Wild get back on track in 2014, break losing streak vs. woeful Sabres
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner had spent more time in the press box than on the ice recently, having missed his team's previous four games - all of them losses - with a lower body injury.
If his New Year's resolution was to get back on the ice and get the Wild back to having some fun, then 2014 is off to a rip-roaring start.
"We're undefeated this year, so it's all good," Stoner joked, inside a Wild locker room that was joyous for the first time in weeks. The Wild built a 3-0 lead versus the woeful Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, and this time they didn't let it slip away, winning 4-1.
When the final horn sounded, there was as much relief as jubilation inside Xcel Energy Center, as the Wild's franchise record six-game losing streak was over, and the hot seat upon which coach Mike Yeo is situated may have cooled down just a tiny bit.
"It was a complete game," said Yeo, who had juggled seemingly every line and defensive pairing he could find in advance of the first game of 2014. "We had everybody show up and play hard and play the right way tonight, and I thought that started with our leaders, there's no question. I've said this many times: That's what we need those guys to do."
The calendar isn't the only thing different in 2014. Niklas Backstrom started in goal and snapped a personal eight-game losing streak. He was rushed into duty, and Darcy Kuemper was recalled from Iowa as the backup after Josh Harding came down with an illness. Also recalled was forward Jason Zucker, who notched his first goal of the season - his first since the 2013 playoffs when he got the Wild's only post-season game-winner - in the second period.
But the biggest on-ice narrative came from Jason Pominville, who has now faced his former team twice, and has scored the game-winner twice. Pominville and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller played together for 11 seasons, both in the minors and in Buffalo, yet somehow the former can still find ways to fool the latter.
"He knows everything I've got," Pominville said. "I pretty much closed my eyes and put it on net, and somehow it found a way."
That was the theme all day for the Wild: find a way. Even if that meant scoring goals with offensive superstar Zach Parise still watching from the pressbox, slowly healing his broken foot. Even if that meant rallying behind Backstrom, who had struggled all season. Even if that meant playing a solid defensive game with a stalwart like Keith Ballard sitting out, a healthy scratch. Even if that meant playing tough, physical hockey without Zenon Konopka, who was placed on waivers by the Wild on Thursday. They needed to find a way, and in the end, they found the simplest way.
"If you look at it, we didn't do anything special but we did all the little things right," Pominville said. "That led to us out-shooting them and for the most part out-playing them."
After a scoreless first period, the Wild took over the game in the second, out-shooting the Sabres 15-5 and getting goals from Marco Scandella, Pominville and Zucker. And unlike their disastrous "come from way ahead" loss to the Islanders last week, this time there was no let-up.
"They kind of picked us apart in the neutral zone in the second period," said Miller, who had 28 saves for the Sabres, winners of just three road games all season. "The first was all right, then the second was a tough period and the third period was just a wash trying to keep the lead. ... It wasn't much of a game there after the second."
There are bigger challenges coming soon, starting on Saturday when the more dangerous Washington Capitals come visit. But for now, the losing streak is done. And while the Wild have much work to do to climb out of the hole they dug in the last few weeks of 2013, the first game of 2014 may have been the first step they needed on the road back to contention for the playoffs, and toward keeping Yeo behind the bench after so much talk of instability there.
"We needed that for sure," Yeo said. "But we did it the right way, which is big."