Monday and Tuesday, the Minnesota Wild visited Duluth, a city on the western tip of Lake Superior about a two and a half hour drive from the team's usual home in St. Paul.
The players enjoyed themselves, especially when they got a sustained ovation at the end of Tuesday's open practice at Duluth's sparkling Amsoil Arena.
"No one's ever applauded us for practicing," defenseman Ryan Suter said.
It was meant as a bit of a getaway for the team's final roster, a way to bring the players together before they busted into their 82-game grind.
"We're about to go to war together, a lot of travel. It's a grind," coach Mike Yeo said. "When you have a group you care about and a group that you want to go and play for, it makes a huge difference. That's why we're here."
Thursday night, the Wild opened the grind against the Los Angeles Kings. Despite a new-look lineup that features a slew of young talent, the Wild looked sharp throughout and even carried a large part of the play. Thanks to a late Jeff Carter equalizer, goals from Carter and Anze Kopitar in the shootout, and 27 saves from Jonathan Quick, the Kings found a way to win 3-2.
Against the big, burly, tough Kings, Minnesota's smaller and youthful lineup did a lot of good things. There were large stretches where the Wild controlled play and kept the Kings bottled up. Quick made some great saves to keep his team in a game that was close throughout.
The Wild's top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and the newly re-signed Jason Pominville didn't get on the board, and while they were effective at times, there were a couple shifts where the Kings trapped them in the defensive zone and kept them from getting any open ice.
Much is expected of these three. Koivu had a disappointing playoff series against Chicago, and Parise looked me square in the face Monday and told me he thought he was "okay, not great" last season. Pominville, a player Parise swears by, didn't play with this line much after coming over from Buffalo at the trade deadline and then getting hurt (thanks to Dustin Brown's elbow) last year.
"I think I can be a lot better," Parise said. He also noted that the line needs to play together to build chemistry, because they simply weren't together much last year. It'll come for that group. I don't believe Koivu is a dominant center, but he's absolutely adequate, and he should be very good with elite wingers like Parise and Pominville.
Brodin and Suter are an elite defensive pair. The two will eat a ton of minutes, and do so quite effectively. While Matt Dumba might not be ready to play in the NHL, Marco Scandella and Spurgeon are. Guys like Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner could struggle to play consistently, signaling Minnesota's improved depth.
If Thursday is any indicator, this team will be a contender in the Central, provided it can score. Two goals per game won't cut it, and the Wild won't win a ton when its top players are held off the board. But system-wise, Minnesota was very good on Thursday, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that players the caliber of Parise and Pominville won't be held scoreless for 82 games. Or even three, in all likelihood.