WINNIPEG – When Mathieu Perreault slam-dunked Blake Wheeler’s cross-crease pass 20 seconds into the second period to put Winnipeg up 2-zip in a game the Wild was dominating at even-strength, Ryan Carter said, “It would have been easy for us to fold.”
That almost would have been understandable considering the way this sick, tired and unconfident team had been tripping all over itself the past month.
But in a stunning turn of events, the Wild, playing again without Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker, discovered, what goalie Darcy Kuemper called “a little mental toughness.” Thanks to a spark from the most unlikeliest of sources — a couple bottom-six forwards and a journeyman minor-leaguer, the Wild stormed back in a three-goal second period to edge the Jets 3-2 in an intense divisional game at MTS Centre.
After Perreault scored, Justin Fontaine said there was a ton of “positive talk” on the bench. Assistant coach Darryl Sydor clapped his hands trying to get players to lift their melancholy heads.
Coach Mike Yeo, who tried everything in his bag of tricks to jolt the Wild out of a recent stretch of 10 losses in 15 games, told players to keep trusting the system and each other.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh here we go again,’ but I wasn’t concerned whatsoever that our guys were going to stop playing,” Yeo said.
Carter and Fontaine, two snakebit third- and fourth-liners, each scored to tie the score off a pair of setups by Brett Sutter, freshly recalled from Iowa for his 57th game in seven NHL seasons, and Kyle Brodziak. And, red-hot defenseman Marco Scandella then unleashed a rocket that gave the Wild a one-goal lead with 11.2 seconds left in the period.
That goal, Scandella’s ninth, would become his fourth winning goal, tied for first among NHL defensemen. In a game No. 1 stalwart Ryan Suter struggled, Scandella and Christian Folin were each plus-3 from the second pair.
“We never took our foot off the gas,” said Scandella, first among NHL defensemen with 0.3 goals per game. “We went through a rough patch, and we knew that we had to keep working hard to get out of it, and tonight was a great example of our team character.”
In its best performance in a month, the Wild broke a five-game winless streak and recorded its first regulation victory since Dec. 9 by going 1-0-1 in a home-and-home with the Jets.
The Wild moved within five points of eighth-place Los Angeles and seven of Winnipeg heading into Wednesday’s game at Columbus.
The maligned Kuemper was clutch in his return from a bout of food poisoning after some funky chicken. He stopped the final 21 shots he faced and 28 overall.
“That’s what we need from him,” said Yeo, talking in subtle undertones. “If we get that kind of goaltending on a consistent basis, we’re going to be a dangerous team.
‘‘That’s what he’s capable of. He’s good enough to be our starter and to continually play games like that, so we need him to continue to step up.”
The Wild gave up two power-play goals and didn’t score on a 1:54 two-man advantage (Michael Hutchinson made four saves). But it got a huge break when defenseman Paul Postma made a senseless decision. Carter played a puck with a high stick. Instead of letting Carter touch the puck or waiting for a whistle, Postma tried to chip it out of the zone.
Brodziak picked it off, Sutter hit Carter, and the fourth-liner drove the net, deked and scored a beauty for his first goal since Nov. 13.
“That really brought our bench to life, and the guys fed off it,” Carter said.
After Sutter set up Fontaine’s second in 24 games, Zach Parise teed one up for Scandella for his fourth goal in six games.
“I saw Zach look toward me and when he laid it in there, I’m just going to try to bomb it every time,” Scandella said.