DETROIT – Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has made it clear the on-ice opportunities he doles out are merit-based and not gratuitous handouts.
So the four youngsters deserved the sizeable minutes they received Friday, especially considering what they did with them.
Forwards Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Ryan Donato combined for two goals and three assists to help the Wild snag a 3-2 win over the Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena and complete a sweep on the team’s two-game road trip.
“To see them develop,” Boudreau said, “it really makes you feel good.”
Kunin and Eriksson Ek have been a reliable duo for quite some time now, capitalizing on the chemistry they built in the minors once they returned to the NHL after the All-Star break. And Donato’s addition to their line has been a smooth one, with Donato assisting on three goals – including Kunin’s Friday – since he made his Wild debut Thursday after getting added in the Charlie Coyle trade with the Bruins Wednesday.
“We were more comfortable tonight than we were in New York, and hopefully we can keep building off that,” Kunin said.
Not only did all four log at least 14 minutes, with Kunin clocking in at 18:02, but they were trusted in key moments in the game – like on the power play and late in the third period when the Wild was trying to preserve its one-goal lead.
“[Boudreau’s] been helping us out a lot and giving us confidence,” Greenway said. “At the same time, I think we’re 20, 21, 22 years old, so he’s patient for us. For us, I think it’s all about confidence and going out there and playing our game.”
And if the four gets more chances to get on the ice for the Wild, they won’t mind it one bit.
“We’re ready for it,” Greenway said.
The only veteran to score Friday was center Eric Staal, who oozed relief when he buried his first goal in 12 games.
Not only has Staal been dealing with that drought, but the uncertainty of what’ll happen with the impending free agent before Monday’s trade deadline has been looming over him for the past few weeks.
“Obviously, it’s just about winning games here and trying to be a contributor and trying not to focus on anything else,” he said. “The reality of the way our league is now and this time of year, you just try to block as best you can out. Sometimes it’s difficult, but my job is to be a leader and a guy that’s counted on here with this team and it was a big two games for us on the road to get the four points. Now we gotta follow it up with a big one on Sunday.”
It didn’t count as one of Dubnyk’s 26 saves, but center Mikael Granlund made a clutch stop in the first period when Dubnyk had the puck taken away from him after roving from the crease to the corner. Detroit winger Darren Helm aimed the puck toward the open net, but Granlund swooped in just in time to intercept the shot before it crossed the goal line.
“Duby was thanking him,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
This outcome improved the Wild to 9-4-1 in its last 14 road games and 16-14-1 overall – efficiency that the team is still searching for on home ice. The group returns home to host the Blues Sunday having dropped its past six games at Xcel Energy Center.
“We wanted to make a conscious effort of it at the start of the year to be a better road team, but it seems to have taken a little bit away from our game at home,” Staal said. “I think sometimes the way we’ve been squeezing the sticks a little bit – a lot of our offensive guys are doing that – it can be a place where there’s a little bit more pressure, and it can build on you. Sometimes on the road it’s a little freer.
“We’ll get the momentum back at home. It’s a great building to play in, and our vibe needs to be strong to start games and get the energy going and if we do that, we’ll have our guys with some more swagger and we’ll get the points we need there.”