Well, what a turnaround we’re seeing in St. Paul, eh? Granted, we’re just five games in, but it feels good to only have one regulation loss in what’s looking to be a very tough Central Division and Western Conference this season. After a solid 1-2 victory over the Jets Thursday night, Minnesota finally unleashed the hounds, putting up five goals to Dallas’ one in an absolute trouncing at the Xcel Energy Center last night. Up next, a four-game road trip to Buffalo, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida.
In the meantime, (current) backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper has been reassigned to Iowa to start against the Oklahoma City Barons tonight after his backup Johan Gustafsson backstopped Iowa to a 1-0 shutout victory over the Barons in the first game of their inaugural season. It was also Gustafsson’s first regular season pro game in North America after playing in Sweden all of his life. Kuemper will be right back, however, backstopping Harding in Buffalo tomorrow night, and possibly starting against the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. It’s highly unlikely normal Wild starter Niklas Backstrom will be ready by then.
What has been incredible is that Minnesota could easily have four or five victories under their belt right now. They’ve dominated face-offs and puck possession time and have also outshot opponents in every game so far. The first few games were a learning experience, and showed Minnesota needed to finish what they start every game, and play a full, dominating 60 minutes every night. The Wild finally clicked and have been plugging away like a well-oiled machine since then. The youngsters have been a huge reason behind Minnesota’s success.
Last night, both Justin Fontaine and Mathew Dumba scored their first career National Hockey League goals. But that wasn’t all fans saw from these two. Fontaine, with seasoned veterans Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak played a key shutdown role against Dallas’ top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverly. The Stars’ top line would be a minus-2 on the night, and Fontaine and Cooke would combine for three points in not just proving they can play a shutdown role, but that they can contribute offensively, as well. In fact, Cooke currently leads Minnesota in scoring with three goals, two assists and a plus-4 rating for five points…and no penalty minutes! He’s quickly proving his signing was nothing short of pure brilliance by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher.
Matt Dumba’s goal came on a beautiful tic-tac-toe power play setup from Dany Heatley and Minnesota’s current top scoring defenseman Jonas Brodin. Dumba would wrist the shot from the circle over the shoulder of Dan Ellis for a beautiful top shelf goal. He was impressive in other factors, as well. In just three games, Dumba has gone from looking like a frazzled rookie to looking like a seasoned veteran. He’s creating plays, he’s firing the puck on net and he’s playing a good defensive game. At this point, I can’t see the Wild sending him down to Red Deer, because they’d be ridding themselves of one of their top-6 NHL defensemen. Bottom line, that’s what he is, and that’s what his play is suggesting–the kid is proving himself a legitimate NHL defenseman with every shift he takes.
Dumba and Fontaine haven’t been the only ones stepping up. Nino Niederreiter, who has been a refreshing breeze on the top line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, scored his first goal in a Wild sweater on a tight-angle shot that found its way through the pads of Ellis and into the back of the net. He’s been very Coyle-like so far–impossible to knock off the puck, almost nearly as impossible for defenses to contain and plays with a never-say-quit attitude. As commentators stated last night, his play suggests a youngster that simply will not allow himself to be sent back to the minors.
Granlund–who has yet to score his first goal this season–has been similarly impressive. He’s thicker, hardly containable and looks like a completely different animal on the ice from last season. He’s playing with confidence, and that’s allowing him to do some things he couldn’t as a rookie. The kid is nearly flawless in the defensive end, and has proven to be very dangerous in the offensive zone, if his wingers can capitalize on his brilliant passes. Look for him to break out, and soon.
Brodin just looks incredible–but what else is new? In five games, the 2013 NHL All-Rookie defenseman leads the Wild with two goals (exactly as many as he had over 45 games as a rookie last season) and two assists for four points and a plus-3 rating with an average ice-time of 24:51 per game. The kid once described as “not offensive or physical whatsoever” the day he was drafted now quarterbacks Minnesota’s second power play unit, and is proving himself an offensive force as often as he can.
I’m going to sum it up like this: in the words of John Malkovich’s character in the movie “RED”, “This is exciting!”. I’m just kissing a hockey stick instead of a Swedish K. How Minnesota performs on this road trip is going to be a very important glimpse of how the season may go. It’s one thing to win at home–it’s another to win on the road. If Minnesota can do that, they’ll be fine.
Follow Dakota Case at Twitter.com/Dakota_case