For the first time this season, the Wild managed back-to-back victories.
Fitting, then, that the first win streak come against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
The Wild overcame the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center in front of an announced sellout crowd of 19,064. And even Wild coach Bruce Boudreau couldn’t deny outdoing “the best team,” as he called Pittsburgh on Friday, was a little sweeter than any old two points.
“Well, I don’t know if it carries — yeah, I guess,” Boudreau eventually conceded after trying to demure. “But I mean, the most important thing to me is the getting the two in a row and getting over .500, albeit it’s only one game, but we’ve got to start somewhere. It was playing Pittsburgh last year that started us to play like we’re capable of playing on a nightly basis.
“It was a much-needed win.”
The Wild improved to 4-3-2 while Pittsburgh is 7-4-1. This was the Wild’s third-consecutive victory against the reigning champs, outscoring Pittsburgh 12-5 in those meetings.
Pittsburgh, though, did strike first off a rather fluky power-play goal after two games without one. At 11 minutes, 52 seconds in the first period, Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin’s shot banked off Wild defenseman Kyle Quincey and goaltender Devan Dubnyk to ricochet into the back of the net.
But fewer than two minutes later, the Wild made up for that own goal. Center Matt Cullen, who won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh the past two seasons, took a shot, and Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray coughed up the rebound. Winger Daniel Winnik then cleaned up the puck, scooping it past Murray at 13:36 in the first period.
After a first 20 minutes where Pittsburgh held the shot advantage at 14-13, both teams managed just six each in the second period during a game of “pingpong in the neutral zone,” as Winnik called it.
But in a desperate third period, captain Mikko Koivu came out the hero, scoring the game-winner after redirecting defenseman Mike Reilly’s perfect pass at 9:03.
From there, it was a defensive stand to hang on to the victory. In total, the Wild blocked 18 shots, including an imperative one from winger Marcus Foligno in the dying minutes. Dubnyk also made 29 saves.
“We haven’t played the way we’re capable until probably the last two games,” Dubnyk said. “You try not to talk about a schedule, but it was part of it. There was no flow, no rhythm to get into how we want to play for the entire season. And obviously, lose some guys [to injury]. It’s been a strange start to the season, but if you look at the last stretch of games here, we’re really starting to see the way we need to play to win. And it’s happening.”
And when a team can play near its best against the team everyone wants to beat, well, the Wild couldn’t really have hoped for more.
“I really think they’ve got a target on their back this year,” Winnik said. “I don’t think anyone really wants to see them three-peat. So I know that’s a long ways away, but they’re still a real good hockey team, and they’ve got some of the best offensive guys in the league. And I thought we did a good job shutting them down.”
The Wild reassigned forwards Joel Eriksson Ek, Luke Kunin and Zack Mitchell to the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League after the game, as the team won’t play again until 7 p.m. Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.