Myers: Finally, everything clicks for Wild in dominant win over Stars
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Opportunities in hockey often arrive at the oddest times. All of the planning in the world can go into devising ways to beat the opponent's goalie, and just as often goals come on a weak shot that deflects off an opposing defender's skate just the right way at just the right time.
The Minnesota Wild taught a lesson in opportunity for their first convincing won of the season on Saturday, when they blasted past a shaky-looking Dallas Stars club 5-1 before a raucous and expectant crowd in downtown St. Paul.
And most satisfying for Wild coach Mike Yeo -- even more than the fact that four of the five goals came from new faces in the lineup -- is that finally, after several games of frustration and seeing dominant efforts go for naught, he got to see everything click.
"That's kind of what we said we expected to happen eventually here, that we would get what we deserved," Yeo said. "We continue to go out and do the right things."
The right things on Saturday included out-shooting an opponent that looked tired. The Stars had played and won in Winnipeg on Friday night. Less than 24 hours later, they never got a chance to get set. Just 12 seconds into the game -- a franchise record -- Wild rookie Justin Fontaine threw a harmless-looking backhander at the Stars net, and got his first NHL goal as a result.
"That's a rolling backhander. I was just trying to throw it on the net," said Fontaine, who spent all of last season with the Wild's top minor league team. He's a well-known name to many Minnesota hockey fans, especially if they live north of Hinckley. A little more than two years ago, Fontaine anchored the top line for Minnesota Duluth when the Bulldogs came to St. Paul and captured their first NCAA title.
Before the night was over, the Wild would see fellow rookie Matt Dumba get his first goal, off a pretty cross-ice pass from Dany Heatley on a power play. They also got a goal from Matt Cooke, who is making Wild fans forget his suspension-filled past by leading the team in scoring. And Nino Niederreiter got his first goal with the Wild as well.
"What's most important to me is the team wins, and tonight was a step in the right direction for us," Cooke said. "Some young guys getting on the board and chipping in, with older guys leading the way, playing the right way, spending time in the offensive zone. That was our first full 60-minute game."
All of the contributions, and two consecutive wins, have quickly lent an air of stability to the Wild, who began the week in a bit of a funk, after a 3-2 loss in Nashville in which top goalie Niklas Backstrom was lost with a knee injury.
In Backstrom's stead, Josh Harding stepped in and backstopped the team's first two wins, getting plenty of help on Saturday as the Wild scored early and often.
"We were ready to play this game, which is huge. We were trying to build off last game, and we're happy with the outcome," said Harding, who had 19 saves. His role going forward is unclear, as Backstrom is expected back in the lineup as soon as Sunday. "This game works in funny ways, and we need to learn to take advantage of opportunities like this. The whole team played well again, so we need to come to the rink tomorrow and get better each day."
From here, the Wild head out on their first extended road trip of the season, with games in Buffalo, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida looming. One of those teams made the playoffs last year, meaning opportunities abound for a team on a roll to keep rolling.
In Buffalo they will find a mess of a team that lost Jason Pominville to the Wild in a trade last season, and is expected to lose two more notables - forward Thomas Vanek and goalie Ryan Miller - to free agency, if not sooner. The Sabres lost to Chicago on Saturday, falling to 0-5-1, and are one of just two winless teams in the NHL. In other words, an opportunistic Wild team should smell blood in the water.
"I look at that Buffalo game as an important one for us. We've got to get our first (road) win," Yeo said. "I always look at the first game of a road trip as an important one. We've got to enjoy this one, but put it aside quickly."