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A Wild turnaround in Minnesota

It is hard to fathom, really, back in Buffalo on Jan. 14, the Minnesota Wild holding a back-to-basics practice the day after another loss and players-only meeting.

They were the kind of drills one would see in training camp, not in the middle of the season.

The team had dropped 12 of its previous 14 games, and the next one against the lowly Sabres on Jan. 15 felt like win or go home.

"We were on thin ice there to say the least," Wild star winger Zach Parise told ESPN.com Monday, thinking back to that moment.

"I think that game in Buffalo was a turning point. Granted they weren't playing well at the time, but we needed a game like that, where we blew a team out and got a shutout. From then on, we started to feel good about ourselves. It's been a 'haven't looked back' type of thing since."

I'd say.

Try 23-6-2, beginning with that pivotal 7-0 win in Buffalo.

"That was the key moment in the season for us," said Wild head coach Mike Yeo. "There was a stretch leading up to that, where you could tell things were slipping in the wrong direction. I give our leaders a lot of credit, their play getting us out of it. Obviously the trade for Devan [Dubnyk] was without a question the turning point. The mentality, the focus, the way people put it on themselves. The way the leaders dug in at that time got us through that.

"I'd like to think that handling that adversity at that point in the season, I know it's a difficult thing to go through, but it makes you stronger and it can be useful later on down the road."

Oh yeah, and Dubnyk was acquired on that same day (Jan. 14). More on him in a moment.

It has been an incredible turnaround for a team that many predicted great things for back in September. Now those great things may very well come this spring, as the Wild look as dangerous as any of the top clubs in the West.

We canvassed coaches in both conferences for their take on the Wild:

-- "Deep team," one rival Western Conference head coach told ESPN.com Sunday. "Lots of skill right through the lineup. One of the deepest lineups in the West."

-- Added another Western Conference head coach Tuesday morning: "They are very well balanced. Work very hard and to me are fast, similar to Nashville that way."

-- From an Eastern Conference head coach Tuesday morning: "Deep team -- good structure -- deflect everything to the outside. Dubnyk just has to make the first save for the most part. Forwards committed to 200-foot game. Good team speed, defense maturing very quickly; example [20-year-old Matt] Dumba."

-- And finally, from an Eastern Conference assistant coach: "Very strong with their system play in all three zones. Have depth up front with a nice blend of skill and speed. Defense is solid and they have [Ryan] Suter, who plays a ton and is so reliable. They are not overly physical and that may cause problems in the West against some teams with big forwards."

First things first, though, before we crown these guys: The Wild have to make the playoffs. They had a five-point cushion on the Los Angeles Kings entering Tuesday night's game at Long Island.

And that's just it, Parise said, as much fun as it is to look back at the Buffalo turning point, it's far from over.

"We've been on a really good run, but even with that great run we're still fighting for a playoff spot. So there's not a lot of breathing room," he said. "We have to keep winning just to get into the playoffs."

Dubnyk, meanwhile, has made every single start for the Wild since that night in Buffalo -- 31 straight entering Tuesday's game -- along the way putting up a .937 save percentage to go with a 1.74 goals-against average; mind-boggling, Carey Price-like numbers. And Dubnyk was scheduled to be in net Tuesday for start No. 32 in a row.

"I really like his positioning," Yeo said. "Technically, he's a good goalie, he's a big goalie, covers a lot of net. Makes a good first save. Reacts well. He's also got a very calm demeanor in the net, especially at that time when we were reeling a little bit and didn't have a lot of confidence.

"His confidence and calm demeanor in there filtered through to the rest of the group."

Courtesy of my friend Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Wild have given up 53 goals in these past 31 games; they gave up 58 goals in the 14 games prior.

Dubnyk finds himself at the heart of an interesting debate: Just how much of this run has been his solid goaltending or does he play behind a very good defensive team so his job isn't too difficult?

The answer probably lies in a bit of both. Each story feeds into the other. The Wild have needed Dubnyk, and Dubnyk certainly has benefited from playing on a team that gives up very little defensively.

"We like to think he's been awfully good for us," said Yeo, whose team was outshot 18-5 by Toronto in the third period Monday night but saw Dubnyk stop 17 of those for the win. "His play has helped the rest of the group concentrate on their own game. But I would also say the success of our team, a lot of credit has to go to Devan without question, but a lot of credit has to go to the game the players are playing in front of Devan as well.

"Our guys take pride in playing defensive hockey, in playing an aggressive mentality in how we attack with the puck and also making sure we're strong on the puck and making sure we're possessing the puck. It's been a good partnership."

Hard to believe that this was the same goalie who a year ago got shelled night after night in Edmonton (.894 save percentage) and Nashville (.850 save percentage in two games) before ending up the No. 4 goalie in the Montreal Canadiens organization.

He had sunken so low that when Carey Price went down with injury in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, Dubnyk had already packed it in for the year, nowhere to be found, mostly because he wanted to be with his family from whom he had been away for too long, but also admittedly because he needed a mental reset after a season from hell.

"I had gone home after the Boston series," Dubnyk said Monday, looking back. "Obviously you don't expect that [Price getting hurt] to happen. But Ticker [Dustin Tokarski] was practicing with the team. Just the way things were going, I knew he would be the next goalie in line if something were to happen. Obviously had there been an opportunity to get in there I wasn't about to leave."

But as the No. 4 guy behind Tokarski and Peter Budaj, Dubnyk figured the Habs didn't need him to stick around for the rest of the playoffs. He dearly missed his family in Edmonton.

"I approached the organization and just said that I felt I need to go be a dad, that there were things at that moment in my life that were more important to me," said Dubnyk. "They were awesome about it. They let me go. And of course the day after I went home I'm watching TV and [Price get hurts in Game 1 vs. Rangers]. I'm like, 'Here come the phone calls.' Sure enough, my phone just started blowing up, people wanted to know if I was going in. I was like, 'I'm in Edmonton!'"

Just nine months later, after being the No. 4 goalie on the Montreal depth chart, he's one of the best stories of the season.

"It's crazy to think about," Dubnyk said, smiling. "But you know, it's something I can always draw back on. If I can get through that, then really I can get through anything. Just changing a few things, tweaking a few things, and just getting that confidence back."

Dubnyk gave a ton of credit to the Arizona Coyotes organization for signing him last summer and, of course, to Coyotes goalie whisperer Sean Burke, who helped fine-tune his game.

"The biggest thing was not bringing me in there like I was damaged goods," said Dubnyk. "Everyone was excited that I was part of the team. There were no thoughts about the previous season. To be able to do that from the second I showed up was huge for me."

As for the future, the pending unrestricted free agent on July 1 wants to stay put in Minnesota.

"Absolutely, that's the plan, I'm trying not to think about it too much," said Dubnyk. "That would certainly be nice, yeah."

That will be general manager Chuck Fletcher's job to figure out come the summer; contract talks will wait until the offseason.

Hard to believe we got this far into this remarkable Minnesota Wild story without mentioning Fletcher.

Talk about a GM of the Year candidate. He gave up just a third-round pick this June for Dubnyk. He got Chris Stewart for a second-rounder in ... 2017! Plus the Sabres retained 50 percent of Stewart's salary.

Fletcher added Sean Bergenheim and Jordan Leopold too, all for little.

And Fletcher didn't fire Yeo when a lot of other GMs might have in mid-January. Fletcher stuck to his belief that his issue was mostly goaltending, it wasn't coaching. He was right.

Fletcher's team reached the second round last spring and gave the Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle.

Five or six teams could easily come out of the West and reach the Cup finals this season. But make no mistake about it, one of those teams is indeed the Wild.