The Wild are a 100+ point team. Though, at times they didn’t look or feel like one, this Minnesota Wild team, led by Eric Staal and Jason Zucker all season long, has just finished with 101 points for the 2017-18 regular season. And it would be those players leading the cause against the Sharks in San Jose in the regular season finale late Saturday night.
First, let’s talk about Eric Staal. His name will now top the list for most goals in a season, tied with Marian Gaborik. After Staal waited, and waited, even got some great looks early in the game for number 42 to come, it would finally come in the form of an empty net goal with the shot coming almost 100 feet away from the net. He’s not been the Wild’s most prolific goal scorer because of elite speed, or possessing a wicked shot, nor was it because he played an overabundance of power play time. No, Staal worked his way into the league Top 5 goal scorers list because he went to the net, found himself in the right position, and made smart decisions with the puck. With Staal in the Eastern Conference for almost the entirety of his career before joining Minnesota in the summer of 2016, it was hard to really appreciate how damn good Eric Staal was and is. He is the consummate professional, getting the job done night-in and night-out, and while last year was a very nice year for him, I finally understand why he is so good and appreciate the way he does his business on the ice. There’s always that fire and drive to win, but always super classy, and a treat to have on the team. He’s earned every bit of respect he gets, and reaching number 42 is just the icing on the cake.
Okay, enough gushing.
The first period started fast for the Minnesota Wild. In a game that meant very little to either team, the pace was fast, and the Wild were pressuring the Sharks early and often. Finally, at 10:53, Jonas Brodin broke the ice, scoring wise, after Charlie Coyle made a nice play in the along the offensive zone boards to get him the puck at the left point. The slap shot eluded Martin Jones as Tyler Ennis crashed the net.
The next shift for that Tyler Ennis - Matt Cullen - Charlie Coyle line was a fantastic shift that had Coyle making moves to set up Cullen. Cullen hit iron the first time, but they kept working, and when the puck came around the net a second time, Ennis, with his stick stuck behind him, centered for Cullen, who had a yawning net to shoot into. Cullen finished the season with 11 goals, and for having a rough go of it at the beginning, he really has played well since the 1st of the year.
The Sharks, however, were not to be denied. Brent Burns scored his 12th of the season (2 goals behind Minnesota’s Matt Dumba BTW) on a slapper from the point. Then Mikkel Boedker got a puck from a flat-footed Dumba in the Minnesota zone and found Joe Pavelski in the slot beating Brodin to tie the game. The Burns and Pavelski goals came 1:04 apart.
Bruce Boudreau said, “It was shame that we came out of the first period tied because that might have been our best first period of the year,” post game.
The Wild’s third line was pretty good, but in the second period, the first line took over. Minnesota also didn’t get a shot on goal for over nine minutes of the second period. When players just needed to shoot, they passed. Joel Eriksson Ek was one of the guilty parties when on a 2-on-1 with Marcus Foligno, he elected to pass instead of shoot when he had a pretty clear lane to the net. Mikael Granlund followed it up with taking it himself on a 2-on-1 and whipping a wrist shot high to the blocker side of Jones to take the 3-2 lead. Twenty-eight whole seconds later, Nino Niederreiter saucered a pass into the slot for Jason Zucker. Zucker deked Jones back against the grain for the 4-2 lead. It was Granlund’s 21st of the season, and 67th point. Not a bad follow-up to a 69 point season the year before. For Zucker, it was his 32nd of the season.
But he wasn’t done for the night. Later in the 3rd on a 2-on-1 rush with Staal on his flank, Zucker decided against getting pretty and just ripped a shot low to the blocker of Jones for number 33 of the year. He will end the regular season with career highs in goals (33) and assists (31) for a grand total of 64 points. Not to bad to have in your pocket going into contract negotiations in the offseason.
The Wild played a much more conservative game in the third period. They got fewer shots on goal, but he pressure was there. The Wild had to face a different goalie as Aaron Dell replaced Martin Jones to start the third. With just under four minutes to go, the Sharks pulled the goalie for the extra attacker. Timo Meier deflected a Dylan DeMelo shot past Dubnyk. Staal came out the next shift and that’s when he struck for goal number 42.
Minnesota walked away from San Jose having taken all three games from the Sharks this year. Saturday was the NHL debut of Louis Belpedio, who signed his entry-level deal on Thursday. He had the secondary assist on the Cullen goal, and a secondary assist on the 2nd Zucker goal. According to the Wild PR, he is the first player in franchise history to have two points in his NHL debut. Let’s just say he looked awfully comfortable on the ice, almost unfazed by his debut. He was pinching in offense, making Sharks players miss, and getting a few points.
Jordan Greenway, now in his sixth game with the Wild, made the play to spring Granlund for his goal in the second period. It is Greenway’s first NHL point.
Devan Dubnyk made 23 saves on 26 shots in the game. In the third period, he kept the Sharks mostly at bay including a nice poke-check to thwart a Joe Pavelski break. The Sharks like to shoot from a lot of angles, and outside of the two goals in the first period, he was pretty darn good.
Next up for the Wild is the Winnipeg Jets. Hockey Wilderness will have everything you need to know about the Jets/Wild First Round series and every game.
Lastly, before I go and we head in to the post-season, I’d like to thank all of you readers for sticking with us all season long. This has been one of the most trying years for me since I took over the site. I can’t express my gratitude for each of you taking your time to read, chat, and make Hockey Wilderness a fun website of which to be a part. As we head into the post-season, we will still have all the coverage you expect, and hopefully more.
Thank you, and Go Wild!