TORONTO – On a road trip where virtually every tightly contested second left little room for error, the Wild just couldn’t help itself.
Despite a pair of two-goal leads, the Wild seems to love playing in one-goal games. Seventeen of the Wild’s 25 contests have been one-goal outcomes.
So Wednesday night, at the end of a five-game, 12-day trek that started in St. Louis two Saturdays ago and went across Canada, the Wild played in not-to-lose, hang-on-for-dear-life mode during a dump-and-change third period while preserving a one-goal lead.
And, the Wild won’t apologize for it after snagging two points from a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre to move back into the third spot in the Central Division.
“It’s been a long grind. I mean, this is a long trip. We gutted it out,” said center Eric Staal, who ended a 12-game goal drought with the eventual winning goal in the second period. “And, I like that we did. We’ve got a veteran team, we’ve got guys that understand what it’s going to take certain nights, and tonight was a certain night where we had to gut it out.’’
The Wild, which has points in seven of its past eight games (4-1-3), returned to Minnesota to begin a three-game homestand after going 2-1-2 on the road.
Devan Dubnyk, making his 300th career start and the NHL leader in save percentage and goals-against average, was once again brilliant, and he had to be. He made 17 of his 35 saves in the third period to lift the Wild, which had three third-period shots, to a seventh consecutive win over Toronto.
“I told the guys, ‘It may not look it, but my insides are really happy right now,’ ” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We held on. We didn’t do anything in the third period, but at the end of a [12-day] trip to win in a tough building to win in was pretty good.
“When we went in, there was not a lot of celebrating or anything. They were just tired.”
When Charlie Coyle and Nate Prosser blocked shots in the final 20 seconds, Boudreau said the entire bench was ecstatic.
“You could tell they wanted to win pretty bad,” Boudreau said.
The Wild also got first-period goals from Jason Zucker and Chris Stewart, the pride of Scarborough, Ontario, playing for only the third time in his hometown.
“I’ve been thinking about that one my whole life,” Stewart said of his smooth breakaway goal. “There was a lot of family in the building, and I grew up a Maple Leafs fan. It’s definitely nice to get that one off the bucket list.”
In front of his mom, brother, stepdad, buddies and a former coach, rookie Kurtis Gabriel, who grew up just up the road in Newmarket, Ontario, picked up his first NHL point on Stewart’s goal. He also fought Roman Polak after his borderline hit on Stewart.
“He’s my big brother, and sometimes little brother has to stick up for big brother. He said I beat him to it,” Gabriel said. “The way it was going, I thought there was going to be a rebound next for a goal because all my buddies said I’d get the Gordie Howe hat trick.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter was plus-3 and his plus-18 rating since Oct. 25 is tied for first in the NHL in that span with the New York Rangers’ Michael Grabner. Over the past 19 games, Suter has had one game where he was a minus.
Staal’s goal was big and provided the Wild a 3-1 lead after he pickpocketed Tyler Bozak. After a forecheck by Nino Niederreiter, Coyle set Staal up for his first goal since Nov. 10.
He was relieved to break out of his slump.
“You can tell by the celebration, you never want to let it slide that long,” Staal said. “I wasn’t totally disappointed with how I’m playing, but you always want to score goals, you always want to contribute offensively. I’m in that role. It was big to get that one tonight. Hopefully this is a start of a few in a row.”