The Wild and its fans got a preview of what it should look like the rest of the season.
The Wild and New York Rangers are battling hard to make the playoffs in opposite conferences, and Thursday night they played a tight-checking hockey game that featured little time and space to accomplish anything.
In the end though, the Wild outlasted the Rangers 2-1 for its first win in four games.
“It’s going to be important from here on out to learn how to protect leads and win games the hard way, and tonight was a hard game,” said Zach Parise, who scored his 46th career game-winning goal appropriately on Zach Parise Bobblehead Night.
“The way they played, they were in our face all the time through the neutral zone. Really, we didn’t have much tape to tape. It was a lot of along the walls, chip it and chase it. But sometimes you have to win like that, and it was good we did tonight.”
Coach Mike Yeo expects the Wild will be facing many similarly desperate teams down the stretch. “We’re going to have a lot of games that don’t feel perfect at the end of the game,” he said.
Before the game, Yeo asked for a “playoff-offense mentality” and his players abided. Nino Niederreiter scored his first goal since the Olympics after a strong forecheck by Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke forced a turnover. Parise’s go-ahead goal 63 seconds into the third period came after Mikael Granlund cut to the net hard and Jason Pominville and Parise began whacking away at Cam Talbot’s crease.
“Pommer had about six whacks at it,” Parise said. “Really smart play by Granlund to attack the net and for him to recognize that he had room.”
Parise’s 23rd goal was the third in two games by the Parise-Granlund-Pominville trio. Parise has eight goals and 16 points in the past 12 games and the line has 12 goals and 33 points since they were glued together 11 games ago.
Darcy Kuemper rebounded from a tough outing Tuesday against Edmonton by making 16 of his 29 saves in the third. The desperate Rangers pushed hard after Brodziak’s second penalty with 3:20 left, but Kuemper was “phenomenal,” Yeo said.
The Wild, 7-0-2 in its past nine at home, closes a four-game homestand Saturday against Columbus, then hits the road for eight of 10 games.
Dallas and Phoenix are applying pressure from behind. So Thursday’s response to a modest 0-1-2 skid, one that had fans fretting another late-season stumble, was important. The seventh-place Wild gained a five-point cushion on the idle Stars and a six-point cushion on the Coyotes.
“We can’t let too many games slip away this time of year,” Kuemper said. “Huge points tonight. Just the way we played was solid. We got back to our identity.”
“That’s a very good hockey team,” captain Mikko Koivu added. “That was a tight hockey game from the start to the last minute.”
It was a defensive struggle during a physical affair, but a good sign is youngsters Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle both played strong games. Niederreiter looked so good early, Yeo elevated him to the Matt Moulson-Koivu line in the second period. Coyle dropped to the third line and seemed “sparked,” Yeo said. He began attacking the net hard.
It was a hard game even for the broadcasters. Wild TV color man Mike Greenlay, who rarely calls games from between the benches, was the unsuspecting victim of Mats Zuccarello’s stick after a collision with Cooke.
Greenlay was clipped under the left eye. The former goalie laughed it off despite blood all over his dress shirt. He took five stitches during the first intermission.
“It could’ve been worse,” radio color analyst Tom Reid told his audience. “It could’ve been me.”