Hockey is back, my friends. And it feels good.
So much has happened between the end of last season and Tuesday night’s puck drop, but play on the ice is finally back at the forefront with the preseason opener at Xcel Energy Center against the Dallas Stars. What were the takeaways from the first night of action of the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild season? Let’s dive right.
Thing One: New Face, Big Impact
One of the storylines heading into training camp and the first preseason game was the addition of Mats Zuccarello. What would the “Lizard King” add? How would he gel with his linemates Zach Parise and Ryan Donato? And would he show the first signs that he wasn’t the Paul Fenton overpay that some think he might be?
Well, a new face certainly made a pretty big first impression. But it wasn’t Zuccarello who stood out — it was Ryan Hartman, who made his presence known in a big way.
Hartman stood up for a late (though weak) hit on center Gabriel Dumont by throwing down the gloves with Dallas winger Tye Felhaber, dispatching him easily with a flurry of rights. Then, fresh off his five minute rest with the Wild on the penalty kill (though Dallas was about to pick up an equalizer minor of their own), Carson Soucy found Hartman on perhaps the most wide open breakaway he’ll ever have in his NHL career — the FSN camera didn’t even pick him up until the puck was just about buried, beating Stars netminder Landon Bow on the high glove side. Just an assist away from the Gordie Howe hat trick, Hartman finished the night with three shots and a goal in just 10 minutes of ice time.
It’s Game 1 of the preseason, but it was good to see at least one of Fenton’s two major acquisitions show some of what they were brought here to do.
Thing Two: Welcome Back, Dumba
It was good to see No. 24 back on the ice. Sure, it’s a preseason game, so not the most strenuous of situations. Still, Dumba put in over 26 minutes and 31 shifts, had five shots (including a rocket of a one-timer, and one of the better OT chances for the Wild) and generally looked pretty strong, if just a little bit rusty. Dumba did get schooled pretty good on Dallas’ first goal of the game by something called Roope Hintz, and he was woefully out of position on the overtime breakaway goal by Justin Dowling to win the game for the Stars. But considering it’s his first game back, and coach Bruce Boudreau said they were going to go easy with him in his first game action since his shoulder injury shelved him for half of 2018-19, it was fantastic to see he had a little bit of the offensive potential that he showed last year.
Thing Three: OT? Oh no...
Again, it’s preseason. But outside of Dumba’s two shots, the Wild looked very Wild-like in the extra session. That is to say, pretty dismal. Minnesota didn’t get much going, made some very preseason-like mistakes, had a sure scoring chance by Eric Staal foiled by an offsides call and had three players down below the hashmarks on the eventual game-ending breakaway when Jason Zucker pinched down to support Staal and Dumba. Dowling took the pass at center ice and beat Stalock easily on a shot he had no chance at stopping.
Is this a sign of more OT issues for the Wild? Way too early to tell, especially when 3-on-3 pairings are still being worked out and players are still getting up to speed. Still, any fan who’s watched this team for the last few years had to sigh deeply when Dowling sped away on half-ice breakaway.
Thing Four: Stalock Stays Strong
Alex Stalock looked pretty good, all told, with 19 saves on 21 shots. The two scores Stalock allowed were pretty unavoidable (including an absolute bar-down snipe by Hintz to get the scoring started). And Stalock made a series of nice saves, including a critical stop with under a minute left to keep the game tied.
A big part of the Wild finding success this season will be being able to rest Devan Dubnyk, and a reliable backup is key. Stalock struggled at times in that role last season, so it’s encouraging to see him stepping up, even if it’s against a limited Stars’ lineup in an ultimately meaningless exhibition game.
Thing Five: Hockey is back!
Yes, I just said that preseason hockey is ultimately meaningless. But after the offseason that the Wild had, the Fenton draft, free agency and firing, the
Hextall Waddel Fitzgerald Guerin watch, and the will-they-won’t-they-sign drama of Jared Spurgeon and Kevin Fiala, all that is behind us. Hockey is back. Dumba is back. Spurgeon is back. Parise is back. Koivu is close to being back. Another year of Donato, Kunin, Greenway and Ericksson Ek is soon to begin. Fiala... well, once he get’s his visa taken care of, he’ll be back too.
Wild hockey is back. Let’s. Play. Hockey.