The Wild played what coach Dean Evason called the team’s worst period of the season in the first against San Jose on Friday night in its home opener at Xcel Energy Center. Starting goalie Cam Talbot had to leave the game to start the second period after suffering what appeared to be a lower body injury. The Wild power play went 0-for-3 and is now 1-for-23 in the opening four games of the season.
Despite these issues the Wild cruised to a 4-1 victory over the Sharks to improve to 4-1 on the young season. The point? This is no longer Chuck Fletcher’s Wild. That club would shrink at the first sign of adversity and find any excuse to fall apart. Bill Guerin, starting his second season as the Wild’s general manager, has built a roster that might not be the most talented but appears to be far tougher from a mental standpoint.
The Wild were presented with a gift by being placed in the West Division for this pandemic-shortened season and so far they have taken advantage. Their first eight games are against teams that did not make the playoffs — or even the play-in round — last season. These are the exact type of games that Fletcher’s teams would have looked at, licked their chops and then fumbled away.
Guerin’s Wild opened the season by falling behind by two goals entering the third period in back-to-back games against the Kings in Los Angeles before rallying for overtime victories. A split of one-goal games against the Ducks in Anaheim was followed by Friday’s victory. That puts Minnesota in a first-place tie with the Vegas Golden Knights with eight points.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) January 23, 2021
Joel Eriksson Ek opened the scoring at 5 minutes, 1 second of the first period, beating former Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, but the Sharks quickly tied the score on Matt Nieto’s goal at 6:12. The Wild’s performance in the period was shaky and concern grew when Talbot was injured with 3:24 remaining. Talbot stayed in but then skated to the bench before the start of the second period and then disappeared to the locker room as backup Kaapo Kahkonen replaced him.
Kahkonen stopped all 17 shots he faced for the remainder of the game, and Zach Parise scored his first goal of the season at 13:17 of the second period when he knocked in a Nick Bjugstad rebound after Dubnyk had robbed Parise with a pad save. The Wild added two goals late in the third period as Kevin Fiala and Jordan Greenway scored into an empty net.
What might have been the most impressive thing about the victory for the Wild was the fact there was little about the win that actually was impressive. Style points are nice but they aren’t required to accumulate points in the NHL. Especially when the opponent is one that you should beat, and you’re playing in front of a mostly empty arena with piped in crowd noise that is more annoying than effective. There have been many instances in recent seasons where Wild fans would have welcomed a workmanlike victory, only nobody wanted to work hard enough to get the two points.
If there had been fans in the stands, the only play that might have caused them to leave their seats came in the third period when Wild rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov put this move on Dubnyk and almost scored. I’d attempt to describe it but it’s far more fun to watch.
— d € R ¡ k (@DerikDBaack) January 23, 2021
The Wild will play host to the Sharks again on Sunday night before playing two more at home against the Kings. The real test will start on Jan. 30 when the Wild begin a four-game series — two games at Xcel Energy Center and two games in Colorado — against the Avalanche. The Avs join the Vegas Golden Knights and St. Louis Blues as the best teams in the West, but the fourth and final playoff spot in the division appears to be wide open for the Wild to grab.
With previous Wild teams the assumption would have been that a letdown was imminent. It’s early but it appears this version of the Wild might be different. Mentally tough, instead of easily discouraged. That’s what Guerin has worked to build and it appears he just might be succeeding.