Myers: Elk River native Nate Prosser steals the show on 'Hockey Day'
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Some call Hockey Day Minnesota a heartfelt celebration of all that is great about our most renowned sport in the state. Cynics call it an overly-hyped, made-for-TV and manufactured process with a signature event (outdoor high school hockey) that's been done to death.
No matter which side you choose, it's hard to argue that nothing noteworthy happened in the Twin Cities over a roughly 30-hour span between Friday afternoon and Saturday night.
The Gophers 1-0 win over Ohio State at TCF Bank Stadium featured ugly, disjointed hockey on a cold, cold night, and more than 30,000 ticket-buyers seemingly having the time of their lives. On Saturday morning the preps took to an old gravel pit in Elk River to play a few games in the January sunshine. Elk River got the nod this year at the event's "capital" and by the end of the night, one of the town's favorite sons had made another memory.
Midway through overtime in a game the Minnesota Wild - if you go by things like shots on goal - had little business winning, Elk River native Nate Prosser scored his third career NHL goal, and his second game-winner in as many games, as the Wild won for the seventh time in their past nine games.
"If there's any undecided votes on the next mayor of Elk River, I think we cleared that up tonight," joked Wild coach Mike Yeo after the game, in which his team was out-shot 35-19 but still managed to best a Dallas team that has won just once in its last nine games. The Stars are one of the few teams in the Central Division chasing the Wild, and are now nine points back of Minnesota. The teams meet again next week in Dallas.
"It's tough because these are almost four-point games for us," said Stars winger Alex Chiasson. "We're behind them and they have a couple games in hand. This would've been a nice start for us to grab two points since we play them again Tuesday at home."
Prosser's goal was a classic "be in the right place at the right time, and make it count" goal, as he snapped the rebound of a Nino Niederreiter shot past Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen. Prosser, who got up early to watch the TV coverage of outdoor hockey from his hometown, joked that it was pretty easy to call this the biggest of his three career NHL goals.
"Yeah, by far. There's not many of them, so it's pretty easy to say," Prosser said. "It was a great day all around. As a team we're feeling good right now. Even though, like I said, they were kind of taking the play to us, we all knew on the bench if we stuck with it, if we stuck with the game plan, we were going to be alright."
Prosser's feel-good "local boy" story eclipsed the one written earlier in the game, when former Gophers star Erik Haula gave the Wild a first period lead with the initial goal of his NHL career. At the far blue line, Haula shipped the puck off the boards and around Stars left winger Erik Cole, springing himself on a breakaway. Haula's wrist shot from the left circle eluded Lehtonen to give the Wild an early lead.
"Something you dream about. It's a long time coming. It's something I've definitely been thinking about," said Haula. "It was unbelievable. The reaction from the crowd and a standing ovation. It took me a while to kind of get over it and chills to go away, but it was unbelievable."
Nearly as unbelievable as the sudden rally by the Wild, who hit something close to rock bottom on New Year's Eve, losing their franchise-record sixth game in a row that night. Even with key scorers, their top goalie and a key defenseman injured, the Wild have lost just twice since then.
"You have to hit the bottom before you can start climbing back out of it," said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who scored in the second period. "So, we hit bottom. We lost a few guys. And everyone is picking up the slack from having some top guys out. Guys are stepping up."
Most notable in the 'step up' category is goalie Darcy Kuemper, who had 33 saves in his fourth consecutive start and is playing like a man determined to relegate Niklas Backstrom to the 'permanent backup' role.
"He was awesome. Plain and simple," Yeo said. "We were under siege a lot of the night but there were opportunities where he came out and made a play and relieved some of that pressure. When you see that kind of confidence, for sure your team feeds off that."
Just as the fans feed off the hype of an event like Hockey Day, and at the last second an unlikely local hero comes through.