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Updated: March 14th, 2014 12:10am
Myers: Wild sticking to defense-first style in final playoff push

Myers: Wild sticking to defense-first style in final playoff push

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by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Minnesota Wild owner Craig Liepold made strenuous use of his checkbook a few summers ago to bring Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to town, you had to figure this was the start of a new goals-friendly era for the franchise.

Not necessarily.

So last season when general manager Chuck Fletcher gave up prospects to bring goal-scorer Jason Pominville to town, and eventually united him with Olympic scoring machine Mikael Granlund, you had to figure the Xcel Energy Center scoreboard would start getting a workout.

Well, not exactly.

Then last week, when Fletcher brought renowned goal scorer Matt Moulson to town in a trade with Buffalo, and has him playing in a lineup where Swiss scoring machine Nino Niederreiter is having a career year, you figured it was time to settle in and listen to that goal horn blare.

Um, nope.

Inside Xcel Energy Center, as the Wild drive hard toward their second consecutive trip to the NHL playoffs, everything old is new again. The defense-first style that Jacques Lemaire brought to Minnesota more than a decade ago, when the Wild made their only trip beyond the first round, is all the rage, as Thursday's "score two and hang on tight" 2-1 win over the New York Rangers proves.

It was gritty. It wasn't particularly attractive or thrilling. It was filled with whistles and bouncing pucks, and generally lacking in highlight-reel plays. But for a Wild team that was 0-1-2 since the trade deadline, with Dallas and Phoenix creeping up on them, it was a win.

"It's important, getting wins this time of the year and finding ways to win games like this," Wild coach Mike Yeo said, gearing up for a fight to the finish as the playoffs get closer. "We're going to have a lot of games that don't feel perfect at the end. We're going to be playing against a lot of desperate teams, teams that we have to expect to be good every night. I expect a lot of close games down the stretch."

Not that close games are anything new 'round these parts. Thursday's was the Wild's sixth consecutive one-goal game, and the win came when the Rangers made a deadly mistake - namely leaving Pominville, Granlund and Parise alone in front of New York goalie Cam Talbot early in the third period, with the score tied 1-1. Talbot stopped three shots, but not the fourth one, which Parise slipped under the goalie's right arm.

"It's unacceptable," said Rangers left wing Rick Nash. "When the puck's there the wingers have to crash down and everybody's got to take a guy. We were a bit out of position and they capitalized. I think Cam made the first two or three saves. We can't expect him to make all of them. We've got to be better."

After a come-from-ahead loss in Dallas and two straight shootout losses at home, the Wild were just better enough to get two points for the first time in more than a week. And with Phoenix losing Thursday night in Boston, they managed to re-open a six-point lead over the Coyotes. None of that is a result of dynamic offense, even with so many potential goal-scorers in the lineup.

"It's gonna be important from here on out to learn how to protect leads and win games the hard way," said Parise, who now has 23 goals - one fewer than Pominville, the team-leader. "Tonight, it was a hard game, the way they played. They were in our face all the time through the neutral zone. Really, we didn't have much tape-to-tape. It was a lot of along the walls, chip it and chase it. But sometimes, you have to win like that. It was good we did tonight."

Nearly lost in the hype over just getting a win was the effort of goalie Darcy Kuemper, who had 29 saves - two of them in a scramble in the crease with less than 10 seconds to play - for his 12th win of the season.

That's a franchise record for a rookie goalie, and that's more of what fans should get used to in this playoff chase. Score a goal or two, get a lead, then hang on until you hear the final horn.

Welcome to the new world of the Minnesota Wild. If you remember 2003, the names are much different (Jim Dowd, to pick a name at random, no longer works here), but a few things on the ice may look familiar.

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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