Victory music in the locker room, smiles on faces, the head coach actually cracking jokes in the postgame news conference? The event level of Xcel Energy Center offered evidence of a triumphant Wild team Thursday night.
The palpable tension and melancholy mood that has been submerging the franchise lately disappeared for at least one evening as the Wild snatched a 4-1 victory from the NHL’s basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres to stop a franchise-record six-game losing streak.
“We’re undefeated this year, so it’s all good,” deadpanned defenseman Clayton Stoner, who caused the Wild’s restless fans to roar for a change with five hits, the biggest being a glass-rattling squash on Sabres 6-8 defenseman Tyler Myers.
For the second consecutive meeting with the team he used to captain, Jason Pominville scored the winning goal. Marco Scandella, Jason Zucker, fresh off the Iowa shuttle that should be named after him, and, believe it or not, Kyle Brodziak scored the other goals.
Well, Brodziak kinda, sorta scored. He was hauled down by defenseman Christian Ehrhoff with Buffalo’s net empty for an extra attacker, so philanthropic referee Chris Lee awarded Brodziak with a badly-needed goal, his first in 31 games.
“He was going to score. He was going to go top shelf, for sure,” coach Mike Yeo said, laughing.
There were a lot of relieved men after the game, maybe the biggest being Yeo, whose job is tenuous at best. It’s so shaky that hours before Thursday game, Yeo equated Game 43 of the regular season to last year’s season-ending, do-or-die, must-win finale in Colorado.
Yeo all but promised struggling Niklas Backstrom, who got the start because Josh Harding was sick, would have a great performance.
Backstrom, who had given up 24 goals in his previous six starts and was winless since Nov. 23, made 19 saves and had a shutout bid ruined by Matt Ellis with 72 seconds left in the third period.
“Really excited for Backy,” Pominville said. “We all know he was going through a little bit of a tough go.”
Captain Mikko Koivu added, “Finally, we were able to help him and play the way we have to play in front of him.”
Koivu and defenseman Ryan Suter, a plus-3, each had two assists as the Wild won for the first time since Dec. 17 and for first time in regulation since Dec. 8.
“Relief for everyone. We needed points bad,” Pominville said.
The Wild broke open a scoreless game with three second-period goals. Scandella and Pominville scored 1:46 apart, Scandella’s off a pretty give-and-go with Matt Cooke, Pominville’s team-leading 18th off Koivu’s pinpoint pass.
Ten minutes later, the Wild extended its lead to 3-0 when Zucker, recalled four times since Nov. 20, scored his first regular-season goal since March 10. It ended a 17-game point drought for the 21-year-old fan favorite.
By the end of the second, the Wild had a 23-12 lead in shots.
“We did all the small things, all the details right,” Backstrom said. “Shift after shift, we did the right things. That’s something you have to build off.”
The victory came against the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, one that’s 0-9-2 in its past 11 on the road.
All is not solved for the Wild, which has a way to go to climb comfortably back into the playoff race. But it was a start.
The team closes a four-game homestand Saturday against the Washington Capitals.
“We can’t get too excited,” Yeo said. “We have another challenge coming up.”