EDMONTON, ALBERTA – A three-week hiatus is so peculiar in the middle of the season, it was hard to know what to expect Thursday night from the Wild.
Sure, the playoff contenders were facing the Western Conference’s perennial basement dwellers, the Edmonton Oilers. But after 21 days of no games and a mini-training camp that didn’t include four jet-lagged Olympians, it wouldn’t have been shocking if the Wild couldn’t rediscover its game instantly.
That wasn’t the case, though, in a scot-free 3-0 win at Rexall Place.
“You’re a little bit unsure because you haven’t played in like forever it seems,” said Darcy Kuemper, who showed no signs of rust with a 21-save shutout, the second of his career. “But everyone was real focused and made sure there were no lulls. Just a solid team game.”
Mikael Granlund, fresh off a terrific Olympic tournament for Finland, scored two minutes into the game and Stephane Veilleux and Dany Heatley added the other goals as the Wild won for the 13th time in the past 15 visits to Edmonton.
More importantly, the Wild stretched its lead on the first of two wild-card spots to five points.
Coach Mike Yeo originally planned to start Niklas Backstrom and come back with Kuemper on Friday against Vancouver, a team the Wild is six points ahead of in the standings.
The coaches debated, but “bottom line,” Yeo said Thursday morning, “is we just want to get off to a good start and we want to see if Kuemps can pick up where he left off.”
Kuemper did, looking strong throughout his 13th consecutive start. His best save was a sliding robbery on Jordan Eberle’s backdoor one-timer in the second period.
Shortly after, Erik Haula set up a teed-up Veilleux for a 2-0 Wild lead.
It was a big statement game for Kuemper, especially with the Wild perhaps looking to address its fragile goaltending situation before Wednesday’s trade deadline. Josh Harding is away because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, and Backstrom is dealing with a lingering abdominal problem.
But Kuemper is 9-2-2 in his past 14 starts with a 2.02 goals-against average and is showing no signs that he can’t handle the No. 1 duty.
Yeo said Kuemper will start against Vancouver.
Fifty-four seconds into the game, Blaine’s Matt Hendricks nailed defenseman Nate Prosser between the numbers into the glass. Prosser was cut on the chin and lost for the remainder of the period. Neither of the referees lifted his arms.
Instead of what arguably could have been a five-minute Wild power play, Kyle Brodziak and Hendricks got roughing minors.
The ensuing 4-on-4 worked out for the Wild, though, when Granlund, who returned from Sochi with a bronze medal and an all-tournament team honor, scored his sixth goal.
Granlund skated with speed into the zone and handed Zach Parise a drop pass. Defenseman Keith Ballard, a plus-3, drove the net to distract goalie Ben Scrivens, and when Parise sent the puck back to Granlund, he buried it into a wide-open net.
“I was like ‘wow,’ I wasn’t expecting that,” Granlund said of the half-empty cage. “It was an easy job to put in.”
The Oilers played a physical game, but the Wild defended well, and its defensemen were willing to take hits to make plays.
“We got back to what we do best — defending well, getting the puck north and winning one-on-one battles,” said Prosser.
Defenseman Clayton Stoner particularly showed toughness when he dislocated his left ring finger in a fight with Luke Gazdic in the second. The finger bent left, a sight even Yeo called “gruesome.”
But doctors got it back into place, and after taping it with his middle finger, Stoner played the third period.
“Probably looked worse than it felt,” Stoner said.