The Minnesota Wild organization has knocked on the door of relevance before. The problem is, knocking’s usually as far as it got. There’s been chatter about how this iteration of the team is different. They’re scoring more goals per game than they have before. The style of play is far more aesthetically pleasing. Their roster features a budding superstar in Kirill Kaprizov with another game-breaking talent in Kevin Fiala. It has strong team speed throughout the forward lines and can play fast. They can play a bruising style with Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, Nico Sturm, Marcus Foligno, and Brandon Duhaime.
However, they hadn’t won a statement game to prove that this wasn’t the same old “Mild.”
In the grand scheme of things, Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs is just one of 82. A loss would not have killed the Wild’s playoff chances or eliminated them from contention. It was, after all, only Dec. 4th; Game 24 on the schedule.
At least that’s what the excuse would have been had the Wild not beaten the Maple Leafs on home ice to extend their winning streak to six games. Instead, because it wasn’t the playoffs (yet), it was the only measuring stick Minnesota could use to gauge their club. It wasn’t the first time the Wild had a five-game winning streak. Nor was it the first time the Wild faced off against a top team in the league and won. But Saturday was different.
The buzz was palpably different from any other regular-season game in Wild history. Even the game where they hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets when they entered with 12 and 14-game winning streaks couldn’t match this hype. This was a match-up of two top teams in the NHL, both leading their respective conferences, going toe-to-toe. If it were a prizefight, it would have been the headliner, requiring pay-per-view to witness it.
Was it a perfect game? No. Minnesota coughed up a three-goal lead and had to use a shootout to finish the Maple Leafs off. Some old habits showed up – like lobbing the puck into the neutral zone for defensive zone clears, or attempting to play dump and chase. But the Wild overcame those habits and got back to what has made them successful to this point. Even when a fluky goal against tied the game, this team showed it had something more to give. The Wild stopped the bleeding and took back the momentum for the third period. They showed that they can take it, adjust, and rally back to win, even when their opponent lands a couple of blows.
Going back a couple of weeks, the Wild rallied but lost to the Florida Panthers. Afterward, players and coaches commented on the pace of play and the speed of the game being among some of the fastest of which they’ve taken part. “They’re probably as good a team as we’re going to see this year,” Wild forward Nico Sturm said following the game on Nov. 20th. “That was arguably, in my 2 1/2 years in the league, probably the fastest pace that I’ve seen.” Minnesota went on to lose in a shootout to the Tampa Bay Lightning the following night.
However, the Wild learned some valuable lessons from the trip to Florida. In years past they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the Panthers and Lightning’s pace. Now Minnesota knows they have the horses to compete in those races. The Panthers impressed the Wild players and coaches, and it looks like they took notes and brought those lessons home to Xcel Energy Center.
In each of the five games on the recent homestand, the Wild didn’t wait around to get things going. Minnesota scored first in four of the five games and roared back to dominate the Arizona Coyotes in the one game where they surrendered the first tally. The Wild answered and found the net often, dictating the pace both with speed and physicality.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper noticed. “The hockey they play is probably some postseason hockey,” Cooper said postgame. Evason’s group was able to avenge their earlier loss to the Lightning having learned a thing or two about themselves. And they took that mentality into Saturday’s match-up with Toronto.
With the victory, the Wild walked through that door. They showed that what they have inside the locker room isn’t just fool’s gold. Instead of talking about how they tried hard or that they put forth a good effort, they actually took care of business on the ice and didn’t apologize for it. And while it was only one of 82 games, this one felt different.