CHICAGO – The Wild had a tremendous first half of the NHL season in which it reeled off 27 victories, 59 points, a .720 points percentage, a plus-45 goal differential and the Western Conference’s most goals and fewest goals against.
But as much currency as that has created, nobody in the Twin Cities will buy future Wild success this season unless the team proves something against the West’s benchmark, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sunday night, the Central Division foes finally met for the first time this season, and the Blackhawks got to see what all the fuss has been about.
The Comeback Kids from Minnesota opened the second half by rallying yet again. Trailing by two goals, the Wild stormed back for a 3-2 victory to extend its road point streak to 12 games (10-0-2), matching a franchise record.
Afterward, a jolly coach Bruce Boudreau tried to explain how the conference- and division-leading Wild has pulled points from 23 of 25 games (19-2-4) since Nov. 21.
“They just refuse to lose at this stage, and I hope we can continue to have that feeling for the rest of the season,” Boudreau said.
Jason Pominville, who hadn’t scored a goal since Nov. 29 — the last time the Wild lost in regulation on the road — ended a 19-game goal drought 5 minutes, 8 seconds into the third period to help the Wild sweep a back-to-back on the road and take a two-point lead on Chicago with four games in hand.
“It’s always a big rivalry. We always want to beat the Hawks,” Nino Niederreiter said. “They’ve won a few Stanley Cups in the past few years. That’s also something we want to accomplish someday.”
Niederreiter and Chris Stewart sparked the comeback with second-period goals after Patrick Kane’s second goal of the game gave Chicago a 2-0 lead. It was the Wild’s eighth consecutive regular-season victory over the Blackhawks.
“To beat this team eight times in a row is really something. I don’t understand how you can do it,” said Boudreau, who lost to Chicago in the conference final with the Ducks in 2015. “I wish I would have had that knowledge a couple years ago.”
Pominville’s goal came after Marco Scandella’s rebound off the end wall landed at his blade at the side of the net.
“It was nice to get one and help the team out in a good situation,” Pominville said. “I knew it was going to come.”
Said Boudreau: “What better time. It was perfect.”
The Wild, which gave up 30 shots in the first two periods, locked it down from there. Scandella and defense partner Matt Dumba, who produced a steady stream of odd-man rushes in the first 40 minutes, rebounded during a strong third.
Stewart, Jordan Schroeder (who teed up Stewart’s goal) and Tyler Graovac provided momentum shifts from the fourth line, and the Mikko Koivu line was again solid.
Devan Dubnyk, 16-1-2 in his past 19 starts and 8-0 with the Wild against the Blackhawks in the regular season, saw only five shots in the third after making 15 of his 33 stops in the second.
The third-period shutdown enabled the Wild to complete its 13th come-from-behind win in 42 games, something it accomplished nine times all of last season.
“I just think we’re a confident bunch,” Stewart said.
Added Boudreau, “I think the biggest thing is believing you can.”
Most impressive about the third, the Wild stifled the line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Kane. In the first two periods, the trio gave the Wild fits almost every shift they hopped the boards.
Boudreau, the Central’s coach at the All-Star Game later this month of Los Angeles, praised Kane’s performance, adding, “I might have to double shift him in the All-Star Game to tire him out.”
The Wild returns to Minnesota to open a four-game homestand, and players left United Center with an extra strut in their step.
“It’s good to come in here on the road in the second of a back-to-back and show that we still have legs to win games,” Stewart said.