It's crunch time for the Minnesota Wild. After losing 3 straight games on the heels of a 4-game winning streak, the Wild found themselves once again 4 points out of a playoff spot. A big component of the slump that led the Wild into it's current predicament? Their play at home. They've gone almost two months without a win at the Xcel Energy Center. For a team that's traditionally been so dominant at home (even when they've been bad), it's necessary to get back to winning in front of their fans again. They got a chance today against the Atlantic-leading Florida Panthers.
In theory, the return of Zach Parise should be a big boost to the Wild. Parise was out two games with an undisclosed upper body injury, and given the Wild lost both games, his return is quite welcome. But now he's got whatever vestiges of that injury linger, as well as the knee injury he's been nursing since November.
But if those injuries hampered the Wild's top line of Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Charlie Coyle, it didn't show. They started out great in the first period, cashing in when Parise found Coyle in front of the net to open the scoring. Coyle's in particular was dominant on that shift, getting a scoring chance, then leaving the front of the net only to circle back to find the scoring area again.
Florida backup Al Montoya had a short night, when Marco Scandella made contact with Montoya that knocked him out of the game, forcing Roberto Luongo to come off the bench. Despite there being contact from Aaron Ekblad that may have caused the goaltending contact, Scandella still earned a minor penalty for that. It probably won't receive supplemental discipline, but it does bear noting that Scandella would be considered a repeat offender should Player Safety decide to take action.
Play got chippy after that, culminating in an intense battle in front of the net between Nino Niederreiter and Aaron Ekblad which resulted in a scrum and matching minor penalties. After one, the Panthers trailed 0-1, being out-shot 6-9.
Emotions continued to run high in the second period, and the game almost turned on a mental mistake from Matt Dumba. Dumba reacted poorly to a subtle (uncalled) trip by Jussi Jokinen, squandering a power play with an unnecessary interference penalty. Aaron Ekblad would score on that power play, tying the game up. Dumba, the Wild's most potent threat with the man advantage, would not see any more power play time for the remainder of the game. Without Dumba, the Wild went 0-3 on power plays for the remainder of that period alone, leaving the game tied at teh end of the second.
The Wild would seize control of the play in the third period, holding the Panthers to 3 shots. With the Wild pressing, it was a given that the Wild would (or at least should) pull ahead. It looked that moment had come when Chris Porter found Thomas Vanek for a breakaway on a cross-ice feed, but Vanek wasn't able to convert on the slap shot.
Instead it would be another former Gopher. Erik Haula scored the game-winning goal by basically doing everything himself. He chipped the puck away from Dmitry Kulikov in the Wild's zone, intercepted Reilly Smith's attempt to dump the puck back in, and went off to the races, using his incredible speed and balance to get past Erik Gudbranson to score. It was pretty. Seriously, look at it again.
Superb individual effort by the Wild's Erik Haula, then roofs it on the breakaway pic.twitter.com/1gvereGSXV— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) February 28, 2016
It wasn't just the goal, Haula had buzzed all game. In the first period, he had a great scoring chance on a breakaway. He used his speed to set up a 2-on-1 chance for Nino Niederreiter that could've extended the lead, and he had the assist on Pominville's empty-net goal to seal the win for Minnesota. The Erik Haula we've seen these this month is the one that we saw at the University of Minnesota, the same one we saw down the stretch in 2014. A welcome sight for a team that's been awfully short on centers who can score.
The Wild win puts them within 2 points of Colorado in the standings, and taking care of them at home on Tuesday night would go a long way for the Wild's playoff odds. With a red-hot Haula slicing through Colorado's porous defense the way that pretty much anything slices through Colorado's porous defense, Minnesota could find themselves back in the playoffs in no time.
Before logging off for the night, I'd be foolish to not point out that Mikko Koivu set a franchise record for games played in a Wild sweater, surpassing Nick Schultz for his 744th game. Well deserved. Koivu takes his lumps with certain segments of the fanbase, but he's easily a Top-3 player in Wild history, and the strongest embodiment of the Wild's ethos with his consummate defense and exemplary effort. His contributions are definitely not flashy, but they're vital to this team, and when it comes time for him (or the team) to move on, his absence will be felt.