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Zulgad: Out with the old: Makeover of Wild roster makes this team easy to embrace

Nhl: Winnipeg Jets At Minnesota Wild
Oct 19, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek (14) celebrates a goal for a hat trick against Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) in overtime at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild put together a furious rally to win their home opener in overtime on Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets, but let’s make one thing clear: This Wild team is nothing like the club that earned the nickname the Furious Rallies.

That collection no longer calls Xcel Energy Center home and the organization is better off in numerous ways. The Furious Rallies — which fair or not were the team of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu — were indifferent to success until they decided it was time to care. Only then did they become engaged in the process.

There were many Wild comeback attempts that left one wondering why they hadn’t shown up for the first two periods and why they had bothered to begin caring in the third. Far too many around the X seemed to think it was worth putting up with this nonsense.

Paul Fenton, who spent one turbulent season as the Wild’s general manager, and Bill Guerin had no interest in watching minimal effort and locker room lawyers control the franchise. Fenton started the process by dumping some popular second-tier guys. Guerin, who won two Stanley Cups as a player and two as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, did the rest by clearing out Mikko Koivu after the 2020 season and Zach Parise and Ryan Suter after last season.

Kirill Kaprizov’s emergence as a star in his rookie of the year season and a new core group helped the Wild to a 75-point season (in 56 games) and a third-place finish in the one-and-done West Division in 2020-21. The Wild then took Vegas to seven games after the Golden Knights had tied Colorado for the most points (82) in the NHL.

But with the Wild off to a 3-0 start, and coming off a 6-5 victory over Central Division rival Winnipeg, what happened in the pandemic-shortened season feels like it might just have been an appetizer for a fan base that is starved for a winner. You can call this an overreaction — there are only 79 games to go — but there also is a case to be made that what we saw Tuesday night was no accident.

Guerin’s decision to buyout Parise and Suter on the same day this offseason will create salary-cap issues that were going to eventually impact the Wild. But that move also sent a message to the entire franchise that being the Furious Rallies was no longer acceptable.

Parise and Suter both wore an “A” on their jersey as alternate captains because when you make as much and have as much experience as they did the presence of a letter on your sweater is assumed and not earned. Those letters now belong to Marcus Foligno and Matt Dumba. Foligno long ago became the heart and soul of this team, but with the responsibility of wearing a letter his performance and leadership have been off the charts.

You want to take runs at Kaprizov? He isn’t going to back down, but you also are going to have to deal with Foligno. Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon — the recipient of a Foligno jump punch in the first period — can you tell that maybe Kaprizov should be left alone. Foligno scored on a turnaround shot with 7.2 seconds left in the third period in the Wild’s opener on Friday night in Anaheim for a 2-1 victory. Dumba’s confidence also has soared. He’s still capable of the questionable play or penalty, but he also used his howitzer of a slap shot to get nine shots on goal against the Jets.

When Dean Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau as the Wild’s coach in February 2020 and talked about the team playing a faster game, it was hard not to laugh. Who exactly was going to get faster? Wild fans used to pray that the team didn’t get to the 3-on-3 overtime format because of the group of plodders who insisted on seeing the ice.

Those guys have been replaced with players who can skate with teams like the Jets. The skill of the first line — Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek and Mats Zuccarello — is unlike any this team has seen. The three aren’t yet a finished product as a unit and still accounted for 10 points (five goals) and 14 shots on Tuesday. Ek completed his big night on a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play with Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala during a 4-on-3 power play that ended with a tap-in goal.

That capped a game in which the Wild trailed four times by one goal, once by two goals (in the third) and appeared to be done when Mark Scheifele scored into an empty net with 1:14 remaining in the third period. Somehow Jets’ winger Kyle Connor managed to beat Scheifele into the zone, and the Wild video coaches made sure the play was challenged. Fifteen seconds later, Eriksson Ek batted an airborne puck into the net to tie the score with 59 seconds left in regulation.

This sent what remained of the 18,156 fans who had stuck around after the empty-netter into a frenzy, and set off a celebration on the Wild bench. The comeback was completed 3:30 into overtime as the once-underachieving Eriksson Ek ended what felt like a playoff game.

Outside the Xcel Energy Center, fans celebrated by heading to the bars on West 7th Street or honking their horns and rolling down their windows to high five those crossing the street. It was only the third game of the regular season, but this was a furious rally completed by a likeable team that had used hard work to create its own good fortune. In other words, it was the type of win that the Furious Rallies of yesteryear wouldn’t have recognized.