PITTSBURGH – With the Wild facing a team unbeaten in regulation at home, one riding a seven-game point streak overall and the defending Stanley Cup champs to boot, coach Bruce Boudreau previewed Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins by calling it “another day at the beach.”
After all, the Penguins had won 35 of their past 45 home games, also had a seven-game point streak overall against the Wild and, frankly, usually smoked Minnesota in the state of Pennsylvania.
Plus, the Wild had played twice in the month of November.
Hours after Boudreau’s pregame “woe-is-meing,” the Wild played arguably its best game of the season.
It recorded a season-high 44 shots, was credited with 32 hits, got three points from Eric Staal for the first time in his Wild career and ended a modest, albeit long two-game skid with a 4-2 victory over last season’s Cup winners.
“Bruce gave it to us as a great challenge, and I think that’s how we took it,” said Staal, who snapped a 2-2 tie 2 minutes, 56 seconds into the third period and had two assists to help deliver the Wild’s first points in the standings since Oct. 29.
After a difficult start for the Wild and the Nino Niederreiter-Staal-Charlie Coyle line especially, the line had what can be dubbed a hat trick.
Coyle and Niederreiter each scored tying goals to send the Wild into the third period deadlocked.
But after the Wild couldn’t cash in on a 74-second 5-on-3, Coyle nearly skated the puck into trouble before getting it deep. Staal forechecked hard, Niederreiter came in to assist, and after Kris Letang fell and turned the puck over to Coyle, Staal slid a backhander by Marc-Andre Fleury for his team-leading fifth goal of the season.
Staal has scored 22 goals and 51 points in 50 career games against the Penguins.
Why the success? “Played them a lot,” he joked.
Devan Dubnyk, who has given up six goals in the past 21 periods, made a season-high 39 saves, and Jason Pominville added an empty-netter as the Wild, which had been outscored 16-5 in its past three losses at Pittsburgh, handed the Pens their first regulation home loss in eight games this season.
“It was a tough start. The first 10 minutes we were trying to catch up, but I thought once we caught up, we were skating good,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
Having played twice in 11 days and once in eight, rustiness was expected. A minute into the game, it could have been 2-0 Penguins when Coyle coughed up a puck to Sidney Crosby in front of the net and Evgeni Malkin rang the far post.
The Wild looked stunned by the Penguins’ speed early. Players were slapping at pucks or instantly handing problems to somebody else.
“The first five minutes, we started throwing the puck away, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’re going to get killed,’ but once we settled down, a lot of good things happened,” Boudreau said. “I thought we competed really hard.”
On easily the Wild’s best power play of the season, the Wild responded to a Crosby power-play goal by Coyle deflecting Suter’s shot behind his back for his fourth goal.
Patric Hornqvist’s attempted cross-crease pass to Crosby on a second-period power play ricocheted in off Suter, but less than two minutes later, a manly cycle by the Staal line resulted in Niederreiter’s roofing his third goal from a tight angle.
The Wild, which entered 29-for-31 on its league-best penalty kill, might have been beaten on its first two Thursday, but it got two huge kills late.
“That’s a difficult task after as many days off as we had to go up against that group,” Dubnyk said. “It was a tough first 10 minutes. They were flying, and we were trying to get our feet and hands going again.
“But I thought we reacted real well after their [first] power-play goal and perfectly continued to get better as each minute went by in that game. Real big win for us.”