If Saturday night’s clash between the Wild and Nashville Predators was a potential first-round playoff matchup, buckle up. It could be a volatile yet exciting affair.
With the Predators commendably playing in-your-face, fast hockey despite coming off their five-day “bye” and not even having the chance to practice the day before, Wild players stood up for themselves and their goalie all night during a 5-2 victory — the team’s 39th in 58 games, surpassing last season’s 82-game total.
Things got tense in the third period when the Wild’s 3-0 lead suddenly became 3-2 in a span of 2 minutes, 9 seconds, but Jason Zucker capped a three-point night with a stress-relieving blocked shot/defensive blue-line steal/breakaway goal with 3:19 left to enable the Western Conference-leading Wild to pull within one of the Washington Capitals for the most points in the NHL.
“They go to the net hard. That’s [Nashville’s] game. There’s a line there, and I think it was crossed a few times,” said former Predators goalie Devan Dubnyk, who made 37 saves for his league-leading 32nd win. “It doesn’t matter now. … Big goal from Zucks, and we locked it down at the end.”
Teams coming off their five-day bye fell to 3-12-4 (0-8-3 this month). The Wild, 4-1-1 on its eight-game homestand, begins its bye Wednesday — one day after hosting the Chicago Blackhawks, who fell nine points behind Minnesota in the Central Division race. The Wild is eight points up on San Jose for the conference lead.
The Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund line, created the day after Thanksgiving and unbreakable since with a collective 110 points, combined for seven points with Granlund and Koivu scoring their 17th goals and Zucker his 17th and 18th.
“It’s every single game,” Dubnyk said.
Koivu, the Wild’s all-time leading scorer, tied Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews for 34th among active players with 600 points.
“It’s a nice thing,” Koivu said. “I think it’s more important for myself to be able to be with the same team and being around this city and these fans.”
Only 2:38 into the game, Granlund popped in Nino Niederreiter’s rebound for a power-play goal. With the Predators buzzing in the second, Granlund flew down the right side and served Zucker at the goal mouth for a 2-0 lead.
“I’ll take those passes from Granny all day,” Zucker said. “He slid it through [Pekka] Rinne’s stick, through the triangle of Rinne. So, I mean, that’s a pretty ridiculous pass.”
In between, Dubnyk, the league leader with a 1.97 goals-against average and .934 save percentage and 25-4-2 in his past 31 starts, made two great shorthanded saves, including one on Ryan Ellis after Dubnyk missed with a poke check yet got it with a two-pad stack.
“Play dead and see what happens,” Dubnyk quipped.
After Koivu scored 35 seconds into the third, Marco Scandella’s turnover resulted in a Colin Wilson goal, then P.K. Subban rocketed a shot past Dubnyk.
Referee Ian Walsh initially waved off the goal because James Neal shouldered Dubnyk in the head, but after Predators coach Peter Laviolette challenged, Walsh overturned his call, citing that the contact came after the puck sailed by.
Dubnyk was livid a penalty didn’t follow.
“If that play happens to a player in the middle of the ice, that’s going to be a suspension,” he said. “Like, he almost killed me.”
The Wild felt the Predators took liberties with Dubnyk all game. In the first, Austin Watson got in Dubnyk’s face, and Chris Stewart jumped to Dubnyk’s defense. After their coincidental minors ended, Stewart and Watson came out of the box and scrapped.
“We’re going to protect our teammates, especially Dubs,” Stewart said. “Guys aren’t going to get to stand in front of him and chirp him, especially young guys. The guy is an All-Star, show some respect.”
Stewart added of the West’s highest-scoring team: “We’re not a retaliatory team. We’re not going to try to even the score. We’re going to try and make you pay on the scoreboard.”