This edition of the Minnesota Wild has felt different from the first day of training camp. From general manager Bill Guerin asking captain Jared Spurgeon what the season is all about, and then informing the veteran defenseman and his teammates in no uncertain terms that the only thing that matters is winning to the subtraction of certain longtime members of the roster whom Guerin didn’t think had the ability to put their teammates before themselves.
The 2021-22 season has been a massive breath of fresh air at the Xcel Energy Center.
But even with the Wild sitting at 16-6-1 and atop the Central Division by five points entering Saturday’s game against Toronto in St. Paul, there remained at least a sliver of doubt about a franchise that had so many times gotten its fans hopes up only to leave them feeling foolish when the letdown came.
The Wild closed their five-game homestand against a Maple Leafs team that had won five consecutive games and lost only twice in the past 17 games after a 2-4-1 start. The Wild also had won five in a row and this test was going to come before a national television audience on “Hockey Night In Canada” that probably thought Minnesota was Kirill Kaprizov and a bunch of extras.
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The Wild went to work on proving that wasn’t the case as Jordan Greenway scored late in the first period and Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno scored less than three minutes apart before the 10-minute mark of the second. This one felt as if it was getting away from the Leafs and goalie Jack Campbell, but Toronto quickly quieted the crowd of 18,568, or at least those who weren’t wearing Maple Leafs jerseys.
Jason Spezza scored back-to-back goals at 12:47 and 17:51 of the second, with the latter coming on a power play, and Auston Matthews then deflected in Spezza’s shot/pass on the power play at 19:10 to tie the score. The concerning thing was that as well as the Wild had played in the first half of the second period, they completely let up in the second half. The Leafs outshot Minnesota, 20-7, in the middle period and many expected the Wild’s collapse would be completed in the final 20 minutes.
That’s how it used to be for Minnesota. Great hockey, followed by a let up that would turn into a give up.
Foligno said it was Evason who made sure the players knew their effort hadn’t been sufficient after the second. “Dean came in,” Foligno said, “that was for him (to handle). I’m not going to say anything there (as a player). That was on us. We don’t want to keep speaking like that all the time … it wasn’t a yelling match. It was, ‘We’re not playing well,’ it was eight minutes and we gave them three goals, so we’re lucky there was no more time on the clock. They’re a really good team. We played really well, they played really well, but you just saw it. When we played the right way, we played really well.”
Here’s where the Wild are different. After Evason addressed his players, the Wild outshot the Leafs 22-11 in the third period only to remain tied because Campbell made several big saves. After a thrilling overtime, in which the Leafs had a 5-2 shots advantage, and ended on a power play, Minnesota got goals from Zuccarello and Kaprizov in the shootout to win it. Matthews scored for Toronto, but goalie Cam Talbot stopped William Nylander on the final attempt to give the Wild a 4-3 victory.
This one was so much fun to watch that even those of us who hate hockey games ending with a skills competition couldn’t complain. Foligno, who got into a fight with Toronto’s Wayne Simmonds in the first period, was right in that this was two really good teams playing a regular-season game that enabled each to judge where they are at and provide hope to their fan bases that they both could be playing deep into the springtime.
“Yeah, it was great,” Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said when asked if it felt like a playoff game. “I think you guys all felt that, too. Just a Saturday night crowd, everyone was going, fans were into it and both teams were. It was a lot of fun.”
Guerin has built a team that has fantastic speed, is four lines and three defensive pairings deep and, most importantly, trusts each other and seems genuinely happy for each other when things go well and support each other when they don’t. That’s how you rebound from blowing a three-goal lead against a good opponent instead of collapsing.
It’s also how the Wild have put together a six-game winning streak and just took 10 out of 10 points on a homestand to pull seven points ahead of the second place St. Louis Blues in the Central. The Wild’s 35 points are tied with Calgary for most in the Western Conference, and their 92 goals are one behind Florida for most in the NHL. The Wild’s six wins in a row have all come with Spurgeon out because of a lower-body injury.
“I think we did,” make a statement, Dumba said. “Hockey Night in Canada, that’s a big one, and against a team that’s kind of a big dog in the East and we don’t ordinarily get too much attention outside here in Minnesota. For people to see us compete against the top team and winning, I think is huge.”
The Wild won’t have to wait long for their next test. They will face the Oilers on Tuesday in Edmonton to open a four-game road trip to the west. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the NHL’s best and most dangerous players. There might have been a time where you figured the old, slow and disgruntled Wild would have had little chance of escaping with two points.
Saturday’s marvelous game provided the latest bit of confirmation those days officially are over.