TORONTO – With the Maple Leafs in full-fledged Auston Matthews mode as they aim for the best odds to win the lottery and the right to draft the Scottsdale, Ariz., native first overall, some might have expected the Wild to strut into Air Canada Centre and stomp on the last-place team in the NHL.
After all, the Wild had scored five or more goals in five of nine games under John Torchetti.
But if you have watched the Maple Leafs since promoting five AHL Toronto Marlies players looking to impress the brass, you knew Thursday’s game wouldn’t be a cakewalk.
Nevertheless, this was a game the Wild needed if it expects to make the playoffs. The Maple Leafs played on the road the night before, and the Wild took full advantage of that fact during a solid third period that led to a 2-1 victory at Air Canada Centre.
The Wild got power-play goals from Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, who will represent Finland next September in the World Cup on the same ice sheet, and 21 saves from Devan Dubnyk for a third consecutive victory.
“They defend hard in every zone basically. You have to get through that,” Koivu said. “It wasn’t easy by any means.”
Granlund broke the 1-1 tie with 8 minutes, 25 seconds left by burying Thomas Vanek’s setup. Granlund shot upstairs and buried his first power-play goal in 65 games. In the final minute, seconds after Dubnyk made a game-saving stop on Peter Holland, Granlund threw his body in front of a Jake Gardiner blast.
It was only Minnesota’s third victory in 11 road games against the East. It was also the second time in two games the Wild won after allowing the first goal (the Wild had been 3-18-6 under such a scenario).
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Granlund said. “They work really hard. They battle. They don’t give you any inch, any space.”
The Wild won the special teams battle in large part by not taking any penalties for the seventh time in franchise history. For the 14th time in franchise history, the Wild didn’t have to kill a penalty, a good thing considering its penalty kill of late has been abysmal.
“I thought our kill was great [Thursday],” Torchetti deadpanned.
Torchetti and Dubnyk raved about the Wild’s discipline. Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had a different take. He probably earned himself a fine by saying the Leafs got “ripped off big-time” and “the people didn’t pay to watch [the refs] play, they pay to watch the players.”
On the other hand, the Wild drew four power plays, including one immediately after Granlund’s goal for Babcock lighting into the officials.
The Wild has scored at least one power-play goal in 15 of the past 19 games and at least one power-play goal in a franchise-record 11 consecutive road games. It has 13 in that stretch after scoring six power-play goals in its first 22 road games.
Gardiner, the pride of Minnetonka High, got the Leafs on the board after a scoreless first period, but Koivu scored his eighth power-play goal less than four minutes later.
From there, the Wild ground out the victory against the young, hardworking Leafs.
“Hey, they’re hungry, too,” Torchetti said, adding of their youngsters, “I came from the league they’re in. There are jobs to be had.
“Good road win. I like the way we stuck to our game plan. We didn’t try to get outside of it and force plays. It’s a 1-1 game. Just play within it.”