TAMPA, FLA. – A peek at the standings reflects the Wild’s progress since mid-November, a climb that has lifted the team from obscurity to relevance in just three weeks.
But that’s not the only sign of improvement.
How the Wild is advancing is also telling of its journey, with its latest performance against the high-scoring Lightning one of the best examples of this growth.
After melting down earlier in the season, intermittent lapses in which the Wild looked utterly frazzled, the team is now the one overwhelming the opposition — just like it did in bursts Thursday to hold off the Lightning 5-4. In front of 19,092 at Amalie Arena, it notched its fifth straight win while also turning its season-high 11-game point streak (8-0-3) into the second longest in franchise history.
“You haven’t seen that with this team for a while,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But I think it’s the belief in them at this point. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ like they talked about at the beginning of the year they’re saying, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get these guys right away.’ It works. It doesn’t work all the time. But when you’re winning and things are going good, it works.”
Such is the current state of the Wild, which is discovering new ways to keep this run alive and now owns the second wild card in the West.
At the first stop on this three-game road trip, it rallied from a two-goal deficit to shrug off the Panthers 4-2 on Tuesday.
And to complete a sweep of Florida, the Wild (14-11-4) relied on opportunistic scoring — mostly courtesy of Eric Staal’s line, as Mats Zuccarello scored the game-winner to go along with two assists and Jason Zucker had a goal and assist. His 21 points lead the team.
“They’re two great players,” Zucker said of his linemates. “It’s been fun to get into a rhythm with them.”
The Wild fell behind on Tampa’s first shot, an Erik Cernak finish off the rush at 1:52 of the first period, but then moved ahead of three quick strikes.
Joel Eriksson Ek buried a behind-the-net feed at 9:33. Zucker polished off a slick passing sequence at 10:46, and only 28 seconds later, Carson Soucy’s shot sailed through traffic and behind Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for his second goal in as many games.
Three goals in 1:41 tied the Wild’s franchise record for the fastest three in a road game; the Wild also accomplished the feat March 25, 2004 at Chicago (Andrei Zyuzin, Wes Walz and Matt Johnson).
“Not used to it, but it’s nice to see,” Boudreau said.
With 4:03 left in the first, the Lightning crept within a goal when Mikhail Sergachev slipped a puck between goalie Alex Stalock and the near post and Tampa eventually tied it at 18:47 of the second on a point shot by Victor Hedman on the power play that the Lightning received after it had a goal disallowed because of goalie interference. Tampa went 1-for-4 with the man advantage, while the Wild was 0-for-2.
But just 40 seconds later, center Victor Rask stuffed in a loose puck after a Soucy shot went wide for Rask’s second point in his last two games.
“I’ve always been told the next shift after a goal, whether you score it or they score it, is one of the bigger shifts in the game, and we’ve been good at that lately,” Soucy said.
In the third, the Wild issued the same response. After the Lightning tied it at 4 minutes on a five-hole shot by Alex Killorn, the Wild answered on the very next shift, with Zucker setting up Zuccarello’s shot only eight seconds after Tampa’s goal.
“They won that one for the goalie,” said Stalock, who felt he wasn’t at his best during a 30-save night. “It’s like every time they scored, we just came back and fired one in. … The way things are going right now is pretty incredible.”