ST. PAUL – Bruce Boudeau admitted Wednesday night that he didn’t want to call his team’s game against Central Division-rival Dallas a “huge game,” but the Wild coach eventually did acknowledge it was exactly that.
Boudreau made this admission following the Wild’s 4-2 victory over the Stars at Xcel Energy Center. The win came in the Wild’s first game out of the three-day Holiday break and left Minnesota holding the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, two points behind Dallas. A loss to the Stars would have put the Wild six points behind the Stars and out of the playoff picture.
“It’s only one game, but it was a good divisional start,” said Boudreau, who coached his 800th NHL game and is 477-232-91 (.653 winning percentage) in 11 seasons.
It’s understandable why Boudreau didn’t want to apply extra pressure on his team by declaring a game before the New Year to be huge. But after a disappointing first two-plus months of the season, the Wild need to start consistently earning points. We are no longer early in the season and making up ground becomes more difficult with each game that passes.
Minnesota looked to be making progress when it put together a four-game winning streak this month, but that was followed by back-to-back losses to Edmonton and Chicago. The Wild then won at Ottawa before losing on consecutive nights at Florida and Tampa Bay last weekend.
It’s that inconsistency that is part of the reason Boudreau told his players that Wednesday night’s game began the second-half of the season. Yes, it was game No. 37, not 41, but whatever works, right?
“We called it the start of the second half so you get a chance to reset,” said Boudreau, who led the Wild to a franchise-record 106 points in 2016-17 during his first season behind the Minnesota bench. “I likened it this morning to a game of golf where you played the first nine holes and you’re probably not as happy as you’d like to be but you can always make it up by having a great back nine.”
The Wild will need to do exactly that in an extremely tough Western Conference that has become even more competitive this season thanks to the addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas entered Wednesday tied with the Kings atop the Pacific Division with 48 points.
The Wild fell behind at 12 minutes, 37 seconds of the first period on Wednesday when Dallas’ Tyler Seguin scored his 18th goal of the season. Minnesota tied it on defenseman Jared Spurgeon’s goal at 19:19 of the first and then went ahead on Eric Staal’s 15th goal at 5:12 of the second.
Mattias Janmark tied it for Dallas at 10:43 of the second on the power play, but the Wild answered shortly thereafter on their own power play when Mikael Granlund beat Ben Bishop. Jason Zucker ended the scoring with an empty-net goal in the third. The Wild are now 10-2-4 against the Stars in their past 16 meetings and 8-1-2 at Xcel Energy Center in the past 11 games vs. the one-time North Stars.
The most important thing was the Wild did not fail to get key points in a game in which it entered the third period holding a lead. The Wild entered Wednesday having lost 10 games in which they were tied or held a lead in the third period.
The latest example of an opportunity squandered came Saturday, when the Wild and Tampa Bay entered the third period with the game scoreless. The Lightning then scored three goals in the final 20 minutes. Boudreau felt his team played well but knew his players were upset. That’s one reason he felt the break came at a good time.
“I think it did (help) us because there were some frustrated guys in the Tampa game,” he said. “We just finished eight games in 13 days, so those three days were a real big help. Especially to our older players.”
Although he did not score a goal, winger Tyler Ennis had one of his best games of the season for the Wild. Ennis, acquired along with Marcus Foligno from Buffalo in the offseason trade that sent Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella to the Sabres, had an assist on Spurgeon’s goal, was a plus-2 and tied for the team lead with four shots.
Ennis, who has six goals in 36 games, was skating on one of the Wild’s top two lines with Staal and Charlie Coyle, but he also has played on the fourth line this season and has been a healthy scratch. The impending returns of Zach Parise and Nino Niederreiter could land Ennis back in the press box if he’s not playing well.
Asked if he thinks that might be in the back of Ennis’ mind, Boudreau said: “I don’t know. I can’t get in his head that way. I think he got more minutes than he normally got and he’s been playing on the third or fourth line recently. Now, he had some power-play time and everything else. Maybe he just felt more comfortable.”
The Wild will now play Nashville in a home-and-home on Friday and Saturday. The Predators passed St. Louis and moved into first place in the Central Division on Wednesday, beating the Blues 2-1 in St. Louis. Nashville’s 49 points put it eight ahead of the Wild.
“Obviously, we’ve got to start moving one direction and that’s up,” said Alex Stalock, who made 24 saves in the Wild goal. “Tonight was a start … what we’re essentially calling kind of the second half here. Tonight was a good start and obviously a big weekend coming up.”