Despite owning a four-game skid coming into tonight’s contest against a tough Tampa Bay squad, the Wild had won four straight against the Lightning, including a barnburner 5-4 victory at Amalie Arena on December 5. On Thursday night however, the two squads shifted to the Xcel Energy Center for the first of a seven-game homestand for the Wild, who are in dire need to secure as many points as possible to make their way back into the playoff race.
After Tampa Bay owned possession for the first few minutes of the game, the Wild secured a pointblank opportunity nearly five minutes in for Luke Kunin on a backhand off of a beautiful pass from Joel Erikkson Ek, but the centerman was unable to finish.
Minnesota went on the power play with 11:13 to go in the first period thanks to a holding penalty from Jan Rutta, but were unable to convert on the opportunity, leading to what surely sounded like “boos” on the game’s telecast. A slow start for a team who looked to come out and throw the first punch on home ice.
Bruce Boudreau would say in an in-game interview on NBCSN that his squad recognized the Lightning as a great team, but he felt the Wild were giving too much respect to their counterparts and not applying enough pressure. On the offensive end, he said the team just needed to shoot the puck at a higher rate.
Another two minute man-advantage opportunity would come nearly four minutes later for the Wild as Brayden Point was called for tripping. But this time, the home team would not let the opportunity go by the wayside, as Zach Parise found the back of the net for his 16th of the season and third in the last two games, beating Curtis McElhinney, off of some crafty passes from Jared Spurgeon and Eric Staal.
The goaltenders would star in the early portion of the second period after defensive breakdowns from both teams, with both Alex Stalock and the aforementioned McElhinney making beautiful saves on breakaway opportunities.
But as quickly as the netminders looked to seal their hold on the game, Tampa Bay would answer, as the Lightning showcased an exhibition of puck movement (along with some luck off a deflection) to find the back of the net off a ripper from Nikita Kucherov assisted by Ondrej Palat and Mikhail Sergachev to tie the game at one.
Looking to assert themselves once again on their home ice, the Wild responded five minutes later as Marcus Foligno won possession up against the boards and fired a pass to Luke Kunin. Kunin backed the puck out to a trailing Joel Erikkson Ek, who fired a cracker past McElhinney on his left side to give the good guys a 2-1 lead.
Then things started to run “Hulk-A-Mania wild” for Minnesota as they would score again only two minutes later, this time off a Tampa Bay turnover after an errant pass from McElhinney. Jordan Greenway secured the puck and sent a pass to Ryan Suter at the top the slot, who then fired a shot that deflected off Mikko Koivu to find it’s way home.
The lead was momentarily stretched even farther when Carson Soucy took advantage of a rebounded save to give the Wild their third goal of the period, but it was disallowed by replay review on an offsides call.
As the final stanza began, Tampa Bay started on the power play as Koivu was called for holding, while Suter absolutely drilled Steven Stamkos in front of goal, but avoided an additional minor.
The Wild came into the game ranked 25th in the NHL on the penalty kill, at a clip of nearly 76 percent. The only way to increase that ranking is simple, stop giving up goals on the power play. The Wild put their best foot forward and secured the penalty kill, as Stalock and the Minnesota defense bared down when it mattered most, early in the third.
Seven minutes later, Matt Dumba took offense to a Stamkos hit on Kevin Fiala in the neutral zone and stood up for his teammate, but it ended up costing his team as he would go to the box for roughing, further placing the Lightning on the power play. This time, the away team would not be denied as Kucherov fired a screamer past Stalock into the top left corner of the net to make the game a little more interesting at 3-2 with still over 10 minutes to go in the game.
Other than the Wild securing another power play opportunity, the Lightning owned the last few minutes of possession. The action came down to the final seconds of the game with Stamkos firing a shot at Stalock, but the Wild goaltender saved it without a rebound, sealing a 3-2 victory for the home team!
Simply put, this is what this team needed. Playoff pushes begin with one win, and it might have begun tonight for the home team.
Answers to our Burning Questions
1) Will the best player for the Wild once again be…Marcus Foligno?
You know what, I am going to give this one to Stalock tonight. Tampa Bay was able to score two in tonight’s game, but Stalock was there when he needed to be, especially against a potent Lightning team. The 20-save effort, along with solid defensive play from his teammates, was exactly what this team needed in the midst of a skid to right those previous wrongs.
2. Can the Wild shut down the potent Lightning attack?
The Lightning made this game very dicey in the third period, but I have to say that the Wild bared down when they had to and sealed the huge victory. If they can continue to play with the same defensive intensity, it will serve them nicely moving forward.
3. Will the Xcel be home sweet home, or a house of horrors?
There were a few boos in the first period, but they turned to cheers when Parise scored, and the energy only increased when the Wild got hot in the second period, holding off a furious attack from Tampa Bay in the third. Starting a seven-game homestand with a win is big, especially when trying to start a new winning streak.