DENVER — The Wild are starting to settle in at their new digs.
In their first (and last) chance to defend their recent move atop the Central Division against their closest competition, the Wild held off the reigning Stanley Cup champion Avalanche 4-2 on Wednesday in front of 18,140 at Ball Arena to earn a three-point lead over Colorado and Dallas with seven games to go in the regular season.
"If you're on the top, you can't let your foot off the gas," goaltender Filip Gustavsson said. "We have to keep our foot on the gas now and not relax too much."
Gustavsson was sharp, turning in a 42-save performance in front of a well-balanced, yet shorthanded offense.
Despite playing down a forward because of injury (Ryan Reaves) and illness (Brandon Duhaime), the Wild had two lines and their penalty kill score while eight players picked up a point.
Frederick Gaudreau's first of two shorthanded goals 9 minutes, 10 seconds into the second period was the difference, but it was his second into an empty net with 33 seconds to go in the third that foiled Colorado's rally.
"The thing that feels the best is we did it the right way," Gaudreau said. "We were focused the whole game, and it's fun to get the result from an effort like that."
The Avalanche dominated the third period, outshooting the Wild 19-4 and applying waves of pressure that finally resulted in a Lars Eller deflection with 6:19 remaining. Then with 52 seconds left, Wild captain Jared Spurgeon was whistled for a delay of game penalty for putting the puck over the glass — a call the Wild disputed.
"It's not a penalty," coach Dean Evason said. "It hit the boards."
Colorado pulled goaltender Alexandar Georgiev to set up in a 6-on-4 advantage, but it was the Wild who capitalized; Gaudreau flung a 153-foot wrister into the yawning cage to become the first player in Wild history to score more than one shorthanded goal in a game. His four overall this season are the third most in a single Wild season, and the Wild's 11 shorthanded tallies trail only Vancouver and Edmonton (14).
"That was karma, I guess," said Gaudreau, whose 16 goals are a new career high.
This was the Wild's third consecutive victory. Not only did that extend their point streak on the road to 11 games (8-0-3), but they improved to 16-1-4 over their past 21 games to bank a league-high 36 points since Feb. 17.
That tear started after their second loss of the season to the Avalanche, but the Wild were much better in the rematch.
"We played like us," Evason said. "We didn't play their game. We didn't deviate from the way we play."
Only 3:24 into the first, Marcus Johansson buried a between-the-legs, no-look pass from Joel Eriksson Ek for Johansson's 12th point in 14 games with the Wild since a trade from Washington.
Colorado's Bowen Byram answered back at 10:43 on a breakaway after exiting the penalty box, but Sam Steel uncorked a backhander by Georgiev with 3:58 left in the first to give the Wild a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"It was a really big game," Steel said. "Happy to contribute."
Steel, who subbed in for Duhaime after being a healthy scratch the previous four games, became the 17th different goal scorer for the Wild in the 10 games they've played without injured star Kirill Kaprizov. The Wild are 7-1-2 in that stretch.
Their power play went 0-for-3, but their penalty kill delivered. Gaudreau's first shorthanded finish came on a breakaway against Georgiev, who finished with 25 saves, and the Wild shut down all four Avalanche power plays.
"We box out really well," said Gustavsson, who is 9-1-4 over his past 14 starts. "I saw the puck most of the time. Even though they boxed out, we even got the stick on them so they couldn't tip the puck that much. That makes my job so much easier."
Gustavsson is up to 20 wins, making him and Marc-Andre Fleury only the second Wild duo ever to each hit that plateau in the same season.
"Of course you get an extra boost knowing that it's such an important game," Gustavsson said. "But if you focus too much on that, you kind of get away a little bit from what you usually do and try too much."
The entire team displayed that composure and although it led to a similar result, the significance sure was different.
"They're the best team in the league," Evason said. "They're the team that you have to beat because they were the champions. To put this in our memory bank is good."