Wild center Eric Staal was preparing to celebrate a Ryan Suter goal after Suter scooted around the net and was greeted by an open side.
But instead of sliding the puck in, Suter handed it off to Staal for the can’t-miss tap-in during a 4-3 overtime win over the Sharks Sunday in San Jose, Calif.
“His patience, I guess, paid off for me,” Staal said.
After defensive partner Jared Spurgeon went down last month because of a groin strain, Suter’s play in his own end only seemed to become more critical to a Wild team once again needing to overcome more adversity.
But Suter, 32, hasn’t just taken care of his responsibilities in front of the Wild’s net. He’s been a stabilizing presence all over the ice, helping the Wild go a respectable 4-2 without Spurgeon at the outset of a three-game homestand that starts Tuesday against the Flames.
“He’s world class,” Staal said. “Even on nights when he’s not at his best, he’s a guy you want to be on the ice with no matter what. He’s a calming player. He makes it easy for everybody else on the ice.”
Since Spurgeon was sidelined Nov. 27, Suter has played more than 25 minutes all but once while eclipsing the 30-minute plateau last Friday against the Ducks and coming close in the overtime win over the Sharks (29:30) that sealed four out of a possible six points for the Wild on its three-game tour of California.
Amid all those minutes, he’s finished a minus player in only two of the six games — a feat that highlights his awareness in his own zone but also his instincts at the other end of the rink.
“Lately he’s been a little more aggressive offensively and still getting back,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Suter’s early season issues mirrored that of his team, which has struggled to find the kind of success it enjoyed during the first half of last season.
Suter, a three-time All-Star, finished tied with teammate Jason Zucker for the best plus-minus in the league (+34) in 2016-17, but is -5 this season, second worst on the team. But lately, his forays in the offensive end have been more noticeable.
His twirl behind the net to set up Staal on Sunday was similar to Suter’s goal Dec. 2 against the Blues, a wraparound effort after he pinched to join the play. He’s also registered at least one shot on goal in the past 12 games and had four during 30:26 of ice time against the Ducks in an eventual overtime win.
“He takes a lot of pride,” Boudreau said. “I thought he played great in Anaheim. He was upset because he was minus-2, and I said, ‘There’s nothing you can do about that. Just think about how well Matt Dumba’s playing right now, and you’re a big cause for that.’ ”
Dumba has taken Spurgeon’s spot on the top pairing, and working next to Suter seems to have suited him. The 23-year-old was caught out of position on the first of four unanswered goals by the Kings in their 5-2 rally over the Wild last Tuesday, but Dumba has scored the game-winner in overtime twice since the promotion, chipped in four points total and handled the heavier minutes.
Overall, the entire back end has been able to regroup without Spurgeon in the mix, as Ryan Murphy and Jonas Brodin have remained together on the second pairing and Nate Prosser has anchored the third unit next to Mike Reilly or Gustav Olofsson.
And while Suter’s experience sets the tone, he didn’t feel any pressure to contribute even more while Spurgeon’s on the mend.
“Our ‘D’ core’s pretty solid,” he said.
“Obviously, Spurg is a good player, and he helps us a lot when he’s here. He’s not here right now, and everyone is stepping up to fill that role.”
A by-committee effort is what the Wild needs to remain relevant, with or without Spurgeon on the ice.
But having Suter leading the pack certainly helps.
“He does dirty work that people don’t recognize or notice,” Staal said. “But when you’re a player that plays with him or against him — because I’ve done that, too — he’s quietly extremely tough to play against. He’s quietly really good to make your job easier. He’s a big part of our team, and I think everybody knows that.”
The Wild signed winger Ivan Lodnia to a three-year, entry-level contract Monday.
Lodnia, whom the Wild drafted in the third round (85th overall) earlier this year, has 33 points in 31 games with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League, including a team-high 16 goals.