Maybe, just maybe, the personality of this team is different from yesteryear.
Previously, if the Wild was riding high but facing a nondivisional opponent that didn’t get the blood boiling like adversaries from, say, Winnipeg or St. Louis, the Wild almost surely would suffer a letdown.
But Tuesday night, the Wild didn’t slam on the brakes. It kept the gas pedal pressed to the floor during a 5-1 pounding of the Florida Panthers to move into second place in the Central Division.
In improving to 7-1-3 in its past 11 games, the Wild won for a fifth straight time overall and at home, where it’s 10-3 this season. The Wild improved to 9-3-1 against the East after going 13-16-3 against the other conference last season.
“It’s perfect. We need to keep climbing,” said goalie Devan Dubnyk, who made 29 saves to improve to 7-0-2 in his past nine. “It’s exciting to be in this spot with games in hand, as well. Winning is fun, so you just have to keep doing it.”
The Wild got goals from its top three lines against Roberto Luongo, who fell to 3-12-3 at Xcel Energy Center and was pulled for the fourth time in seven visits (0-6-1) after allowing five goals on 17 shots.
Line 1: Zach Parise, off the first of Jason Pominville’s two assists, ended a seven-game goal drought, and Eric Staal batted a rebound out of the air off his own breakaway. Line 2: Jason Zucker had a goal, and assist and Mikko Koivu scored his fifth goal in 10 games. Line 3: Erik Haula wasn’t picked up defensively by his old University of Minnesota roommate, Nick Bjugstad, and buried a Nino Niederreiter rebound for the eventual winner.
“I loved the fact that we can spread it out and get five goals amongst three lines,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You’d like it to be four lines.”
The Wild did get two fights from that fourth line. Kurtis Gabriel and Chris Stewart each squared off with Panthers defenseman Dylan McIlrath. It was Gabriel’s fourth fight in six games, and he was presented with the St. Paul Police Hero of the Game hat from a teammate.
The Wild scored all five goals after the fight, the first coming 43 seconds after killing Gabriel’s dubious goalie interference penalty.
“The guy has stood up every game and fought for us,” Boudreau said. “He’s not picking on any slouches that he’s fighting. He’s given our team energy.”
It was a long, aggravating 2-hour, 45-minute game. The Wild and its fans were frustrated with the officiating all game. Besides some non-calls, the Wild didn’t get its first power play until 8:33 left in a 5-0 game. By that point, the Wild had killed five power plays.
“It was unbelievable,” Haula said. “Not just the officiating, it just felt like there was a whistle every five seconds. We just kept at it.”
There were 66 faceoffs, 26 in the first period. Haula didn’t smack talk Bjugstad or Kyle Rau, his former Gophers teammates, after his goal, although he did go 9-for-13 on faceoffs and said he was “mostly happy I kept beating Nick in the circle.”
The turning point came when Rau’s third career goal was erased by the Wild’s third successful offside challenge. A 2-1 deficit soon became 3-0 on Staal’s goal.
Parise had a strong night. He sniped a bullet under Luongo’s glove, had six shots, five takeaways and two blocked shots.
“I thought he was exceptional,” Boudreau said.
Parise was glad to score for the first time since Nov. 25.
“I tried to shoot the puck a little more and get to the net a little more, lately,” he said.
The Wild is on a roll and keeps climbing up the standings, but Thursday’s first meeting in Nashville, where the Predators are 10-2-2, will be a challenge.
“You’re happy, but at the same time, the next game’s around the corner,” Koivu said. “When things are going good, you want to push and get better.”