The sample size is small — all of one game — and making a positive assessment about any aspect of the Wild in this disappointment of a 2023-24 season is done with knowledge that it might not age well. However, during a 5-0 romp over the New York Islanders on Monday, there was something noticeably different in the team's energy and confidence.
Coincidentally or not, Jonas Brodin was back in the lineup.
Brodin played his first game since Dec. 8 because of a right thumb injury suffered when he was slammed into the boards by Edmonton's Evander Kane. The defenseman missed 17 games, and the Wild went 1-8 in the final nine games of that stretch before Monday's win.
Coach John Hynes, who took over for the fired Dean Evason on Nov. 27, saw an immediate difference.
"It's great to have him back in the lineup," Hynes said Monday. "Seeing him come back tonight after being out for so long, just his skating, his puck poise, his ability to defend the right way — but also his ability to transition the puck out of your zone at the offensive blue line."
Brodin played 20 minutes, 6 seconds against the Islanders, including 4:12 on the Wild's penalty kill, which extinguished all five of New York's power plays. Brodin also assisted on Marcus Foligno's goal with 57 seconds left in the third period.
"I missed it so much," said Brodin, who has one goal and nine assists and is a plus-9 this season. "I've just been grinding in the gym here for five or six weeks. It's been awful when you can't be with the guys and stuff. So, it was a good win and fun to be back playing, for sure."
The return of Brodin gave Hynes more flexibility in his lineup decisions. Struggling veterans Jon Merrill (minus-5 in his previous five games) and Alex Goligoski (minus-2 in his past five) were scratched in favor of Daemon Hunt and Dakota Mermis. The Wild, which had given up an average of 4.6 goals in the 1-8 stretch, responded to help Marc-Andre Fleury post a 21-save shutout and win his 552nd career victory, second-most in NHL history.
"It slots guys in positions the right way,'' Hynes said. During Wednesday's practice, Hynes had the same top three defensive pairings that he used Monday: Brodin with Zach Bogosian, Jake Middleton with Brock Faber and Hunt with Mermis. Hynes wouldn't say if he'd stick with the same third pair for Thursday's game at Tampa Bay that opens a three-game road trip, but he had encouraging words for both Hunt and Mermis.
Brodin's original focus when he got hit was his leg, but he quickly felt the injury to his thumb.
"I just came back to the bench and I'm like, 'Oh, my God, my hand hurts,' " he said. "I didn't even feel it at first. I felt the leg first. Yeah, it's unfortunate. It's tough."
Brodin said the thumb, which had ligament damage, took longer to heal than he had hoped, especially with the Wild going through a slump.
"It was a tough time to be out," he said.
Now that he's back, his teammates appreciate what they were missing, especially with defenseman and captain Jared Spurgeon also missing because of injury.
"It's good to play with a player like him because he's an elite skater and an elite playmaker," Bogosian said. "You feed off him a little bit and read off him."
Foligno, who scored his first goal since Dec. 31 on Monday, saw how Brodin can make an immediate impact because of his calm and efficient play.
"We all realize what he does. He breaks out the puck a lot," Foligno said. "… It makes guys settle down. Guys were making better plays. That's what we need. We needed a little more plays from guys, and we got it."