Smith: Wild’s ‘stressful, but fun’ comeback win over Canucks could have a lasting impact

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Putting Monday’s unbelievably wild Wild game into words is hard to do, so let’s let those who lived it explain.

“It was nuts,” Matt Boldy said.

“Stressful,” Ryan Hartman said. “But fun.”

“Crazy,” Kirill Kaprizov said.

“It felt like a junior game,” Joel Eriksson Ek said. “I’m sure the fans are excited to watch it, but I don’t know about the coaches.”

Seventeen goals combined between the Wild and best-in-the-NHL Vancouver Canucks. Ten by Minnesota. Both franchise records. Three hat tricks (including by Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek). It wouldn’t be surprising if the goal horn ran out of juice by the end.

But this 10-7, come-from-behind victory by Minnesota — easily the most exciting game of the year at Xcel Energy Center — could have lasting power. The Wild, down 5-2 late in the second period, stuck with it and, thanks to three five-on-three power-play goals, delivered a rally for the ages. After winning eight of their last 11, Minnesota sits just 2 points behind the St. Louis Blues for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference heading into Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg.

It’s not that the Wild won, it’s how.

“You have to sift through all the hoopla about (today) and get to the guts of the game,” coach John Hynes said. “My initial reaction after the game, being in it, we did a lot of good things and we’ve got to build on this, build on the style, build on the mentality, the speed with which we played with, the competitiveness we played with. That’s going to give you a chance to continue moving forward.

“You have to sift through the emotions in the game, but if we came in here and we lost the game 5-2, I’d have the same response to you.”

This one looked like a potential clunker, which would have been crushing, especially after giving away a point in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. The Canucks scored a goal on each of their first two shots and five of their first 16. Hynes could sense that Filip Gustavsson was clearly “fighting it,” so the score wasn’t really indicative of how the game was being played. At that point it was 5-2 with five minutes left in the second, and the Canucks had an expected goals of 1.67 but five on the scoreboard.

“We weren’t playing bad,” Boldy said.

The Wild scored 10 goals on 27 shots for a 37 shooting percentage which marks the best single-game shooting percentage by a team with 25-plus shots on goal since the start of the the 2000-01 NHL season.

The Canucks’ first goal, a screened shot by Ian Cole, came off what the Wild felt was an obvious pick by Tyler Myers and poor net-front play. Vancouver got a bounce helpful on the first of J.T. Miller’s three goals. By the time Miller racked up his hat trick with back-to-back goals — both of which came on shots Gustavsson would love to have back — the Wild didn’t feel defeated.

They felt determined.

“We responded the right way,” Hartman said.

“There was no letdown,” Hynes said.

The comeback started with, fittingly, a five-on-three power-play goal. There were 33 seconds left in the second period when Zuccarello, who had a 4-point night, sent a centering pass in the crease that banked in off a Canucks player in front.

“That was a big one,” Eriksson Ek said.

The Wild didn’t have any major speeches at the second intermission, not by Hynes nor the leadership group. They saw an opportunity with 48 seconds remaining of five-on-three power-play time. They went over a group of set plays, knowing if the Wild got one quick, they’d still have a man advantage to play with. As Eriksson Ek put it, “Not too high, not too low. Just try to let the game come to us and not chase it.”

“I’d say 15 games ago, if we got in that situation, we’d sag a little bit after goals against,” Hynes said. “To me, it’s one of the growing lessons in this one. We were playing a good style of hockey, but goals were scored against us, and we didn’t veer off it. We didn’t start going east-west. We stuck with it. We got fortunate with the power plays and were able to execute. But if you take those out, the mindset of the team, the style of game, we were continuing to push the right way. Even when you play the right way and don’t get rewarded but the other team scores, do we have enough maturity and consistency in our game to stick with it? Tonight for me was a step in the right direction.”

Twenty-nine seconds into the third, Eriksson Ek pulled the Wild within one on a redirection in front of a slick centering pass by Zuccarello. Nineteen seconds after that, Miller took a delay of game penalty to give Minnesota another 5-on-3. After a mad scramble in front, Zuccarello found Kaprizov for a vintage one-timer from the right circle, tying the game. The X exploded. Twenty seconds later, Eriksson Ek scored again, and teammates began to just shake their heads on the bench. The six goals in a 5:45 stretch was the fastest six-goal flurry in the NHL in nearly 25 years.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of something like that,” Boldy said. “It kept going in, one after another.”

If you look at the expected goals for both teams in all situations — the Wild were at 3.7, the Canucks were at 2.48, according to Natural Stat Trick — this one stunningly turned into a video game.

“It seemed like everything was going in,” Hartman said. “It didn’t seem like any lead is safe at any point.”

The Wild, once again, were carried by their top line of Kaprizov-Eriksson Ek-Boldy, which has been dominant since getting put together on Feb. 9. They combined for 16 points (seven goals) Monday, between power play and five-on-five. The 6 points each by Eriksson Ek and Kaprizov (the first time he completed the feat since he was 5 years old, the Russian said) tied a franchise record set twice by Marian Gaborik. The way Kaprizov-Eriksson Ek-Boldy have been playing shows the true power of how a scoring line can help lift a team, as shown by the numbers with and without the trio on the ice the past few weeks. In the last five games, Boldy has four goals, seven assists (11 points), Kaprizov has four goals, eight assists (12 points) and Eriksson Ek has seven goals and five assists (12 points).

“Those guys are playing at a really high level, and that’s what you need this time of year,” Hynes said. “When you look around the league, your players that play the top minutes and most important minutes, when those guys drive the team — not just in point production but the process to get the points. They’re fast, they’re physical, they’re also playing against top lines. They’re hard to contain. They are responsible defensively. The three of those guys are playing a hard-skilled game and they’re trying to get rewarded for it. Now you watch those players play with that intensity and commitment, it feeds through the rest of the team.”

Eriksson Ek has a career-high 28 goals and has been arguably the most consistent forward all season. He’s the guts of this group, the most irreplaceable player, so teammates are happy to see him rewarded, especially after Eriksson Ek dealt with surgery to repair a broken leg over the summer. It’s partly why it was Eriksson Ek, not Kaprizov, who was given the player of the game Viking helmet in the dressing room postgame. “He’s earned it,” Kaprizov said.

The Wild still have issues to deal with. Marcus Foligno and Pat Maroon continue to be sidelined, with neither expected on this upcoming three-game road trip. The bottom six is clearly struggling to provide secondary scoring, with Freddy Gaudreau and Hartman likely among those on notice by Hynes. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Mason Shaw make his season debut this week. And Gustavsson doesn’t seem right, not nearly as steady as he was during last season’s Vezina Trophy finalist-caliber run down the stretch. Gustavsson was removed for Marc-Andre Fleury for the third period, and perhaps the future Hall of Famer could get his run of the net for a bit. The schedule doesn’t get easier coming up with playoff teams like Winnipeg (Tuesday) and Edmonton (Friday) looming, and two back-to-backs this week.

But the Wild are definitely showing some fight down the stretch, which will inevitably make it harder for president and GM Bill Guerin to decide to sell at the March 8 trade deadline. No one is confusing Minnesota for bona fide Stanley Cup contenders, but as the Wild have shown in recent weeks, they can beat some of the league’s top teams, from Carolina and Florida on the road in January to Vegas and Vancouver in the past week.

“I think we know how we have to play, the style that suits us best to get points,” Boldy said. “Lot of guys in here are doing it for each other, the guy next to him. That’s the mindset pushing forward to get that (playoff) spot.”

(Photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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