Thomas Vanek knows what it’s like to endure a slump. The Wild winger also knows how meaningful it can be to receive a helping hand from a teammate, which is why he didn’t shoot the puck on an empty net in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over Winnipeg.
The rejuvenated Vanek was moved up from his usual third-line spot to join a line with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville in the second period. After scoring a pair of goals — his fifth and sixth this season — he saw an opportunity to aid Pominville, whose 14-game goal-less streak is the second-worst dry spell of his career. With 1 minute, 50 seconds left, Vanek had a clear shot at the empty net from the red line, but he passed up a chance at a hat trick and sent the puck to his longtime friend and teammate.
Pominville wasn’t able to get a shot off before a defender caught up to him. Vanek’s gesture, though, resonated with a team embarking on a four-game road trip without leading goal-scorer Zach Parise. Wild coach Mike Yeo said Wednesday that he isn’t sure whether Vanek will stay with Pominville and Granlund for Thursday’s game at Carolina, but he lauded Vanek for his generosity as well as his play — citing both as examples of what the Wild needs, particularly during Parise’s absence.
“I think that’s a very unselfish play,” Yeo said after an optional practice at Xcel Energy Center. “Nothing brings a team together like selfless plays, and that was one of the messages before the game.
“There’s a very strong effort on [Vanek’s] part to continue to work on the details of his game. The consistency he’s had, compared to last year, is a real positive for us.”
While Vanek credits his strong start to renewed health, Yeo said his state of mind has been important, too. When Vanek could not score early last year, his coach saw the mounting pressure begin to affect him. This season, Vanek is doing many of the same things — but scoring some early goals, Yeo said, which means Vanek can “just be clear in the head and go out and play the game.”
Tuesday, that included a gracious gesture to a teammate who Vanek said “knows my game better than I know my own.”
Pominville, who often played on a line with Vanek when they were teammates in Buffalo, appreciated Vanek’s generosity and said it has been fun to see his friend play with such confidence.
Yeo will watch more film of Carolina before deciding whether to keep the Vanek-Granlund-Pominville trio intact. He said there is “a good possibility’’ that Vanek and Pominville will get the chance to recapture some of the chemistry they enjoyed in Buffalo. Even if he’s not playing alongside his pal, Vanek expects to see Pominville bust his slump soon.
“Once he gets that first one, I think he’ll be just fine,” Vanek said. “He’s gotten good tips, and he’s actually getting more [shots] to the inside, and not so many outside shots like early on.
“When you’re struggling, you don’t pick corners. You just get some shots on net, and you go to the net more and hope something bounces toward you. Which they will.”
Doing more with less
The Wild has shown good discipline this season, limiting its trips to the penalty box. It has been shorthanded only 30 times, fewest in the NHL, and its penalty kill has been successful on 21 of its past 25 chances.
The team also has scored three shorthanded goals, tied for second-most in the NHL. Erik Haula was the latest to connect, scoring on a shorthanded breakaway Tuesday, and Yeo likes the way the Wild’s penalty killers are using their speed to pressure opponents and generate scoring chances.
“We want to be an aggressive penalty-killing team,” he said. “If we do a good job creating turnovers, we hope there’s no difference from our five-on-five game, with some opportunities to counterattack. I think our guys are doing a good job of it. We’re not being high-risk, but we’re recognizing those opportunities, and we’re ready to jump.”
• The Wild reassigned forward Kurtis Gabriel to its AHL affiliate in Iowa.
• Defenseman Marco Scandella, who missed Tuesday’s game because he was out of town handling a family matter, has not yet rejoined the team and is not expected to play Thursday.