Kurtis Gabriel has a soft spot for his mom, Kim, who last season left a congratulations card under his hotel room door the morning after his NHL debut for the Wild.
The kicker was she bought the card 2 ½ years earlier and saved it for the eventual special day.
Wednesday night in Toronto, after Gabriel recorded his first NHL point in front of his mom, brother and stepdad against his hometown Maple Leafs, Gabriel shared a text message that his mom sent him on his Twitter account under the hashtag #hockeymumsrule: “Just thinking about Grandpa and Grandma watching the Leafs play in our basement all those years when I was a kid. Never, ever, did I think I would get a kid of mine play against the Leafs.”
Gabriel, 23, a third-round pick in 2013, called the evening the “best night of my life” after playing another strong game during the Wild’s road-trip ending victory with linemates and fellow Toronto natives Chris Stewart and Tyler Graovac.
After feeling Gabriel had a below-average training camp, coach Bruce Boudreau quickly has grown to appreciate the physical 6-foot-4 Gabriel, whom Boudreau finds valuable on a smallish team that’s not overly rugged.
“He’s making the team bigger,” Boudreau said. “He gets his first point, gets into a fight, does a good job, cheers on the bench. That’s pretty good stuff, and he’s making Stewy play better, too.”
Stewart had two goals in the final three games of the road trip after going 14 games without a point. Gabriel said he’ll never forget the soft touch Stewart had on Wednesday’s breakaway goal.
“That was an unreal goal,” said Gabriel, who later fought Roman Polak in response to the defenseman leveling his pal. “I love playing with [Stewart]. He’s made me really comfortable, even off the ice, away from the rink, he’s been great.”
Said Stewart: “You’ve got to tip the cap there for Gabes stepping up for me after I got hit. I’ve always been on the other side of that stepping up for guys. It was nice to have a guy step up for me. It shows how good of a team guy he is.”
Boudreau showed trust in the Stewart-Graovac-Gabriel line by playing them throughout the third period until he finally shortened the bench with seven minutes left.
Gabriel, who did receive four stitches on a finger after cutting himself in the fight, joked that Boudreau simply has a soft spot for the three linemates because they’re all Toronto guys like their coach. But Boudreau said, “They were holding their own. They were playing the proper way, getting it deep, doing the right things, so there was no reason for me not to play them.”
The Wild ranks 15th in the NHL with 368 blocked shots, and after Wednesday’s win, goalie Devan Dubnyk and many teammates were hurling kudos at Ryan Suter, Charlie Coyle and Nate Prosser for blocking shots in the waning seconds with the Maple Leafs pushing with an extra attacker.
Coincidentally, Dubnyk talked Wednesday morning about how he’s a goalie who typically doesn’t want teammates diving in front of shots.
“We’ve done a good job this year of not overblocking,” Dubnyk said. “If you overblock, it puts you out of position. Bruce says it best: ‘You want to get out in the lane, but don’t play goal, so continue to skate and be a player,’ especially on longer shots.
“Who would you rather be playing goal, the guy with the goalie equipment on or a forward?
‘‘That’s why it’s important as a goalie to make sure you are stopping the pucks you should be stopping so the guys are comfortable with allowing that play to happen and not feeling they have to go throw their face in front of it because they know you’re going to be there for them.”
• Prosser, solid all road trip, typically isn’t a defenseman on the ice in the waning seconds. Asked why assistant Scott Stevens deployed him, Boudreau said, “He must have had a gut feeling that he was going to get the job done.”
• Center Mikko Koivu ranks fourth in the NHL with 326 faceoffs won, third with 591 faceoffs taken and seventh with a .552 faceoff winning percentage (minimum 400 faceoffs).