Myers: Jared Spurgeon's return was just the lift the Wild needed
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - With marquee star Zach Parise and team captain Mikko Koivu on the shelf for long stretches of January - and Koivu still sidelined as clock ticks down to the Olympics where he's expected to be in uniform for his native Finland - you are forgiven if you'd forgotten about Jared Spurgeon's absence.
The Wild played great hockey in January, even without that trio for much of the time, re-inserting themselves into the Western Conference playoff picture. So when Spurgeon returned to the lineup on Tuesday versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was a nice bonus for a team not lacking on defense but always looking for more offense.
Sixty minutes of hockey later, after Spurgeon had set up both Wild goals in a 2-1 win over the Lightning, there was something to be said for the impact of this undersized guy. Let's face it: Spurgeon is usually an afterthought on his own team's defensive corps, with Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin and local heroes like Keith Ballard and Nate Prosser grabbing most of the attention.
Flying under the radar worked out fine for Spurgeon, who could work solely on getting well, and avoid the constant questions about timetables that have dogged Parise and Koivu for the past month.
"I think it was sort of nice. Well, not nice, but not having to answer any questions," Spurgeon said after the Wild won their fourth consecutive home game on Tuesday. "It was nice to get back out there, especially before the break. The team's been playing great and I was just trying to get in there and make sure I didn't ruffle any feathers with the chemistry going on."
Spurgeon missed 14 games while recovering from a foot injury, but likely could've played a few nights ago. Wild coach Mike Yeo elected to keep him on the shelf during the team's 1-1-2 western road trip. After Tuesday's win, the coach gave himself a little credit for patience and bringing Spurgeon back later rather than sooner.
"He's such a smart player and we gave him enough time," Yeo said. "I think that a couple extra practices - it was the right decision not to put him in in Calgary. He wasn't quite ready. And obviously he looked good (tonight). He's taken really good care of himself while he's been out. To be able to come in and play at the level that he did tonight just shows you how smart of a player he is."
Spurgeon was the bright spot in a night that may have been a bit of "good news/bad news" on the Wild blue line. He started the game next to Marco Scandella, and was looking for a new defensive partner almost immediately. Just two minutes into the game, Scandella got his skates tangled with Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson and went down awkwardly. The game stopped and he was helped off the ice with an apparent lower body injury. Yeo said he does not expect Scandella back in the lineup on Thursday when the Wild host the Nashville Predators.
"Obviously Marco's been a great player for us so you know it's going to be a challenge with him out of the lineup," Yeo said of having to juggle the defense with 58 minutes of hockey left. "But I was confident that our guys were going to be able to respond to that. My biggest thing is just obviously we hope it's nothing long-term. I don't want to sit here and say that we know for sure he'll be out on Thursday but if he is, obviously we've got the break coming up so it'll give him a little extra time to get ready for coming out of it."
On Thursday it's very likely that defenseman Clayton Stoner - a healthy scratch on Tuesday - will be back on the ice. After that game, most members of the Wild have nearly three weeks off for the Olympics. While Parise (USA), Suter (USA), Kiovu (Finland), Mikael Granlund (Finland) and Nino Niederreiter (Switzerland) are heading to Sochi, the rest will have weeks to relax and, in Scandella's case most notably, get healthy.
Yes, they're still missing Koivu, who is a huge question mark for Finland at the Winter Games. But with Spurgeon back on the ice and having an instant impact, offensively and defensively, the Wild suddenly look to be in a much more solid place playoff-wise. And with an important chance to recharge coming, the winter doldrums of December, where the Wild lost a franchise-record six games in a row, and Yeo's job was rumored to be on the line, seem like an unpleasant distant memory that's quickly fading away.