A certain radio host who may also be a popular play-by-play guy in town for a team that wears purple asked me the other morning if the New Jersey Devils game was “loser proof.”
Nothing’s loser proof in the NHL, especially when you’re still a team with Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri and Cory Schneider. That Wild showed that on Tuesday.
But, if there ever was a game that should have been loser proof, it was Thursday’s against Arizona. The Coyotes are young, lack a lot of starpower, are near the bottom of the conference and most of all played the night before, were finishing a stretch of five games in seven nights, were using their backup goalie, were without a couple key cogs and had lost 12 of 14 starting with their last visit to St. Paul.
Well, the Wild almost lost.
But the best team in the Western Conference didn’t, proving two points is two points after a 4-3 victory to extend its point streak against the West to 14 games (12-0-2) and avoid only its second two-game regulation losing streak of the season.
Nino Niederreiter’s second power-play goal of the game – beautiful slot redirection of Mikael Granlund’s setup -- with 7:06 left was the winner. He now has 14 goals and five in his past five games. Remember how long it took for Niederreiter to became a power-play mainstay with Minnesota? Now he already has six power-play goals this season.
He also assisted on Eric Staal’s game-opening goal for a three-point night. Jason Pominville posted his eighth career three-assist game. He has helpers on both of Niederreiter’s power-play goals and sprung Chris Stewart for a breakaway goal and short-lived two-goal lead late in the second.
Heck of a job by Pominville tonight. He moved to the power-play point in place of injured Jonas Brodin and did such a good job, Mike Reilly likely won’t see power-play time initially whenever he draws into the lineup.
And you doubted Pominville!
Bruce Boudreau shuffled the deck tonight to three of his forward lines. He indicated people need to get the line numbers out of their heads because these weren’t demotions. He’s trying to find the right balance and chemistry to get four quality lines to roll, and he admitted Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle are in slumps, so he’s trying to get them going.
So Staal was reunited with Niederreiter and Coyle and Parise played on a speed line with Erik Haula and Jordan Schroeder. I thought Schroeder came close to setting up Parise for a couple quality chances. Pominville played on the fourth line with Stewart and Tyler Graovac.
“The chemistry has definitely worked on the [Mikko] Koivu line [with Granlund and Jason Zucker],” Boudreau said. “We would like to get chemistry on every line if we could.”
As for Parise, who drew the penalty that led to Niederreiter’s game-winner, Boudreau said, “O don’t classify it as a third line. … I thought that maybe Haula with his speed and Schroeder with his speed could create things for him and get more opportunities for him. I thought he played hard. He had a couple shots on goal. It’s baby steps. When you’re in a slump it doesn’t just come overnight where you get out of it. You work at it and you work at it. You might not get rewarded but eventually you started get rewarded and it works your way.”
Tonight, after Staal and Niederreiter gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead, Stewart scored a pretty breakaway goal. But 23 seconds later, it was 3-2. Thirty seconds after that, the game was tied.
“Them scoring two goals late, as mad as I was, was probably good for us because it woke us up for the third period,” Boudreau said.
On the shift after Arizona tied it, Zucker and Koivu got into scrums. Koivu was grabbed by teenager Lawson Crouse. Stewart wasn’t pleased with that and decided to “address” it early in the third. Stewart had his way with Crouse, and Boudreau felt the Wild played bigger after that.
The Wild finally drew a power play and made it 4-3. The Wild’s power play has scored in 13 of the past 16 games and is clicking at 31.9 percent in those 16 games.
A couple concerning trends:
1. The amount of times lately the Wild’s giving up goals immediately after scoring.
“I’m not smart enough to figure out the common denominator yet,” Boudreau said, before cracking, “So I mean, I’ll talk to the coaches now that you’ve brought it up and see if it’s something they see.”
2. Devan Dubnyk, who didn’t give up more than three goals in his first 27 starts, has allowed three or more goals in five of eight starts since. Back then, he had a 1.58 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. In the past eight starts, Dubnyk has allowed 23 goals (2.89 goals-against average) and has an .894 save percentage.
Despite Dubnyk’s statistics slipping, the Wild’s 6-2 in those starts.
“I didn’t think he was extremely on in the first two periods like a lot of the players, but in the third period, he had to make some big saves and he did,” Boudreau said. “That’s what you want your No. 1 goalie to do.”
3. After allowing 60 goals in the first 32 games (1.88 goals per game), the Wild has allowed 37 in the past 12 (3.08 goals per game).
“We have to be way sharper than we were,” Niederreiter said. “It wasn’t our strongest game. We have to find a way to be better.”
Boudreau on why he kept starting with the second power-play unit: “The first time either Sutes or somebody on the other unit was on, so I put them out and they scored. I remembered doing that last game and they scored on the first time out and I put the other unit on after that and we didn’t gain any momentum. I said to myself that if they scored the first time I was going to keep giving them opportunities to get goals. They kept the puck in and they did it right.”
Pominville on getting points lately: “I felt like I’ve had some opportunities early to get on board a little bit more, and wasn’t able to do that. Tonight’s one of those nights where things were working and felt good with the puck and you’re able to make some plays, and obviously we scored on them. But yeah, I’ve been feeling pretty good and it’s nice to finally get rewarded for sure.”
Niederreiter on being a key power-play cog: “You can never be too comfortable. I still want to get better and better every day trying to stay in that role. It is definitely a privilege to be on it so I have to make sure I work hard to stay there.”
That’s it for now. Hockey Day Minnesota on Saturday, and I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the 3 o’clock hour, I believe.
Friday is an off day for the team with back-to-back home games coming up and four games in six nights (including one in Dallas) before the All-Star break.
Check out Saturday’s paper. I’ll have a neat Staal Hockey Day Minnesota-centric story. Check out Sunday’s paper, too, because I’m doing my Sunday column on former interim coach John Torchetti’s thoughts on how well the Wild’s playing since hiring Boudreau over him.
Also, 4:15 at Hell's Kitchen, video podcast with Jim Souhan, Lavelle E. Neal III and Yours Truly.