Powerful homecoming in St. Paul: Wild beats Edmonton 4-2
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It's widely been accepted that, due to historic immigration patterns, climate and landscape, Scandinavians feel comfortable in Minnesota. In Thursday's home opener for the Minnesota Wild, two of the team's Scandinavians looked even more comfortable here than they had in their native Finland last week.
Antti Miettinen scored once and Mikko Koivu scored twice for the Wild, which began to put the disappointment of Helsinki in the rear-view mirror, beating the Edmonton Oilers 4-2. After going winless through the preseason and the first two games of the regular season, and with last season's horrendous start fresh in their minds, the players admitted that there was a sense of desperation at play. For most, that was a good thing.
"You always have to be desperate to get wins" said Koivu, who added an assist and is already on pace to lead the Wild in scoring again. "I think we were tonight and it worked for us."
Wild coach Todd Richards said he felt the Finns played with as much effort and skill Thursday as they had in the two games in Helsinki. But all admitted that being back in Minnesota was different in a good way.
"I know over there they probably felt a lot of pressure and they both have a tremendous amount of pride in how they play," Richards said. "It's a different scenario playing there in front of friends and family."
Of course, a few native Minnesotans looked comfortable playing in front of friends and family on Thursday as well. Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert, a one-time Bloomington Jefferson star, scored his first of the season to tie the game 1-1 at one point. And in the third period, Moorhead native Matt Cullen unleashed a power play blast from the point that deflected off the toe of Gilbert's skate and into the Edmonton net. It was Cullen's second goal as a member of his home-state club, and his first at home.
Having played previously in less hockey-friendly places like Anaheim, Carolina and Florida, Cullen definitely felt a different vibe on Thursday.
"I haven't felt that kind of electricity in a regular season game in a long time," he said. "Full barn like that, people getting into it, it was pretty exciting."
Although for a time, it looked like the same-old, same-old unexciting and unsuccessful play that had plagued the Wild much of last season. Trailing 2-1 in the second period, and short of double-digits in shots on goal, it got pretty quiet inside Xcel Energy Center.
"In the second there was a bit of a lull, for maybe the first 10-15 minutes of the period," Richards said. "We were standing around watching a lot of the period. But our power play stepped up and the guys that you need had the opportunities. That really switched the momentum around and got the crowd back into the game."
That's when Koivu scored his goals 52 seconds apart, turning a deficit into a lead that the Wild would not relinquish. Prior to that point, perhaps the biggest ovation of the night had come when Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss appeared on the video screen to wish the Wild a successful season.
Much of their success or failure, it's readily apparent, will depend on the fortunes of the man-advantage unit, which supplied all four of the team's goals on Thursday, and seven of the eight goals the Wild has scored this season. Part of that success on Thursday came via the addition of Cullen, who carried the play, shot the puck, and provided a spark that was often missing last season.
"He does a great job coming up the ice with speed," said Richards. "He's a great skater and can back teams off. And he's not afraid to pull the trigger, which is what you need on the back end."
Richards is duplicating the successful formula Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette used with Cullen in 2005-06. Laviolette moved the natural forward to a spot on the blue line during the power play, and at season's end, the Hurricanes were hoisting the Stanley Cup. That's a long, long way off for the Wild, but for one night anyway, it worked to make a mark in the win column.
"Going into the game there definitely was a sense of desperation," Cullen said. "We all know how important it is to get off to a good start, and Finland was not what we hoped for. We got one point out of it, so we came into tonight knowing how important it was, and we're pretty happy with the effort."
He was clearly just one of many members of the Wild who was happy to be home.