At full strength for the first time, the Wild flexed its skill like it rarely had so far this season.
And the final player to return to the lineup was the star of the 6-2 rout of the Sabres on Thursday night in front of 19,017 at Xcel Energy Center, a victory that improved the Wild to an eye-popping 11-1-1 over its past 13 games at home and 22-16-3 (47 points) overall at the midway point.
Winger Nino Niederreiter scored his second career hat trick, completing the feat in just over a period to help propel the Wild to one of its signature triumphs of 2017-18 only two nights after rolling past the Panthers 5-1.
“That’s what you want,” Mikko Koivu said. “You want a healthy lineup, and you want your key guys back. That gives you confidence as a team.”
Overall, the top line featuring Niederreiter, Koivu and winger Mikael Granlund shined — combining for nine points, with Koivu also chipping in a goal amid a season-high three-point effort.
“We kind of know each other very well from being on the power play,” Niederreiter said. “But at the same time, we knew we had to play simple, and especially for myself. I didn’t want to overdo it. Just make sure I got to the net, get to the slot, and they were great passes.”
It didn’t take long for Niederreiter to settle back in after missing the previous five games because of a left ankle injury.
Only 1 minute, 9 seconds after puck drop, Niederreiter capitalized on the team’s first shot by one-timing a feed from Granlund.
By the Wild’s third shot, at 2:15, the team had a 2-0 lead. Winger Daniel Winnik wired a puck glove-side on Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner after carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the Sabres end.
Later in the period, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was reprimanded with a five-minute major for interference and game misconduct after colliding with Koivu in the offensive zone. Koivu suffered a cut above his lip but remained in the game.
And on the ensuing power play, Niederreiter capitalized again — this time, burying a loose puck after it kicked out to the back post at 13:53. The Wild finished 1-for-3 with the man advantage; the Sabres went 0-for-3.
Niederreiter finished off the hat trick only 4:02 into the second, sliding the puck by Lehner to become the fourth player in franchise history to record multiple hat tricks; both of his have come against the Sabres.
“It was some great plays by Granny and Mikko,” said Niederreiter, who had his parents, Rene and Ruth, in the crowd watching. “They always have some great passing abilities, so it’s fun to be out there with them and they found me nicely [Thursday].”
His line continued to contribute, as a knuckle puck from Koivu fooled Lehner at 13:07 for his third point of the game. Granlund notched his third assist on the sequence, the first three-assist performance of his career.
With 45 seconds left in the period, center Charlie Coyle finished off a pass from Zach Parise to put the Wild up 6-0. It was Coyle’s second goal in as many games following a 12-game drought, and Parise notched his first point of the season in only his second game back following back surgery.
“If we get everyone playing the 200-foot game, then every night it’s a good chance it’s going to be a different line that scores,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Lehner was replaced to start the third period, exiting after making only 11 stops on 17 shots. Chad Johnson replaced him and posted 10 saves, while Devan Dubnyk turned aside 29 shots for the Wild.
Dubnyk’s shutout bid was snuffed out early in the third for the second consecutive game, with center Sam Reinhart getting on the end of a bouncing puck 1:54 into the period before winger Evander Kane put back a bounce off the boards with 1:01 to go.
“It was a good win for us,” Niederreiter said, “and we’ve got to take the confidence we got from that game into the next one.”