Sunday night against the San Jose Sharks, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville returned from their bout with the mumps, meaning a week after acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White, the Wild finally got to see its full allotment of forwards.
The debut was a success.
The Wild not only beat the formidable Pacific Division leader that represented the Western Conference in last season’s Stanley Cup Final 3-1, but it got back to its hallmark — defense — and shut down the Sharks’ extensive list of stars despite playing short a defenseman for 50 minutes.
“This time of the year, you’ve got to play playoff hockey — 2-1, 1-0 hockey,” veteran Chris Stewart said. “That’s winning hockey this time of the year.”
In what coach Bruce Boudreau called “our best game defensively maybe this year,” the Wild gave up five shots in the third period after allowing only a goal late in the first period to San Jose’s fourth line.
Eric Staal scored twice, including an empty-netter to seal things, Parise scored a power-play goal and Devan Dubnyk made 20 saves as the Wild hit the 90-point mark and leapfrogged Chicago, retaking the lead the West and Central Division by a point with two games in hand.
“You know Bruce is paying attention, and so are we. We know the standings,” Staal said. “We know [Chicago has] won a lot of games. We have to keep doing our thing. I like the way we’ve played the last two games. We have been strong and haven’t given up a lot.”
The Wild was coming off a 1-0 loss in Columbus, but after giving up 14 goals the three previous games, Boudreau demanded the Wild tighten up. The Wild not only ended the Sharks’ eight-game point streak and handed them their third regulation loss in the past 21 games, but it improved to 16-3-2 this season following a loss, including 10 consecutive wins.
“That’s exactly how we’re going to need to play to win down the stretch and into the playoffs,” said Dubnyk, who made six saves on the Wild’s 4-for-4 penalty kill, a PK that’s 21-for-21 the past 10 games. “That’s as good of an example as you’re going to get. We shut it down, gave them nothing, but we weren’t sitting back.”
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer added: “We knew it would be a tough game in here. They came as advertised, they’re very good, and we were not as good as them.”
The news wasn’t all good. Defenseman Christian Folin appeared to suffer a serious injury to his right arm, maybe his wrist, midway through the first period when he lost his footing chasing a dump-in and crashed violently into the end wall after a nudge by Kevin Labanc.
Folin left in visible agony. Boudreau would only say afterward that “it didn’t look good” and that the team would know more Monday.
Down to five defensemen, the Wild wasn’t fazed after building a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by Parise and Staal. After the Labanc penalty, Parise scored his 15th goal — and seventh in 12 games after scoring eight in his first 39 — on a beautiful redirection of Pominville’s slap pass.
“I felt like I had a lot of energy,” Parise said of his first game since Feb. 21. “I didn’t really know which way it was going to go after having, basically, 10 days off.”
Staal, who entered with one empty-net goal in his previous 18 games, then buried a beautiful pass from Matt Dumba for a 2-0 lead.
That goal came after one of the oddest saves in Martin Jones’ career. Stewart took a shot where the puck actually entered Jones’ jersey through his neck hole and got caught in the collar behind his neck. Nobody knew where the puck was, so Stewart threw his arms up to celebrate a goal that wasn’t.
“From what I knew, it wasn’t over the mesh, so I just assumed it was somewhere in the back of the net,” Stewart said, laughing. “When he pulled it out of his neck, I don’t know where it came from.”
Added Boudreau, “Now that we won, it’s pretty funny. I’ve never seen anything like that.”