ST. PAUL - Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had a full lineup at his disposable for all of two games before Nino Niederreiter aggravated his lingering lower-body injury earlier this week.
"Back to the drawing board," Boudreau said before Minnesota's 2-1 victory over the Blackhawks in Chicago on Tuesday.
Not that he's making an excuses for his team, which as of Thursday, Jan. 11, held the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference despite a mediocre first half.
"Whenever somebody goes down, it's somebody's opportunity to take the bull by the horns and run with it," Boudreau said. "That's what we're waiting for right now."
Here are five players, ranked in order of importance, who need to step up in the second half if the Wild (23-17-4, 50 points) want to have any chance of making the playoffs:
5. Joel Eriksson Ek
It's time for the kid to get going. A player with an outside chance to win the Calder Trophy (best rookie) a few months ago, Eriksson Ek hasn't scored a goal since the Oct. 5 opener. He has one goal and five assists in 37 games, spending most of his time in the bottom six of the lineup. While the 21-year-old has shown some flashes the past few months despite not scoring, the Wild need him to be a contributor on the stat sheet too.
4. Charlie Coyle
It seems like every season around this time, Coyle is struggling. While he has the size and skill to be a force, especially in front of the net, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound forward has never been able to sustain success. There have been too many peaks and valleys throughout his career, and this season is no different with only 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) so far. To be fair, Coyle missed 16 games with a broken leg, so maybe he'll start to find his groove in the second half.
3. Jason Zucker
Remember early this season when Zucker scored six consecutive goals in a row for the Wild? That was fun while it lasted. Since then, the 25-year-old has struggled mightily. Still second on the team in goals (15), Zucker has found the back of the net just once in the past 16 games, and that was an empty-netter. He still averages in the upwards of 17 minutes a game skating in the top six of the lineup. Now he needs to translate that playing time into production. "When our team is at our best, that guy is skating," defenseman Ryan Suter said. "He creates a lot of room out there with his speed."
2. Zach Parise
He's the highest-paid player on the team, and it's time for him to start playing like it. Parise gets a pass for the first half after having back surgery a few months ago. That said, now that he's back in the lineup, Parise needs to start producing. In his prime, Parise was good for around 30 goals per season. While he certainly won't reach that milestone this season, somewhere in the ballpark of 15 goals in the second half isn't too much to ask. If the Wild can get that type of production out of the $98 million man, they should be in good shape down the stretch.
1. Devan Dubnyk
No matter how good or bad everyone else is playing, when push come to shove, Dubnyk has the ability to single-handedly make or break the second half. He was one of the best goaltenders in the league for much of last season, and the Wild are hoping he can reach that level again this season. Dubnyk has been solid so far with a 16-9-2 record, 2.66 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. But he needs to be even better down the stretch. "If every team's No.1 goalie isn't on top of their game, they're in trouble in this league," Boudreau said. "You know, goaltending, we don't talk about it a lot unless we don't have it. It's the most important position, and they can make coaches look good or bad either way."
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