After replacing their coach in mid-February, the Minnesota Wild have won seven of 10 games to climb back into playoff position. In other words, they’re right where they feel they’re supposed to be.
“The team we have we expect to be in the playoffs,” Wild forward Thomas Vanek said Friday.
Minnesota holds the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference heading into its game against Buffalo on Saturday afternoon. The Wild have regained their swagger since swapping coach Mike Yeo for John Torchetti on Feb. 13. They’re 7-3 under Torchetti and have scored an NHL-best 37 goals during the run.
“They seem to be playing a little more free, a little more confident with the puck, a little more attacking with the puck and really to their strengths because that’s the kind of team they are,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Wild opened the season 22-11-8 before a 1-11-2 slump that got Yeo fired.
“We had a great first half, then I can’t point my finger at what happened, but we just fell apart,” Vanek said in First Niagara Center. “Like I always say, this is a game of confidence. If you have 20 guys playing with no confidence, it’s going to be tough to win games.
“They made a change, and once you make a change it always starts up at zero again. Everyone has a little bit more energy, and it’s been a good transition for everyone.”
Former Sabres captain Jason Pominville has five goals and 12 points during the 10-game run, bringing his season totals to 11 goals and 33 points in 65 games. Vanek has three goals and six points during the 10 games, lifting him to 18 goals and 39 points in 64 games.
Vanek needs two goals to reach 20 for the 11th straight season. He is one of just three active players with 20 or more goals in his first 10 seasons, sharing the honor with Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin.
“I would rather be at 30 than 20,” Vanek said. “My role is score goals, produce points, make my linemates better. For most of the year I’ve done that. Tough stretch in there for a while, but we’re getting better as a team.”
Goaltender Robin Lehner will make his fourth straight start and head to Buffalo’s crease for the 15th time in 20 games. He is 5-7-3 this season with a .931 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average.
Chad Johnson will be used sparingly for the remainder of the year.
“We have 15 games this month, and we’re looking at somewhere around a 10 and five, 11 and four split between the goaltenders,” Bylsma said.
Vanek, who led the University of Minnesota to the 2003 NCAA hockey championship, keeps a close eye on the Golden Gophers. He likes what he sees from Sabres prospect Hudson Fasching, a junior who led the team with 19 goals and 34 points in 31 games heading into Friday’s meeting with Michigan State.
“He’s a good player,” Vanek said. “He kind of reminds me of myself when I was back in college. He’s good around the net, good on the power play. He’ll be a good player for this organization.”
The Sabres hope to sign Fasching when his season ends. They can also send him to Rochester on an amateur tryout.
Sabres assistant coach Dave Barr underwent foot surgery this week after being injured while running. He has been replaced on the bench by fellow assistant Dan Lambert, who normally watches from the press box. There is no timetable for Barr’s return.
“He’s going to be laid (up) with a cast for a while,” Bylsma said.
Forward Nicolas Deslauriers is known to dance in the Sabres’ dressing room. Bylsma has long had the nickname “Disco Dan.”
“I have not seen him dance,” Bylsma said. “They haven’t seen me dance, either.”