It wasn’t a surprise to see the blue St. Paul Police hat sitting at Matt Cullen’s locker Thursday night. The hat, given to the Wild player chosen by his teammates as “hero of the game,” put a sweet cap on Cullen’s 41st birthday after the Wild’s 6-3 triumph over Montreal.
The ageless fourth-line center got the trophy, but plenty of others shared in the gifts at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild won for the third time in four games. Matt Dumba, mortified by a huge mistake and a benching in a Tuesday loss, rebounded with one of his best games this season. The Wild got goals from six players, and the team’s power play ended an 0-for-19 drought.
The hapless Canadiens didn’t put up much of a fight until the third period, but the Wild had created too much distance for a rally. Following a scolding from coach Bruce Boudreau for a lack of “self-preparation” in recent games, the Wild showed what it can do when it is fully engaged.
“Something we talked about a lot was, we need to come out with life and energy,” said Cullen, who scored the Wild’s first goal — his first this season — and assisted on the third. “It’s nice to get a good start. We got those two [goals] pretty quick, and that carried us.
“We’re still finding our way as a group. We see what we need to do in order to be successful, and that’s something for us to continue to build on. It’s a big win at home.”
Cullen misspoke during a postgame interview when asked about his birthday, saying he was 31 rather than 41. He quickly corrected himself, though his play early in Thursday’s game could have come from someone 10 years younger.
The Wild victimized struggling Montreal goaltender Carey Price, striking twice in 10 seconds in the first period and building a 4-0 lead through the first 32 minutes. Price, perennially one of the NHL’s best goalies, reacted slowly throughout the game and made a blunder that set up the Wild’s second goal.
Cullen scored on the rebound of a Mike Reilly shot at 4 minutes, 46 seconds of the first. Nino Niederreiter earned his first goal of the season 10 seconds later when he got his stick on Dumba’s shot from the right point, which came after Dumba seized Price’s poor clearing attempt.
Boudreau considered scratching Dumba, who has struggled recently and made an ill-advised drop pass that factored into Tuesday’s loss to Winnipeg. After a talk, he believed Dumba would raise his play, and the defenseman rewarded his faith.
“I wanted to redeem myself and be better for my teammates,” said Dumba, who had two assists, two hits and blocked two shots. “Everyone wishes they could go back in that time machine, but you can’t. So just move forward.”
The entire team picked up on that theme. The Wild outshot Montreal 14-7 in the first 20 minutes and owned the first two periods, responding to their coach’s plea for a sharper start. A much crisper power play completed a pretty passing sequence with a Jared Spurgeon goal for a 5-1 lead.
The Canadiens picked up the pace in the third, outshooting the Wild 16-5 and cutting the margin to 5-3. Even that couldn’t spoil Boudreau’s mood, or Cullen’s birthday.
“I thought our first two periods were as good a two periods as we’ve played all year,” Boudreau said. “When they play the right way, they’re going to get opportunities to score.”