Hey, that road trip wasn’t all bad! It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad!
The Wild have completed a brief two-game swing through the New York metropolitan area with a 4-2 victory over the lowly New Jersey Devils, followed by a disappointing 2-1 loss to the impressively high-flying and first-place-in-the-Metropolitan-Division New York Islanders.
With the unusual nature of back-to-back day games—and the very minimal time that a story regarding the Saturday game alone would have had to breathe—I opted to conjoin the Saturday and Sunday versions of “3 Things We Learned” into one “5 Things We Learned” post, lumping together the whole two-game trip.
Here’s what we learned from the Wild’s visit to Newark and Brooklyn.
Thing 1: A Gordie Howe Hat Trick Is Still Cool
On Saturday at Prudential Center, Marcus Foligno contributed in a variety of ways, first scoring to even the game at one goal apiece, with a nifty wraparound roof job on his backhand. Next, he dropped the gloves with Kurtis “Catch These Hands” Gabriel four minutes into the second in an oddly-timed bout that came just after Zach Parise had given his current team the lead over his former team. Later in the period, Foligno collected a loose puck and sent it to the point to Jonas Brodin, who threw it at Cory Schneider. Schneider kicked the rebound out, and Joel Eriksson Ek buried it, giving Foligno a second assist on the eventual game winner.
As mentioned, the fight with Gabriel was probably not necessary, and in fact probably should have backfired against Minnesota, being that it had just taken the lead and was on the road. And the assist was probably more luck than anything, being that it was a second assist that bounced around a fair amount before it found the back of the net.
Still, a Gordie Howe hat trick of a goal, assist, and fight is DEFINITELY not something we see often from Wild players, so good on you, Marcus Foligno.
Thing 2: The Wild Could Use a Backup Goalie
I know, I know… We have Alex Stalock, and Devan Dubnyk played really well on Sunday anyway, so what’s the difference?
But don’t you think it’s odd that in a situation where it seems obvious the coach should play his backup netminder, Bruce Boudreau opts to go with Devan Dubnyk—who has mostly played well but has allowed a few very tough goals over the past week—in both games of a back-to-back?
Perhaps this one wasn’t as challenging as others, because there isn’t really “travel” per se between Newark and Brooklyn, so playing Dubnyk again wasn’t totally ludicrous. And to both his credit and Bruce’s credit, Dubnyk was actually outstanding against the Islanders, despite the loss. But man, I’ve been arguing for a long time on this site that the Wild need a 1A/1B battery of goalies, and with Stalock (whom they just locked up for three more years), I’m really sorry to say it, but they just don’t have that.
Boudreau said after the game Sunday to Michael Russo of The Athletic that starting Dubnyk again was about a sense of urgency to get points, and that without practices or morning skates, going with Stalock would have been unfair.
Thing 3: Joel Eriksson Ek May Actually Be Developing
In the last “3 Things” article, it was mentioned that Eriksson Ek needs to play with skilled players to be successful at the NHL level. Well, he has actually been successful since returning from his AHL banishment to fill-in for the injured Mikko Koivu. I would argue he was Minnesota’s best player not named Devan Dubnyk on Sunday, driving some good offensive zone time, narrowly missing a goal for the third consecutive game, and drawing two penalties. That performance came a day after registering a goal against New Jersey, with three shots on net, a hit, and two blocked shots.
It’s hard to pin what has changed with Eriksson Ek since he was sent down to Iowa before the All-Star break, but he really is playing with confidence, now that he has been forced into an elevated role with Koivu out of the lineup.
Maybe the kid is actually developing?
Thing 4: Mikael Granlund Can Still Score Goals
Boudreau didn’t mince words about Granlund after the Wild had a stinker of a loss at home against Edmonton on Thursday, saying to media, “I can’t go out there and hang on his back and follow him like a close-talker and say, ‘Hey, shoot the puck!’” Well, believe it or not, Granny got a look at an open net on Sunday after Jason Zucker hit him with a perfect cross-ice pass on the power play, and he didn’t hesitate in firing it home.
It’s worth noting that pretty much any player in the league could have scored on that play, but this is a guy that hadn’t put one in the net for more than a month. He’s a pass first guy—always has been and always will be—but man it would be good to see him start scoring some occasional goals again. Though the Wild lost, Sunday was hopefully a start to get Granny scoring a bit.
Thing 5: The Islanders Are the Real Deal (and the Wild… Probably Aren’t)
It’s with good reason that the New York Islanders have found themselves atop the standings of the Metropolitan Division. With last year’s Stanley Cup-winning coach now behind the bench in Brooklyn/Nassau County/wherever the Islanders are playing their home games these days, this is a very different team from the free-wheeling, structure-lacking squad that we came to know and love under recent coaches Jack Capuano and Doug Weight.
With a new regime in town in Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, you can really see that this team—still exciting offensively—plays a sound structure in all three zones, the kind of structure that helped Trotz hoist hockey’s greatest prize last season. It’s quite the turnaround for a franchise that lost its best player in John Tavares in devastating fashion over the offseason. But this team now belongs to Lou, Trotz, Mathew Barzal, and the rest of the gang that’s been trying to figure it out in Brooklyn for so long now.
Meanwhile, back in St. Paul, the Wild have been passed by the streaking St. Louis Blues, and are just two points from falling out of a playoff spot completely. Yikes.