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Zulgad: What a difference a star makes: Kirill Kaprizov’s presence is game-changer for Wild

Coyotes Wild Hockey
Minnesota Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov (97) handles the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Arizona Coyotes, Friday, March 12, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Coming off back-to-back wins over the West Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, the Wild looked to be on the lackluster side Friday night as they played the first of three at home against the Arizona Coyotes. There was no score through two periods and the playoff-type intensity that existed on Wednesday night at Xcel Energy Center was nowhere to be found.

This was a game begging for someone to grab control. In the Wild’s first 19 NHL seasons, this wouldn’t have happened because no Minnesota player was capable of elevating himself above all others on the ice. But that has changed for the Wild in this pandemic-shortened season thanks to Kirill Kaprizov, who 25 games into his Wild career already has established himself as the best player in franchise history. (Don’t tell me it’s Marian Gaborik because Kaprizov has had a bigger immediate impact and is more skilled.)

This is about the third or fourth time I’ve written about Kaprizov this season and at the rate he’s going that won’t end anytime soon. What did Kaprizov do Friday in the Wild’s 4-0 victory? Only broke a 0-0 tie by scoring the Wild’s first two goals of the third period and then completed his first NHL hat trick by blasting a slapshot past Coyotes goalie Adin Hill with 49 seconds remaining. Kaprizov has found a special chemistry with winger Mats Zuccarello, who assisted on Kaprizov’s first and third goals and also picked up an assistant on Jonas Brodin’s empty-net goal.

Kaprizov’s second goal was his most impressive. Coming off the bench, the left winger got the puck on his stick in the Coyotes zone and then played keep away. Kaprizov circled the net, made his way into the slot and let go with a shot that beat Hill. Kaprizov’s teammates, and the Coyotes, both ended up looking mesmerized to the point where they all should have been charged admission.

Here’s another look at Kaprizov’s second goal.

“It’s just a special play from a special player,” goalie Cam Talbot said after getting his first shutout with the Wild. “That’s the best way you can put it. Anytime he’s out there, he seems to be able to make something happen. When you’ve got a guy like (Zuccarello) finding him most of the time, then you put those two together and they’re pretty dangerous anytime they get out there together. Can’t say enough good things about them, and happy for Kappy on his first career hat trick there. He earned it.”

Kaprizov, who had eight shots on goal and was a plus-4 Friday, is tied for the team lead with 10 goals and has a team and rookie-leading 23 points. The NHL might as well award Kaprizov the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year right now. Minnesota sports fans also can start putting Kaprizov in the same sentence as Randy Moss when it comes to the impact of rookies on the professional men’s sports teams in this town.

Yes, Justin Jefferson had a great season and is a star in the making and Adrian Peterson had a phenomenal first season in 2007. But Moss’ impact in 1998 not only helped lead to the high-flying passing game we see in the NFL today, but also changed the Vikings’ franchise forever and created an entire new fan base. Kaprizov is doing the same thing. The Wild long have been a rather boring team that rarely had anyone with the ability to bring fans out of their seats.

Kaprizov can do that because of his skill, strength and a constant work ethic that makes him a nightmare for opponents.

The Wild announced on Friday that 3,000 fans will be allowed into the Xcel Energy Center beginning April 5 as the state eases its COVID-related restrictions. Safe to say, the race will be on for who gets those tickets and, if any of them hit the open market, the price to see No. 97 will be a high one. It’s also a good bet that many fans with No. 11 Parise jerseys, No. 20 Suter jerseys, or whatever Wild jersey they currently own, will be upgrading to a No. 97 Kaprizov sweater with the Reverse Retro look.

“He doesn’t surprise us,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “Every night there’s something. He’s a very special hockey payer and we’re going to come to expect that to happen. … He’s such a good teammate, it’s incredible. To do what he’s doing but care as much as he does about what’s going on around him and the team aspect, it’s refreshing and exciting for us coaches.”

The Golden Knights beat the Blues, 5-4, in overtime on Friday night to stay in first place in the West with 35 points. The Wild and St. Louis are tied for second place with 33 points apiece, although Minnesota has the higher points percentage (.660 to .611) thanks to Karprizov’s latest big night.

There had been great hope for Kaprizov since he was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft by then-Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, but there’s a difference between having hope for a player and seeing that player deliver with a performance that could land him in the Hart Trophy conversation.

“He’s been talked about for the last couple of years,” Evason said. “We didn’t know exactly what we were getting. A lot of people did but we as a coaching staff didn’t. You watch on tape and you you think you are going to get a really exciting player offensively. You don’t know the attitude, you don’t know the personality, you don’t know the team aspect of him. Everything has turned out really well.”

Somehow, “really well” doesn’t seem to do Kaprizov’s play justice considering his standing as the best player to ever wear a Wild jersey.