ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild bench was busy collecting pucks on Saturday night.
The pucks were snapped up quickly and will go somewhere special for Justin Fontaine and Mathew Dumba, two Minnesota rookies who have taken vastly different paths to the NHL.
Fontaine and Dumba each scored his first NHL goal in Saturday’s 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars. Nino Niederreiter added his first goal for the Wild and third in the NHL. Matt Cooke and Zach Parise also scored for Minnesota, which has won back-to-back games after an 0-1-2 start to the season.
Saturday wasn’t much different from the season’s first few games, except the Wild finished its scoring chances against Dallas. Minnesota outshot Dallas 36-19 and has outshot its opponent in every game this season, including a 65-25 edge in the second period.
“That’s kind of what we said, we expected to happen eventually here, that we would get what we deserved,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We continue to go out and do the right things.”
The young players continue to do the right thing, as well.
Dumba, 19, is the 2012 first-round pick by Minnesota. Fontaine, 25, was an undrafted free agent who had to battle his way to the Wild. He spent all of last season with the Houston Aeros in the American Hockey League and never got a call to the NHL, despite leading Houston in scoring.
Fontaine scored 12 seconds into Saturday’s game, the fastest goal to start a game in Wild history.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Fontaine said. “That’s a good way to start a night. Definitely gets you in a game and the start we wanted. We wanted to take it to the top line all night and starting with a goal is huge.”
His biggest responsibility Saturday was defensively, along with linemates Cooke and Kyle Brodziak, tasked with shutting down Dallas’ top scoring line.
“The composure with the puck,” Yeo said of Fontaine. “We’ve talked about how we want to be a puck-possession team and how defending is a lot easier when you have the puck. I think we saw a couple of the plays that he made coming out of the defensive zone through the neutral zone in the third period that, if we just chip that up and chip it ahead, then it’s going to their defenseman and they’re countering back on us. I like the way that we defend. I like the structure that we have. But, again, we’d much rather force them to defend than put ourselves in that position.”
Dumba’s play in the defensive zone is his most important attribute too. He has has a big shot and is willing to jump into the offensive zone, but has to be accountable defensively. The Wild has nine games to decide whether Dumba will stick the entire season. He played this third game Saturday and made his biggest improvement.
“I thought he took a step tonight, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “I think each game has been kind of a small step, but I thought tonight was a bigger step. I’ve been very pleased with the way he’s defended. I think we all know that he’s capable of making plays, but I’ve been very pleased with the way he’s defended. What I really liked in the third period was the composure that he had. Again, when you have the lead, it’s really easy to just say, ‘OK, I’m just going to make the safe play. I’m just going to shoot it out, get it off the glass.’
And sometimes that’s the right play, there’s no question. But when you’re capable of making a better play and it allows us to advance a puck 200 feet and get it into the offensive zone, that’s how your team gets better and I liked what he added tonight.”
Dumba scored his first NHL goal with a blast from the left side while playing on the power play.
“They just found me perfectly,” Dumba said. “I was trying to find that seam and (Dany Heatley) made a great pass. I was just fortunate enough to put it in the top half of the net.”
Niederreiter, acquired in the offseason from the New York Islanders, has found himself on the top line with Parise and Mikko Koivu the past two games and looks the part. He has a goal and two assists in five games this season after spending all last season in the AHL.
“It’s a big responsibility playing on a line like that,” Yeo said. “I think that he’s shown a lot of maturity the way that he’s approached every game. We’re relying a lot on these young kids on our team, there’s no question, and they have very important roles. But I’ll tell you what, with every game that goes we’re gaining more and more confidence, and more importantly, their teammates are gaining more and more confidence in these guys because they’ve been prepared to play. And they’ve been prepared to play the right way. That’s a sign of young kids maturing quickly.”