ST. PAUL – Zach Parise didn’t find his way onto the scoresheet on Tuesday night in the Wild’s 5-1 drubbing of the apathetic Florida Panthers, but the veteran wasn’t the least bit upset.
The most important thing was that in the Wild’s 40th game the 33-year-old left winger was able to get on the ice for the first time this season. That long had been the goal for a guy who underwent microdiscectomy surgery just over two months ago to repair a herniated disk and alleviate the corresponding pain and weakness it caused.
“I honestly felt like I had it right away,” Parise said of his return. “It felt like I had really good jump in my legs. There were a couple of times I got extended on my shifts and that’s where you could feel it. You don’t recover as quickly to go back out again. But that comes with playing more games.”
The Wild desperately need the 13-year-veteran to do exactly that. He is in the sixth season of a 13-year, $98 million contract. Considering he carries a $7.5 million salary-cap this season, Parise must make a significant contribution in the season’s final months if the Wild are going to appear in the postseason for the sixth consecutive year.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau elected to ease Parise into the lineup on Tuesday, putting him on the third line alongside center Charlie Coyle and right winger Chris Stewart. But Parise made his debut playing on his off wing only 41 seconds into the game after the Panthers were called for a penalty.
Shortly thereafter, Parise took a shot from along the boards that was redirected by Jason Zucker. Panthers goalie James Reimer threw out his pad and skate to make the save. Parise also got a shot that was turned away by Reimer before leaving the ice.
“That was ideal actually,” Parise said of playing so early. “To get on the power play and handle the puck and feel the puck in a game, it couldn’t have been a better start. To get in there and handle it on the half wall and make some plays, it felt good to start like that.”
About the only real chance the Xcel Energy Center crowd of 19,029 got to cheer for Parise during the game came midway through the first period when he was shown on the video board while sitting on the bench while play was stopped.
Parise played 13 minutes, 35 seconds, taking 20 shifts, and had three shots on goal. “I thought Zach was good for his first game,” Boudreau said. “He did all the right things and played within himself. He could have had a couple (goals), too.”
The Wild got the majority of their scoring from a couple of veterans. Forty-one-year-old Matt Cullen scored twice to double his goal total to four, and 33-year-old Eric Staal contributed his 16th and 17th goals of the season in the second period. Coyle added only his third goal of the season into an empty-net with 3:05 left in the third period.
“It’s big,” to have Parise back, Staal said. “That’s what our team was last year, we were balanced. The ability, especially at home, to have four lines going on the attack and you spent more time in the offensive zone and it makes a difference. He looked really solid. He makes strong plays.
“It was fun to be out there on the power play with him early. He had some good touches, made some good plays. We could have scored a couple early. But (he was) strong on the wall. He’s a great player. If we can get Nino (Niederreiter) back and stay healthy, it’s only going to make us stronger and better as the rest of the year goes.”
Cullen, who scored the first two goals of the game for the Wild, did so playing on the fourth line. The Wild’s bottom six forwards have struggled to contribute at times this season, but on Tuesday that wasn’t the case. As Staal mentioned, the Wild’s depth will only improve when Niederreiter returns from a lower-body injury that has cost him the past five games.
That could be as early as Thursday’s game against Buffalo. Boudreau said Tuesday that he thinks Niederreiter is ready to return, adding a final decision will come Thursday at some point.
Having Niederreiter and Parise back, not only adds depth, it adds quality depth. It also enables Boudreau to scratch a forward who isn’t contributing.
As for Parise, he was just happy to be talking about what had happened on the ice Tuesday instead of his back troubles that date to January 2016 and finally caused him to opt for surgery in October. “It’s a lot more fun to dissect (the game) when you’re playing than when you’re up top (in the press box),” Parise said. “It’s pretty easy up there. It’s great. I am so happy to be back and playing.”
Parise said he wasn’t thinking about his back “too much” even as he took an initial hit. As far as where Parise’s game can go from here, and keep in mind he prides himself on playing a rough-and-tumble style in which he goes into the corners and drives to the front of the net, Parise said:
“I think it’s going to be great, really. I think it’s only going to go up from here and how I felt and the possession, the handling of the puck, is going to get even better. But, honestly, I really felt like … for me personally, I thought it was a great first game back.”