MONTREAL – His coach wrapped the loss in a silver lining, but Jason Zucker wasn’t so quick to follow suit. Following a bitter defeat at Toronto on Wednesday — a game in which the Wild played well enough to deserve better — Zucker couldn’t get past the Wild’s third consecutive loss, even as he appreciated Bruce Boudreau’s praise for the effort.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but we need to be better,” the Wild winger said. “We need to bear down and get one of these wins and go from there.”
The Wild accomplished the first two pieces of the equation with Thursday’s 3-0 victory over Montreal. Zucker, who scored both goals in Wednesday’s 4-2 loss at Toronto, added a hat trick Thursday to end the team’s longest skid of the season. As Zucker shined at one end of the ice, Devan Dubnyk stood tall at the other, stopping a season-best 41 shots for a team craving some positive reinforcement.
In a high-tempo, physical game, the Wild shoved aside any weariness to assemble one of its most complete efforts this season. It blocked 28 shots, outhit the Canadiens 25-17, played assertive defense and kept the heat on Montreal goaltender Charlie Lindgren.
Lindgren, a Lakeville native who played at St. Cloud State, lost for the first time in six career NHL games. Zucker beat him with a pretty backhander for a shorthanded goal at 2 minutes, 46 seconds of the third period, then tipped in a Nino Niederreiter shot and added an empty-net goal.
“Every guy has taken it upon themselves to make sure they’re stepping up and doing a little bit more,” said Zucker, who had one goal in 10 games before scoring five the past two games. “A lot of guys played really well [Thursday].
“It’s huge. It was a tough game, a tight game. But it was good to get that win, and hopefully, we can carry that into Philly.”
Saturday’s game at Philadelphia already was on the players’ minds, before they had even left Bell Centre. As cathartic as it felt to get only their second victory in the past six games, it won’t mean much unless it starts something bigger.
The improvement they showed in consecutive games left Boudreau hopeful that he’s seeing a trend.
“It was a great effort,” he said. “They sacrificed, all of them. They really wanted to win, and it showed.”
Boudreau kept his team at the hotel Thursday morning to rest its legs following a wrenching loss and a late-night flight. Though the Wild had faced the Canadiens only a week before, the coach noted how dramatically Montreal had improved in that short time. It had not lost since an inept 6-3 defeat at Xcel Energy Center, and Lindgren’s two victories included a road shutout of Chicago.
Though two of the Canadiens’ best players — forward Jonathan Drouin and defenseman Shea Weber — sat out because of injuries, they used Lindgren’s goaltending and a fast-paced, tenacious offense to counter the Wild. Montreal had a first-period goal disallowed because it went in off a high stick, and it outshot the Wild 14-2 in the first half of the second period. The Wild got some great chances as well, but it could not get through Lindgren.
Dubnyk withstood every Canadiens push while Zucker kept working, hitting Lindgren with a team-high seven shots. Mikael Granlund set him up for the shorthander as he split the Canadiens defense and went to the blocker side, avoiding Lindgren’s quick glove. On his second goal, Zucker stood his ground in front of the net to get the tip-in.
The Wild had to sweat a little more when Montreal’s Charles Hudon scored with five minutes left, but the goal was overturned because of goaltender interference.
“It feels good, and it’s important for all of us,” Dubnyk said. “That was a lot of fun.”