After trying countless line combinations, the Wild look more and more as expected early in the season.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Zach Parise has only spent 24 games in a
Minnesota Wild sweater since signing his franchise-altering free agent contract last summer, and he's become fully indoctrinated in the mutual dislike that exists between Minnesota and the Vancouver Canucks.
In just two games in a Wild sweater, Parise has endured the frustration his teammates have become accustomed to in losing to Vancouver, who had won the first two games between the teams this season by a total score of 6-2. Even from his days with the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference, Parise knew the history in his new division and was hoping to change the trend.
Sunday night's game could be the start. Minnesota stayed away from calling Sunday's 4-2 win against the Canucks a statement game. But in scoring just 24 seconds in, playing a physical game which saw five Wild players in the penalty box in the first period and taking a 3-0 lead early in the second period, Minnesota served notice things have changed in the Northwest Division.
"These guys, it seems like, have had a stranglehold on this division for a long time," Parise said. "I think we want to show that we can be up there too. Granted, like I said, it's only halfway through the season, but I think we responded well. It's a very good team and on the second night of a back-to-back we came out with a really good effort."
Courtesy of their 4-2 win Sunday, the Wild are now tied with Vancouver atop the Northwest Division with 28 points. Both teams are just halfway, 24 games, into this 48-game sprint of a season, but Minnesota made its statement Sunday by beating the Canucks at their own game: playing hard, physical and with a lot of skill.
Rookie Charlie Coyle fended off three Vancouver players and maintained control of the puck on one third-period shift that ended with Parise's second goal of the game and 11th of the season. Parise's first goal was a snipe that beat Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider 24 seconds into the game. Rookie Jason Zucker scored his fourth goal of the season tipping home a pretty pass from Matt Cullen from the side. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon also scored his fourth of the year on the power play with a rocket of a slap shot.
And now the Wild, 7-3-1 since that last loss to Vancouver, have climbed into a place rarely seen by other Northwest Division foes, in the Canucks' territory right at the top of the division. Minnesota, which won the Northwest in 2007-08, was the last team to break Vancouver's hold on the division. The Canucks, who are scoreless on their last 20 power-play chances after going 0 of 4 Sunday, are just 1-4-2 in their past seven games. Their once six-point lead in the standings has dwindled, while the Wild are streaking.
"Our guys were ready for this one, for sure," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. "We feel like we're a team that's on the up and going in the right direction, and we were looking forward to this chance."
Suddenly, the team that many believed was underachieving after adding Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter last summer, is right in the thick of the Western Conference standings. The Wild have won five of their past seven games. Its 26th-ranked offense is improving with at least three goals in four of the past six games and 30-plus shots in five of the past eight games. Minnesota is seventh in goals allowed and has been short-handed the fewest times in the league with the NHL's fourth-ranked penalty kill.
And a team that had significant turnover -- eight of the team's 20 dressed players Sunday are in their first season with the team -- without the benefit of a lockout, is looking like the team everyone expected. Yeo's lines are meshing after constant juggling and players have adapted to their roles.
Coyle is gaining confidence while playing with Parise and Mikko Koivu. The second line of Zucker, Cullen and Devin Setoguchi is playing with speed and getting a lot of good scoring chances. Dany Heatley's move to the third line disperses some of the scoring and the fourth line is providing energy, physical play and keeping the play in the offensive zone. Meanwhile, the defense has been solid for much of the year and has a true No. 1 shutdown pairing in Suter and rookie Jonas Brodin.
"It hasn't been easy," Yeo said. "I can't count the line combinations we've had. It does take time and we know that. Certainly we have everybody contributing right now. We have roles that are defined and guys that are going out and doing their job. But I think more than anything else, especially the last couple games, you see the way guys are competing. Guys are battling for each other. Guys are sticking up for each other. It's sort of that pack-of-wolves mentality that I really believe that this group has right now."
Parise sees the identity forming.
"I think we're getting there," he said. "You can tell with just the consistency we have. Earlier we had those periods where you just wonder what we were doing. We're minimizing those now and I think it's been a few games where we've had one of those. We're getting there. I think we still have a lot of work to do and a lot of room for improvement, but we're getting there."
The Wild showed Vancouver Sunday, they're getting there.