Two weeks ago, if you had looked ahead at the Wild’s schedule and noticed this road game against the Lightning looming, would you have predicted a Wild victory? How about a nearly perfect 3-0 win, in which Jason Zucker—who at the time remained badly snakebitten and on the trade block—would score all three goals? Yeah, I didn’t think you would have predicted that.
These Lightning are something special, on pace to be one of the best teams in the history of the NHL when the regular season is all said and done. And yet, the Wild were the better team in all three zones Thursday at Amalie Arena, where Devan Dubnyk and the team’s defense were impenetrable at one end, and Zucker was filling the net at the other. Zucker now has five goals and six points in five games since the deadline deal to send him to Calgary fell through, and he’s now reached the 20-goal mark for the fourth time in his career.
Though the victory did not come without a cost—Luke Kunin took a big hit in the second period and left with an apparent head injury—Thursday’s win was an absolute statement by the Wild. The Green ‘n’ Wheats extended their point streak to eight games, and did so in extremely impressive fashion.
Oh, speaking of statements, what do you think of Bob Woods’ new look? This is the classic “fall asleep by the pool with sunglasses on.”
The Wild wasted no time showing that they were out to shock the world against the Lightning. The first good chance came when Joel Eriksson Ek took a bouncepass off the boards in the neutral zone three minutes in and flew in on a breakaway. Andrei Vasilevskiy came up with that save, but it was an early indication that this was a night Minnesota was going to have opportunities against the league’s best.
The Wild were then awarded the game’s first power play, on which Eric Staal was robbed at the side of the net on a jam play. Shortly after that penalty was killed, Zucker dropped to Ryan Donato coming across the blueline, and then went to the net. Donato—who never hesitates to shoot—fired toward the net, and Zucker got a piece of it to evade the catch glove of Vasilevskiy. Zucker’s 18th of the year came at 10:50 of the first.
There were some hairy moments in the closing five minutes of the frame, as the Lightning started to take the momentum, but the Wild collapsed around Dubnyk well, and the big netminder showed his appreciation by giving them some solid saves to keep them ahead at the horn.
Approaching the mid-way point of the second, Kunin made an outlet pass from just in front of Dubnyk. As Kunin released the puck, he got clobbered by Cedric Paquette. The Wild rookie got up, but looked wobbly to the point that the referees stopped play after he fell a second time on his way to the bench. Eventually he was helped down the tunnel by Minnesota’s training staff and didn’t return. It was quite the concerning look for Kunin, who has been a huge contributor. Here’s hoping for a speedy—but also intelligent approach to—recovery.
With just north of two minutes left in the period, Kevin Fiala carried the puck over the blueline on a developing two-on-one. Continuing his electric ways, Fiala pulled the Tampa Bay defender to him and made a perfect toe drag to put himself one-on-one with Vasilevskiy, but the netminder waited Fiala out, and eventually made a pad save. With everyone in a Wild jersey crashing, the puck came out to Anthony Cirelli, who raced the other way on a quick counter breakaway. Dubnyk made a ridiculous diving poke check to thwart the opportunity and end ten of the most exciting seconds of hockey we’ve seen all season.
Six minutes into the third, Zucker made a great hustle play on the forecheck behind the net to steal the puck away from Vasilevskiy. He poked it out to Donato, who again didn’t hesitate in shooting the puck (pretty standard, really). Donato’s shot got blocked by Victor Hedman, but it popped straight up in the air. With Vasilevskiy still scrambling to get back into the net, Staal and Zucker both swatted at it out of the air. Zucker made contact and found the top corner of the net. The play was initially called no goal on the ice for high sticking, but was then weirdly reviewed twice before Zucker was finally awarded his second of the game and 19th of the year.
With 11 minutes left, Jordan Greenway—who was everywhere Thursday—and Pontus Aberg came in on another two-on-one. Greenway fired into Vasilevskiy’s pads, and a hot rebound went to Aberg. Aberg got flattened by a back-checking Nikita Kucherov, and on the resulting power play, Paquette hooked Staal to prevent a scoring chance, giving Minnesota 38 seconds of five-on-three. Minnesota failed to score, but between the two penalties and a long delayed whistle before Tampa Bay could get the stoppage for the first call, Minnesota effectively ate up nearly five minutes of the clock.
Predictably, the next penalty went to the Wild, but with Jared Spurgeon in the box, Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter, and Dubnyk came up enormous against the potent Lightning power play. Dubnyk made a save on Kucherov during that kill in which he slid all the way across the net and stuffed his pad into the far post to shut down the opportunity. That save and that huge kill arguably solidified the victory.
In the closing minutes, Zucker had three chances at the hat trick with Tampa Bay’s goal empty. He missed the net from the redline on the first chance, then had his second shot blocked, before finally drilling it right down the middle from just outside the blueline.
25 saves for Dubnyk, three goals for Zucker, two assists for Donato, one very impressive win by your Minnesota Wild, who go right back to work against the Panthers on Friday night.