So much has been made the past month about the injuries to Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Josh Harding, it was all but forgotten how important Jared Spurgeon is to the Wild.
The diminutive defenseman averages the third-most ice time on the team and even in the game in which he broke a foot Jan. 2 against Buffalo, Spurgeon gutted through a 27-minute effort with a plus-3.
Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Spurgeon returned after missing 14 games and didn’t miss a beat by assisting on both goals in a 2-1 victory at Xcel Energy Center.
“I was giving him a hard time asking him why he didn’t play Saturday [in Calgary],” defenseman Ryan Suter joked. “But he’s back to his normal self — skating, making plays. It’s a huge bonus to have him back.”
In the penultimate game before the 20-day Olympic break, the Wild, parked in the first of two wild-card playoff spots, gained ground on the teams battling behind them, Vancouver and Phoenix, who both lost.
Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley scored the goals and 6-foot-5 rookie Darcy Kuemper won a nice goalie duel against his 6-7 Lightning counterpart Ben Bishop, a potential Vezina Trophy contender.
Kuemper, who had given up eight goals in his past two starts, made 34 saves after coach Mike Yeo said the day before the challenge of bouncing back would be a “huge growing moment.”
“I’ve been in this situation before at different levels,” Kuemper said. “It was nothing new really. Obviously, first time at this level, but you’ve just got to treat it the same way. That’s what I tried to do. Stick to the fundamentals and things will turn around.”
Just as Spurgeon returned to the lineup though, his reunion with partner Marco Scandella lasted 55 seconds.
Scandella clipped legs with Lightning forward Tyler Johnson and did the splits inside the offensive blue line. Both of Scandella’s knees bent awkwardly, especially his right. Yeo said he will update the seriousness of Scandella’s injury Wednesday: “We hope it’s nothing long-term.”
Scandella’s loss meant the Wild had to play 58 minutes with five defensemen.
Suter, who leads the NHL by averaging 29 minutes, 44 seconds a game, logged 34:31 — the 28th time in 58 games Suter logged 30-plus minutes. Still, even though he was plus-1 and saved a goal in the third, Suter wasn’t overly delighted about his game.
“I had the shanks all game,” Suter said. “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 [from the movie Tin Cup] out there.”
The Wild took a 1-0 lead nine seconds into a first-period power play when Niederreiter scored his 10th goal off Spurgeon’s rebound for his first tally since Jan. 7.
After a scoreless middle frame, Spurgeon’s hustle set up Heatley’s 11th goal 34 seconds into the third. Spurgeon joined the rush and was knocked off the puck by J.T. Brown. Spurgeon nonchalantly stole it back from Alex Killorn to feed Heatley at the goalmouth.
“I was just trying to make sure I didn’t ruffle any feathers with the chemistry going on,” Spurgeon said. “At the start I was a little nervous being off for a month, but they threw me right out there for the opening shift and that really helped me calm down.”
The Lightning halved the deficit with 6:07 left when Valtteri Filppula lost Kyle Brodziak and deflected Martin St. Louis’ flip for his 20th goal.
But Kuemper came up big late and got lucky when Johnson hit the post with 39 seconds left.
“I liked the way our guys came into this game,” Yeo said, a good response to slow starts in the previous two games — both losses. “You could tell that they had the right focus defensively and execution wise.”