Good win for the Wild tonight because after consecutive slow starts out of the gate, particularly in the second period in Denver and Calgary, the Wild started well tonight, defended well for the most part, generated chances against a good Tampa Bay Lightning team and wound up edging them for a 2-1 win.
The Wild moved to sixth in the Western Conference, but that means absolutely nothing in the new playoff format. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, the next two teams with the most points earn wildcard spots.
So with Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado way ahead of the Wild, the Wild’s all but locked in a wildcard spot unless one of the three Central Division teams north of them tank. The Avs are 10 points up on Minnesota.
So, currently, the Wild resides in the first of two wild card spots with 24 games left this season. Vancouver, which is four points behind Minnesota, and Phoenix, which is five points behind Minnesota, both lost, so the Wild gained ground on each.
Dallas and scorching-hot Winnipeg both won and are each six points behind the Wild, which has 67 points in 58 games.
The big concern after tonight’s game is how serious Marco Scandella’s apparent knee injury is. He was lost 2:01 into the game and 55 seconds into his night when he crossed the offensive blue line, collided with Tyler Johnson and did the splits. His knees bent awkwardly, and it looked like his right knee was seriously hurt.
Coach Mike Yeo called it a lower-body injury, said he’s doubtful for Thursday and said he would have more of an update after Wednesday’s practice. Hopefully it’s not too long-term because Yeo indicated that maybe the 20-day Olympic break will help heal whatever’s wrong with him. If it is serious, this could be a significant loss because Scandella's been playing well.
Clayton Stoner will surely play Thursday in the final game before the Olympic break against Nashville.
The good news is Jared Spurgeon returned from a foot injury tonight and despite missing 14 games didn’t miss a beat. He assisted on goals by Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley.
Heatley had a solid game. He made plays, set up Jason Zucker for a breakaway and scored his 11th goal. Yeo was real happy with Niederreiter’s game. He scored for the first time since the tying goal in the third period and shootout winner Jan. 7 in L.A. That was a 12-game drought.
Besides the goal, Yeo said, “[Niederreiter] played a very strong game as far as I’m concerned. His puck strength was outstanding. We stressed the last couple games spending more time in the offensive zone, and he did a great job on the wall in the D-zone and more so in offensive zone, the way he managed the puck and the way he held onto it [was impressive].”
Darcy Kuemper was also impressive with 34 saves, a nice bounceback after giving up eight goals in his past two starts. He came up big late and was helped out by his handy post when Tyler Johnson clanked it with 39 seconds left.
The Lightning pressed late bigtime, but the Wild held on.
Yeo had Erik Haula on the ice with two minutes left and Yeo called this easiest one of his best games. He said when he plays like tonight, he has a “ton of confidence in him.”
As I’ve written, Zucker and Haula will spend the Olympic break playing in Iowa. I’ll be interested to see what the Wild does if Mikko Koivu as expected plays in the Wild’s first game after the break Feb. 27 in Edmonton.
Maybe the Wild would consider bringing Haula back and going Mikael Granlund, Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Haula 1, 2, 3, 4 at center and move Kyle Brodziak to the right wing. The other option is Granlund, Koivu, Kyle Brodziak and Haula, and moving Coyle back to right wing.
But Haula is very useful with his speed and on the penalty kill. Tonight, he used his lightning speed to create a heck of a shorthanded chance for himself.
Keith Ballard had three hits. Nate Prosser blocked three shots. Zach Parise had six shots and three takeaways. Mikael Granlund had a couple awesome shifts. Jason Zucker makes a great pass for Spurgeon on the first goal and got the puck up ice on transition to Spurgeon for the second goal.
Overall, very good game from the Wild, a tough game in which it played 58 minutes with five defensemen. The Wild’s D were great and the forwards were terrific defensively with back pressure all game. They were also better taking care of the puck than they have been the past few games.
Suter logged 34:31, but he had a great line afterward, saying, “I had the shanks all game. I couldn’t make a pass coming out of our end, couldn’t make a pass through the neutral zone. I felt like Roy McAvoy out there.”
That’s a Tin Cup reference, a good move with Kevin Costner and Rene Russo.
Spurgeon, always overshadowed and often underrated, had a good line after the game about the fact that nobody bothered asking him questions the past month because so many bigger names – Mikko Koivu, Parise, Josh Harding – were sidelined.
“It was sort of nice. Well, not nice, but I didn’t have to answer any questions,” he joked.
“It was a fast game. Quick skating team. It was fun out there. It was sort of a playoff atmosphere. We know they’ve been rolling, so it’s a big win for us,” Spurgeon continued.
It was a fun game to watch. Tampa’s a fast team that goes north-south quickly. So there was a lot of counterattacks by both teams tonight and plenty of Grade A chances. The Wild could have easily blown this game open in the first two periods. They had some dynamite chances, especially in the second.
“I liked the way our guys came into this game, their preparation,” Yeo said. “You could tell that they had the right focus defensively and execution wise. We did generate a lot of chances, but the way we were generating them, I was real happy.”
That’s it for me. Talk to you after Wednesday’s practice.