Anyone who wanted to know the difference between the Minnesota Wild of seasons past and the 2021 version only needed to watch Thursday night’s game at Xcel Energy Center. Playing the final game of a three-game homestand in which the Wild looked anything but sharp, Minnesota claimed a 2-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues and an 11th-consecutive win at home because of two things this franchise has been lacking for so long:
A couple of star players and solid goaltending.
The formula sounds simple, but the Wild had struggled to find it. There were no dynamic players to score or set up key goals, and there was always a goaltending waiting to give up a fluky or back-breaking goal.
On Thursday, the Wild had only two shots in a sluggish first period — en route to being outshot 37-11 — but were able to escape with the game scoreless because Cam Talbot stopped all 10 Blues shots. St. Louis provides a far tougher test than the woeful Anaheim Ducks, whom the Wild beat on Monday and Wednesday, but Talbot gives his team the type of stability in goal that Minnesota almost never received from Devan Dubnyk or Alex Stalock last season.
Talbot makes both the routine and difficult saves, just as rookie Kaapo Kahkonen has done so often this season. The two goalies gave up 11 goals in the Wild’s two losses in Colorado last week but the entire team was outclassed in those games. What was impressive was the Wild returned home, didn’t play its best during a busy stretch of games, and still came away with three wins and remained firmly in a playoff position in the West Division.
Talbot’s second shutout of the season came in his third consecutive start. He limited the rebounds, even getting a puck stuck in his mask at one point, and his positioning was nearly perfect. A second-period glove save on a seeing-eye-shot by the Blues’ ultra-talented Vladimir Tarasenko was made to look routine. It wasn’t.
“Our goaltenders have kept us in games all year,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “Even when the scores have been one-sided on our end our goaltenders still kept us (in games). … That’s what you look for. You look for your goaltender to keep you in hockey games and make the big save when it presents itself.”
Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, meanwhile, did not have as much success thanks in part to the Wild’s two dynamic forwards. Winger Kevin Fiala, coming off a brilliant finish to the 2019-20 season, entered Thursday with nine goals and five assists but had only one goal and two assists in his past eight games.
Fiala showed flashes in the Wild’s 3-2 win over Anaheim on Wednesday. On Thursday, he was on top of his game throughout and dominated at times, including making a beautiful second-period pass to Marcus Johansson, who buried the puck into a wide-open net with Binnington out of position. Fiala spent the evening trying to set up teammates, he did not have a shot on goal, and making moves around befuddled Blues.
But as good as Fiala can be, he can’t replicate the best moves of Kaprizov because, well, few can. Maybe Kaprizov was motivated by the presence of Tarasenko, a fellow Russian. Kaprizov led NHL rookies with 10 goals on the season but hadn’t scored in six games. He ended that drought in spectacular fashion with a goal that Binnington probably is still wondering how it got past him. The defensemen he beats on the play, Torey Krug, signed a seven-year, $45.5 million free agent deal with the Blues in the offseason. This wasn’t some third-string blue liner.
— Alex Micheletti (@AlexMicheletti) March 26, 2021
After not having consecutive days off this month and playing 10 games in 18 nights, the Wild will have a three-day break before opening a four-game trip on Monday night in San Jose. The memory of what the Avs did against the Wild still remains fresh — Colorado is just a better team at this point — but the fact is Minnesota just won three in a row and the past few years they might have won only one of those games.
“We didn’t have the ‘A’ game or the best game here tonight,” Evason said. “But we had the best result.”
The difference was simple: Two star players and a goaltender who is in control. That is enough to enable a team to be outshot by 26 and still beat a pretty good opponent.