Surging Gaborik keeps Wild alive
Marian Gaborik is finally healthy, skating and shooting as if he doesn't want the season to end.
Gaborik kept up his remarkable scoring rate with a goal and two assists, and the Minnesota Wild avoided elimination from the playoff chase for at least three more days with a 3-1 victory over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night.
"It's always nice to score ... but we got two points. We got a great win. It's huge," Gaborik said, hardly exaggerating.
The Wild moved within one point of Nashville for ninth place after the Predators lost to Chicago, but St. Louis played at Phoenix later Tuesday. Minnesota hosts Nashville on Friday and finishes the regular season Saturday at Columbus, but is currently trailing in tiebreakers with both the Blues and the Predators and will need plenty of help to qualify for the playoffs for the third straight year.
"Buy your tickets. Get in line. It'll be interesting," coach Jacques Lemaire said, looking ahead to the game against Predators.
Eric Belanger and Owen Nolan each scored on the power play in the second period off rebounds of shots by Gaborik, who has eight goals and five assists in nine games since returning from hip surgery. Injuries have limited him to 15 games all season, but he has 11 goals and seven assists and has scored in five straight games.
"That's exactly what we know he's capable of doing," Lemaire said.
Gaborik, who became the second player in Wild history to appear in 500 games with the team, set the tone late in the first period by poking in a perfect touch pass from Andrew Brunette while James Sheppard screened Dallas defenseman Andrew Hutchinson. Gaborik has frequently been a streaky scorer, but when on the ice this season he hasn't had any lulls.
"He's well-rested," said Brunette, grinning as he teased his friend. Brunette added: "When he's going like he is right now, going to the net and finding holes and stuff, he's unstoppable."
The Wild, who haven't won two games in a row since Feb. 21-22, swarmed Stars rookie Matt Climie after a sluggish first period. Cal Clutterbuck was all over the ice, with six hits and eight shots.
Climie, who won his debut on Saturday despite giving up four goals to St. Louis, finished with 29 saves.
"Second period, he was under siege," coach Dave Tippett said. "We could've protected him a lot better than we did."
Dallas has struggled on the penalty kill all season.
Nolan, the 37-year-old who still has a hard nose for the net, has done more than his share to pick up the slack during Gaborik's absences. This was his 25th goal in 57 games, coming 5 1/2 minutes after Belanger's. After spending some of the season near the top of the league in power play success, the Wild have been in a slump in those situations lately - falling to 15th in the NHL after scoring on only seven of their previous 58 man advantages.
"We are who we are here right now," Tippett said. "Some of those mistakes come back to bite you. We had ample opportunities in the game to capitalize on some chances and we didn't, and we gave them some glorious chances and they scored."
The injury-burdened Stars, who were officially crossed off the list of contenders over the weekend, are 2-7-2 in their last nine games. This was their only loss to the Wild in four meetings this season.
Niklas Backstrom, making his team-record 19th straight start in goal for the Wild, made 27 saves. The Stars peppered him in the first period and finally scored with 12:34 left in the third on Fabian Brunnstrom's 2-on-1 goal, but the All-Star was as stout as ever with a variety of tough stops.
"Really, it was one and done, as far as shots and plays to the net," said veteran center Mike Modano. "There really wasn't much sustained around there. Then, eventually, they got their legs going and took over the game."
Nolan became the fourth Wild player to score 25 or more goals in a season, behind Gaborik (five times), Brian Rolston (three) and Pavol Demitra (one). ... Steve Ott had an assist for the Stars, adding to his career-best 43 points. ... The Wild are 26-2-5 in the last 33 games with a goal by Gaborik. ... Texas native and Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, the NFL's reigning rushing leader, was at the game to guide the crowd in the traditional "Let's Play Hockey!" chant. He put his own accent on it and eagerly flashed his wide smile for the camera.