If the Wild’s going to stay above water these upcoming weeks without Zach Parise, the Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Nino Niederreiter line can’t do it alone.
In the first period Tuesday night, the prolific line did. Those three scored and were the only forwards generating consistent offensive-zone pressure.
So to open the second period, coach Mike Yeo made a couple of line adjustments, most notably elevating Thomas Vanek into a top-six role. That subtle tweak triggered a four-goal eruption as the Wild turned a tie game into a four-goal lead and eventually a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in front of a season-high announced crowd of 19,153 at Xcel Energy Center.
“I just didn’t feel like we were going to win the game the way we were going,” Yeo said. “The way things were going it just didn’t have the right feel. The way Thomas was going, it just felt like an easy switch.”
Vanek, 31, had his finest evening in a Wild sweater. On his second and third shifts after Yeo swapped him and Charlie Coyle, Vanek scored two highlight-reel goals.
The first was a slapshot on a breakaway after defenseman Christian Folin, who had a terrific night alongside partner Nate Prosser, made a heads-up, headman pass to find Vanek. The blocker-side slapper is one that Vanek has used before in shootouts and a flashback to Brian Rolston’s old shootout weapon with the Wild.
“I feel like I’m pretty good at hitting that spot, so I went for it,” Vanek said.
Vanek’s second goal was breathtaking. At the end of a 69-second shift, Vanek brushed off a line change, took Mikael Granlund’s pass for a quick counter, slipped the puck behind Paul Postma, turned the defenseman inside-out and roofed a beauty over Ondrej Pavelec’s glove top-corner for a 4-1 lead. It turned out to be Vanek’s 49th career winning goal after the Jets’ Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little scored third-period goals.
“I had pretty good speed through the neutral zone, so just tried something and obviously it worked out well,” Vanek said, nonchalantly.
In between, Erik Haula scored a shorthanded breakaway goal, the second shorty of his career, moments after Wild fans and Yeo gave an earful to the referees. Blake Wheeler wasn’t called for hauling down Zucker on what could have been a breakaway, yet moments later, Jonas Brodin was called for tripping.
“That was weird to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “It was just swings in the game both directions. That’s what you’ve got to do — keep your focus.”
Chris Porter also scored his first goal in a Wild sweater, Niederreiter added a first-period goal and Devan Dubnyk made 25 saves as the Wild, about to embark on four consecutive road games, improved to 2-0 without the injured Parise.
Kurtis Gabriel made his NHL debut, and 2:04 into the second period with the score tied 1-1, Gabriel had his first NHL fight against Chris Thorburn. The Wild responded with three goals in a 5:24 span to end Pavelec’s night with eight saves on 12 shots.
“We kind of saw it coming the whole game,” Haula said of Gabriel’s fight. “It was just a matter of time. But I think that was awesome, him coming up and stepping up like that.”
After not scoring his second goal until after Thanksgiving last season, Vanek is second on the Wild with six goals and tied for second with 12 points. With the net empty late, Vanek gave up a chance for his 10th career hat trick by passing to buddy Jason Pominville.
Pominville didn’t score, extending his goal-less drought to 14 games, the second-longest in his career.
“I’ve struggled before, and it’s not an easy thing,” Vanek said. “I would much rather have him take one than me get the hat trick.”