild to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season, here are the keys:
1. Darcy Kuemper must be the man in goal.
Barring a trade by the March 5 deadline, the cage belongs to the 23-year-old rookie. Josh Harding's return grows more unlikely by the day and Niklas Backstrom's lingering abdominal stiffness continues to be such an issue; the veteran missed Tuesday's practice.
Kuemper started 12 consecutive games before the Olympic break and is 8-2-2 in his past 13 starts.
While Chuck Fletcher might be forced into acquiring goaltending insurance, the Wild general manager said Tuesday he's "very confident with Darcy. We've relied on a lot of young players this year. It's sort of the makeup of our team. It's going to be pretty hard to all of a sudden become a veteran team at the trade deadline."
The Wild must continue to aid him defensively (2.42 goals allowed per game, fifth best in the West). Kuemper says he's "definitely, definitely" capable of handling the pressure that will come with being the No. 1 down the stretch.
"It was a fun stretch before the Olympic break, but I can't be satisfied with that," Kuemper said. "We've got a lot of important games coming up here, an important playoff push, not only to get into the playoffs, but to continue on once we get there."
2. The Wild must win on the road.
Twelve of the Wild's final 23 games are on the road, including a stretch of eight of 10 games from March 17-April 3. We know the Wild is confident at home, holding a 21-7-2 record at Xcel Energy Center. Only St. Louis, Anaheim and San Jose (22 wins each) have more home wins in the West.
But the Wild is 10-14-5 on the road, tied with Edmonton, Calgary, Phoenix and Washington for the second-fewest road victories in the NHL. That's three fewer road wins than any other Western Conference team in a playoff position.
Yeo said it's imperative the Wild takes advantage of the home portion of the schedule, "but you know that we're not going to be able to just run away with things and be able to cruise in. We're going to have to finish the season strong and that means we're going to have to play well on the road."
The Wild is 4-3-1 in its past eight on the road.
"You're not handcuffed as much by matchups (when the home team has last change)," Yeo said. "We can do a lot more things and have a lot more creativity from behind the bench to try to get certain guys on the ice and maybe get a bit of a mismatch or at least make sure we're not faced with one."
3. No Olympic hangover -- and youngsters "at their best."
One has got to assume that the disappointment of the United States not medaling in the Olympics won't drag down Zach Parise and No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter. They're veterans and know the importance of this final stretch.
And one has got to assume the high of being the Olympics' third-leading scorer and making the all-tournament team while helping lead Finland to the bronze should allow Mikael Granlund, who turned 22 Wednesday, to return oozing with confidence.
Granlund already left for Sochi on top of his game. Fellow Olympian Nino Niederreiter scored in his past two games, including an overtime winner Feb. 6 against Nashville, to stop a 12-game drought.
The Wild will need quality play the rest of the way from Granlund, 22; Niederreiter, 21; Coyle, 21; Jonas Brodin, 20; Erik Haula, 22; and injured Jason Zucker, 22.
"We've asked a lot of these players. They've played big roles all season long," Fletcher said. "It's kind of the way this season was set up with the cap going down last summer. I don't see us deviating very much from that before the trade deadline."
The Wild is the 25th-ranked offensive team in the NHL (2.36 goals per game, although 2.8 goals per game the past 20 games). It needs more from Coyle, who scored six goals and had 12 assists in his first 47 games.
"I'm not saying I was brutal, but I want to be more consistent with my play and bring my best game every night," Coyle said. "I definitely want to step up and contribute more."
4. Health is paramount.
The Wild has done a commendable job this season overcoming significant absences from key players.
Captain Mikko Koivu could be back this week from a broken ankle. Parise missed time because of a broken foot. Harding, Coyle, Granlund, Backstrom and defenseman Jared Spurgeon have been out for stretches.
Through all that, the team survived, and sometimes thrived.
But the Wild needs its full cast of players to soar toward the playoffs, especially with the hectic schedule down the stretch.
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