Funny scene in the locker room after Tuesday’s 5-3 win over Winnipeg when Thomas Vanek stood up to position himself in front of the cameras and captain Mikko Koivu cracked, “They want to talk to you about your move, Tommy.”
OK, maybe you had to be there. But you had to see Koivu’s face (playful grin) and hear his voice.
It was pretty funny.
Vanek, 31, looked 21 tonight with a couple “beauty” goals to lead the Wild to its sixth win in nine games and a 2-0 record without injured Zach Parise. The Wild now heads out on a four-game trip to Raleigh, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Boston (the team actually comes back for a day between Dallas and Pittsburgh; I do not).
Not sure what was more impressive: Vanek’s move on the eventual winning goal or his selflessness in attempting to end pal Jason Pominville’s goal drought, which is now the second-longest of his career at 14 games, by passing to him with an empty-net in front.
Vanek could have tried for his 10th career hat trick and his first with the Wild. Instead, he settled for his third multi-goal game with the Wild, 51st of his career and 49th game-winning goal.
“I’ve struggled before, and it’s not an easy thing,” Vanek said. “I would much rather have him take one than me get the hat trick. I’ve been fortunate to have one of those before (Russo note: actually, nine of those before), so it’s not that big of a deal for me.”
As offhand and been-here-done-that as that quote reads, that’s how Vanek was in describing his two goals – a slap shot off a breakaway and a dipsy-doodle move in which he dizzied Paul Postma. You can read the quotes and get descriptions of the goals in the game story at startribune.com/wild.
He did have one funny line. I just wanted to refresh my memory that he has scored previously on slappers in shootouts in Buffalo. He hasn’t played in many shootouts since Buffalo, so Vanek’s response to my question was, “Yes, a couple times when coaches let me go out there.”
But Vanek is feeling good about his game right now, and justifiably so. He has six goals (second behind Parise) and is tied for second with Ryan Suter with 12 points (Koivu is the points leader).
Coach Mike Yeo, who deserves a lot of credit for some of his in-game adjustments all season, made a couple more tonight that proved big. After the game, Yeo noted that last year Vanek actually got off to a decent start but didn’t get the results.
And he said no matter how old a player is, once that happens, it’s amazing what that does to a player’s psyche. Vanek has gotten off to a good start this season, the production is there, and “that has allowed him to just play and not have that burden to carry around with him.”
Reading between the lines, that can also be said about Pominville this season. There’s no doubt this goalless start is embedded in his brain now and he’s feeling the pressure. He just needs one to deflect in off of him at this point, and that almost happened a few times tonight.
Back to Vanek, Yeo said he’s been valuable this season because he can move up and down the lineup and proves “really dangerous” when he can get out there against other team’s third D pairings and third and fourth lines.
Since Koivu’s line is taking all the big matchups against the other team’s top offensive guys and best defensemen, this could prove big in Parise’s absence.
Tonight, in the first period, the Jason Zucker-Koivu-Nino Niederreiter line was all she wrote for the Wild. It was the only line with sustained pressure and it seemed like a gigantic problem going forward.
But Yeo swapped Vanek and Charlie Coyle to start the second, and after a Kurtis Gabriel scrap, the Wild responded with four goals in the period, include three in a 5:24 span – two by Vanek and one off an enormous shorthanded breakaway goal by fellow ex-Gopher Erik Haula.
Yeo said the moves had nothing to do with Coyle and Haula. He liked the way Vanek was going, but he just said the game didn’t have the feel of one the Wild would win because the Wild’s other lines couldn’t generate pressure and the depth of the Jets forwards were proving troublesome.
Yeo made the move to start the second and it worked out. Yeo said with Parise out, the night to night adjustments may have to continue based on the opponent and what’s going on in each game.
The Wild went 0 for 6 on the power play but actually had good looks and puck movement. The Jets made it a game with third-period goals by Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little, but the Wild held on for only its third non-one-goal game in 13 all-time meetings with the Jets and third non-one-goal game out of 14 this season.
Vanek said the difference in the game was Devan Dubnyk’s great play early “when we needed our legs to get under us, and once we started skating, we played well, we created chances, we created penalties and we slowly took the game over.”
Yeo raved about how well Koivu is playing (Jim Souhan wrote about him in Wednesday’s paper) and how well that line with Zucker and Niederreiter is playing. Niederreiter scored his fifth goal and Zucker picked up his ninth point in nine games and had 11 shots on/blocked shots/missed shots, five takeaways and two blocked shots. Koivu has at least a point in 11 of the past 14 games.
“That line just continues to do what they’ve done all year,” Yeo said.
Gabriel only played one shift after his fight, but Yeo said the way the momentum was going in the game, he was just shortening the bench.
There was a weird moment in the game. After the Wild took a 2-1 lead, Zucker was hauled down by Wheeler on what would have been a breakway. Yeo and the crowd wanted a call. There was none. Moments later, Jonas Brodin was called for tripping Nikolaj Ehlers.
The crowd and Yeo was livid, but then Haula comes through in the clutch and makes it 3-1 with his second career shorty.
“That was weird to be honest with ya,” Yeo said. “It was just swings in the game both directions. That’s what you got to do….keep your focus, can’t get too rattled about those things. Calls are going to go your way, calls go other way.”
Said Haula, “It was interesting, but that is hockey. I feel like we got the calls after that anyways. It is always nice when you get goals back-to-back. It really creates momentum. It gets everyone fired up. It gets the crowd fired up. The game is a lot easier when everyone gets into it. We just kept it going to there, which was awesome.”
Haula on Gabriel’s fight: “We kind of saw it coming the whole game. It was just a matter of time when it would happen. But I think that was awesome, him coming up and stepping up like that and playing a good game in general. I feel like he enjoyed his first game and I am happy for him.”
We’ll find out Wednesday if Gabriel sticks around or if the Wild recalls a different forward like Christoph Bertschy again for the start of the road trip.
Christian Folin had a great game with Nate Prosser. Yeo called them “very, very good.” He said of Folin, “Execution all night,” and Prosser, “Steady, poised play” all night.
Folin was humorous on his pass to Vanek for the breakaway slapper goal. He said, “I saw him right when they shot the puck. When it was bouncing a little bit, I saw him in the corner of my eye taking off. I kind of spun around, took a look and ripped it at him. I was so tired, I was actually skating to the bench. I heard the crowd noise, and I turned. It was a good goal. It was a nice snipe by him. I didn’t see the shot. But he does that every day in practice. It is not a big surprise for us when it happens.”
With Parise out, the Wild will need to get goals from different guys as it heads out on the road, where it will be easier to check. Tonight was a good start, getting two from Vanek, one from Haula and Niederreiter and Chris Porter's first with the Wild, where he looked like his shot-tipping pal, Parise.
That’s it for me. Rachel Blount is covering Wednesday’s practice as I head to North Carolina. Talk Thursday, and follow Rachel on here and on Twitter at @blountstrib.