Getting to know the new Wild: Name tags might help
ST. PAUL -- Kevin Fiala’s head was still spinning Thursday, Feb. 28, after the left-winger practiced with the Minnesota Wild for the first time since being acquired from Nashville earlier this week.
Two locker stalls down, winger Ryan Donato admitted he finally knows all of his teammates’ names a week after joining Minnesota from the Bruins organization.
Across the way, defenseman Brad Hunt, whose five weeks in town practically make him a mainstay, described the Wild as one big welcoming family.
Injuries, minor-league call-ups and trades have transformed the wild-card-positioned Wild as they fight tooth and nail to remain in playoff contention. The renovation has been swift and productive as they carry a four-game winning streak into Saturday night’s game against the Pacific Division-leading Flames in Calgary.
With so many moving parts, and the loss earlier this season of defenseman Matt Dumba and captain Mikko Koivu to injury, coach Bruce Boudreau acknowledged there will be more mixing and matching of forward lines and defensive pairings during the all-important stretch drive.
“I’ve got to believe, the way this is going, it’s going to be different stuff every night,” he said. “It’ll be a daily (thing based on) whoever’s playing well combination-wise rather than having one line stick together.”
Zach Parise did not practice Thursday at Tria Rink after blocking a first-period shot with his right foot Tuesday night in Winnipeg. Boudreau called it a “maintenance day,” and said Parise would return to practice Friday.
That required Boudreau to scramble his lines during practice, keeping intact the Jason Zucker-Eric Staal-Jordan Greenway combination as well as the Fiala-Luke Kunin-Donato kid line, which drew rave reviews after only one game together.
“It’s been great; a lot of chemistry,” said the 22-year-old Donato, who has one goal and five assists in four games with Minnesota. “We’re not afraid to talk to each other and make sure we’re all learning. We feed off each other, and hopefully that will benefit us going forward.”
Kunin, 21, has four goals and nine points in 12 games since being recalled from the Wild’s American Hockey League team in Iowa. He skated a career-high 20 minutes, 56 seconds against the Jets and is now taking shifts at center.
“We never planned on it,” Boudreau said of the move. “We thought he’d be a better winger than center, but he was pretty good in Winnipeg and played 20 minutes. Long term, if you had Kunin in the middle and Ek in the middle, it’s not a bad situation.”
Ek, who scored the game-winning goal against Winnipeg, is playing at a higher level since being recalled from the minors Feb. 6. The 22-year-old has two goals and three assists, playing about 16 minutes per game after averaging between eight and nine minutes earlier this season.
“I’ve been playing some big minutes, and when you play more you feel better … better than I did before,” Ek said.
Boudreau said Fiala showed great hands and hockey sense against Winnipeg after arriving from Nashville just hours before his first game with the Wild, who traded Mikael Granlund to the Predators straight up for him.
Fiala appreciates the new opportunity afforded him.
“(General manager) Paul Fenton believing in me, it’s just exciting to come here and start over,” Fiala said. “I feel it’s going to be a great organization, for sure. My head is getting clear again. Stuff is just getting easier. I’ve been here two days, and it’s been great.”
Meanwhile, Hunt — acquired from Vegas on Jan. 21 for a conditional 2019 draft choice — has impressed with his versatility to play left wing and defense. He has three goals in 11 games, and said the acclimation has been easy.
“It’s such a close team and such a good-character room that no matter who comes in everyone’s going to be made to feel welcome,” Hunt said. “When I came in, instantly it was like I had been here five years. It’s almost like you’ve been invited into a family. Now that we’re starting to win, guys are feeling better about themselves and it’s just a positive atmosphere.”
Staal said the new arrivals have provided an energy boost and are playing freely because they are on a contender rather than playing out the string with an also-ran.
“These guys that have come in are excited for the opportunity and the fact that they’re joining a good team,” Staal said. “It’s been fun to have them. Confidence is growing in them and growing in us as a team, and that’s huge. You want to ride that wave and that type of feeling as long we can.”