ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild went shopping on the Fourth of July last summer and shocked the NHL by signing the top two free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
The excitement generated by the signings, which engulfed a state yearning for a winner after four straight years without a playoff appearance, was eventually tempered by the NHL lockout. Until Saturday night.
The Wild finally picked up where the July 4 “oohs” and “ahhs” left off with a 4-2 season-opening win against the Colorado Avalanche at the Xcel Energy Center.
Parise, the forward who has scored at least 30 goals in five of the past six seasons, and Suter, the All-Star defenseman who set career highs with 39 assists and 46 points last season, finally took their first shifts in Minnesota uniforms and the results were exactly as planned.
“It was great to stop analyzing and overanalyzing and listening to everyone analyze,” Parise said, after tallying two assists in the win. “For us it was just go and play. It really felt good, more importantly for us to win our first game because the fans deserved it. They were patient, waiting for a long time. It was good to come back and get a win for them.”
Introductions for Parise and Suter, both named alternate captains at their first Minnesota press conference in July, were saved for the end of the pregame ceremonies. Only captain Mikko Koivu took the ice after them. Parise, in his No. 11 sweater, and Suter, wearing No. 20, were celebrated by 19,298 fans, the sixth-largest Xcel Energy Center crowd in Wild history.
And as quick as that, all the animosity and disappointment created by the lockout was gone.
“This was a long time coming, this game, and we’ve talked at great lengths and I don’t think we need to talk anymore about this lockout,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “Especially here in Minnesota with the summer we had and the excitement that’s been around here, it was really nice to get a win for our fans tonight. On top of that, I thought (Parise and Suter) were instrumental in that game for us. We weren’t giving them much to cheer about early, but the second we did that place was rocking and we fed off it.”
Colorado appeared ready to spoil the big night, taking an early 1-0 lead and outshooting the Wild, 12-5, in the first period.
Then Parise and his new linemates, Koivu and Dany Heatley, found their rhythm. Parise, working hard down low, twice fed Heatley for power-play goals, the 350th and 351st of his career, during a three-goal second period in which Minnesota outshot the Avalanche, 18-5, to take control. Another newcomer, Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund, scored his first NHL goal.
“It was the first game for a lot of guys playing here in Minnesota,” Suter said. “Guys were excited. I think that maybe we kind of had too much excitement. It’s good we were able to come back and play the way we are capable of playing.”
Expectations in Minnesota have been low for years. The Wild haven’t been in the playoffs since losing to Colorado in the 2008 first round. Minnesota’s biggest star, forward Marian Gaborik, left in 2009 for the brighter lights of New York with the Rangers.
The Wild had lacked star power — until now.
Suter, who was third in the league in ice time last year, led Minnesota at 27:05 Saturday. And it was Parise who got the offense going with a team-high eight shots on goal.
“I just love the way he attacks the net,” Yeo said. “I love the fact that I’m going to get to be up here as many times as I’m going to and talk about how good he is. The skill level and speed . . . but for a small guy I’ve seen him hold off guys and protect the puck and he’s so strong. And the work ethic is just relentless. We talk about him and (Suter) and the other guys we brought in, and they hit very well.”
Parise, a Minneapolis native and son of former North Stars player and coach J.P. Parise, and Suter, who is from Wisconsin, had plenty of friends and family in the crowd. That crowd felt like an extended family Saturday night.
“It was electric,” Parise said.
Just like Minnesota hopes will be for the next 13 years.