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Updated: March 11th, 2013 12:05am
Myers: Wild pounce early, make several statements in smashing Canucks

Myers: Wild pounce early, make several statements in smashing Canucks

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by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The last time fans in Minnesota saw the Vancouver Canucks in person, it was clearly a "not ready for prime time" moment for the Wild.

On Feb. 7, the Canucks blasted past the Wild with a 4-1 win at the Xcel Energy Center, dropping Minnesota below .500 at 4-5-1 and sending a clear message that the team from British Columbia expected to finish another season atop the Northwest Division.

Much has changed in a month. Most notable, the Canucks now have company alongside them in first place.

It would be inaccurate to say that a statement was made in the Wild's 4-2 win over Vancouver on Sunday night. Several statements were made -- about offense, about toughness and about long-term viability.

Most notable, the Wild have now gone 9-4-1 since that early February loss to the Canucks and, with a 13-9-2 mark at the midway point of the shortened season, looks like a team hitting its stride.

"We feel like we're a team that's on the up and heading in the right direction, and we were looking forward to this chance," said Wild coach Mike Yeo. "it hasn't been easy. I can't count the line combinations we've had, but it does take time and we know that. We have everybody contributing right now."

Well, not everybody. For the second night in a row, two underperforming mainstays of the first half of the season -- forwards Mikael Granlund and Pierre-Marc Bouchard -- were healthy scratches, and Yeo said afterward that they're still trying to figure out the best place for Granlund.

That pair has played 19 and 20 games, respectively, and has contributed three goals, total. Zach Parise nearly equaled that on Sunday by himself, scoring 24 seconds into the game -- scoring a typical "side of the net, incredible hands" goal late to quash Vancouver's hopes of a comeback, and just missing an empty net goal that would've sealed his first hat trick for the Wild.

That was the offensive statement.

"These guys it seems like have had a stranglehold on this division for a long time," said Parise of the Canucks, who have won five of the last six Northwest titles.

"We want to show that we can be up there too. Granted, it's only halfway through the season, but I think we responded well against a very good team."

While the Wild were scratching and clawing for a 2-1 shootout win in Nashville on Saturday night, the Canucks were already in the Twin Cities and a few of them even took in the boys state tournament title game. So, the early offense was vital.

Just as vital was the toughness statement, supplied later in the first period when a few Canucks got physical with Parise and Mikko Koivu, touching off on-ice ugliness that had five Wild players in the penalty box together at one point.

Save for overcrowding in the sin bin, the coach liked the response.

"I love the way we started the game. A couple guys were going at Mikko, going at our captain, and we responded," said Yeo. "This is a group of guys that cares about each other. They stick up for each other and there was a lot of emotion that we brought into this game."

For Vancouver, which has opened a window of opportunity for the Wild by going winless in their last four (0-2-2) there was frustration, especially after the Canucks' once-feared power play unit missed out on a few early opportunities and went 0-for-4 on the night.

"It didn't start the way we wanted, and obviously didn't finish the way we wanted," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said, singling out the man-advantage unit. "They didn't generate much again, and we're going to have to find solutions."

For the Wild, perhaps several solutions have been found. They've got two more home games -- Anaheim on Tuesday, Colorado on Thursday -- coming and, with a 9-2-1 record on their home ice, are suddenly brimming with confidence that the early-season struggles were the fluke, and their position in first place is the norm.

"Now it's really ramping up, knowing some teams didn't start the way they wanted and some teams started way better than they thought they would," rookie Jason Zucker said after scoring for the fourth time in 10 games.

"Everyone right now is thinking they've got to get into that playoff picture. There's not a lot of wiggle room there."

On Feb. 7, when the Wild were struggling against the Canucks, Zucker was in Texas, playing in the minors.

Now, he's just one more example of how much has changed, for the better, for the Wild.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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