ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was a night of firsts for the Minnesota Wild during its 4-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils.
Center Mikael Granlund and winger Torrey Mitchell both scored their first goals of the season. Granlund’s came in his 15th game of the season, after he recorded a team-high 10 assists without burying the puck.
For Wild forward Zach Parise, Sunday also marked the first time in his career facing New Jersey after playing for the Devils for seven seasons. Given the lockout-shortened year last season, Minnesota didn’t play New Jersey at all, so Parise never got a chance to see his former squad.
That chance finally came Sunday, and Parise and the Wild had the upper hand on the team he scored 410 points for in 502 games.
“As a player you always hate practicing and scrimmaging against your own team. That’s what it felt like for me tonight the whole game,” Parise said after Minnesota’s 4-0 win. “They don’t give you much offensively. They play well systematically. There’s not a lot of room out there. Fortunately we were pretty opportunistic. When we did have the chances, we put them in.”
Parise left New Jersey prior to last season, when he signed a 13-year deal with Minnesota. The 29-year-old winger served as the Devils’ captain during his time in New Jersey, so there was plenty of talk leading up to the game about Parise’s first matchup against the Devils.
“I had a chat with him this morning. He popped over to say hi,” said Devils coach Peter DeBoer. “He looks happy, and I’m glad for him.”
Parise didn’t score against his former teammates but did help set up Minnesota’s second goal of the game. With the Wild leading 1-0 in the second, Parise fired a shot toward the crease as teammates Ryan Suter and Mitchell crashed the net. Devils goalie Cory Schneider lost the puck in traffic and it bounced off of Mitchell and in for his first goal in 15 games this season.
“I don’t know who it ended up bouncing off or what ended up happening, but we got lucky,” Parise said. “I was just trying to get it into a little area where I saw a lot of people going and no goalie.”
The Wild took a 1-0 lead on another player’s first goal of the season as Granlund beat Schneider at the 13:20 mark in the first period. After Nino Niederreiter fired a shot on Schneider, Granlund collected the rebound in the slot and buried the puck.
Entering Sunday’s game, Granlund was tied for the team lead in points with 10, but he had yet to register his first goal during his second season with the Wild. That proverbial monkey is finally off the 21-year-old center’s back.
“I’m glad he got that goal tonight. First off, he’s had a lot of chances and he’s been setting up a lot of plays, but it’s good for him to get that off his back,” said Wild head coach Mike Yeo. “I just point to where he scored that goal from and I look back to where he was a year ago and I don’t think he would have been in that position. He’s in the middle of the ice a lot more. He’s taken everything to heart that we’ve asked of him. He just continues to grow.”
Granlund and linemate Jason Pominville have established a strong chemistry through the early stages of the season. Pominville has a team-high nine goals this year, and that’s thanks to some of Granlund’s 10 assists.
On this night, though, Pominville returned the favor as he had the second assist on Granlund’s first goal of the year.
“I think we’re all talking about the offensive side of his game and our line lately, but I think Granny’s getting rewarded because he’s playing so well defensively,” Pominville said. “He’s obviously a talented guy with the puck and he can make plays, but the way he plays away from the puck has led to us having a little bit more puck possession and led to us having more success.”
Granlund, a 20-goal scorer as a teenager in Finland, scored just two goals in 27 games as a rookie last year with the Wild. Given how well he had been playing through the first 15 games, it seemed to be just a matter of time before Granlund found the net.
His teammates weren’t concerned about it, and Granlund insists he wasn’t, either.
“I haven’t been frustrated at all,” he said. “I had chances, and we have created chances. That’s the way it’s going to come if you play like that. I wasn’t frustrated at all. That’s just part of the game.”
For all the firsts there were in Sunday’s game, Minnesota also won thanks to something that has happened quite often this year: a brilliant performance in net by goalie Josh Harding. The Wild netminder stopped all 19 shots he faced. That included a flurry of shots early as New Jersey out-shot Minnesota 6-0 in the first several minutes of the game.
While he wasn’t tested often, Harding did what he’s done seemingly every time for the Wild by making the big saves when he needed to. As a result, Harding improved to 7-2-1 on the season and 6-0-0 at Xcel Energy Center.
Add Harding to Sunday’s list of firsts — as in his 1.11 goals-against average, which ranks first in the NHL.
“The guys are making it easy. It’s never about one player. We win as a team and we lose as a team like we always say,” Harding said. “This was another team win. Everybody contributed and pulled their weight. More than anything, it’s good to show Zach everybody pull a good effort and what he’s all done for this club. That was a big win for us and for him.”