CALGARY — The Wild is a wagon.
Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic: it’s not the Boston Bruins, even though the Wild are tied with the NHL behemoths for the most points (20) since Feb. 11.
No, this band from Minnesota isn’t quite as flashy or fun to watch. But they ride all the same, having picked up one point in nine straight games after handing the Flames a crushing 3-0 loss at the Saddledome on Saturday night. Audiences of “Hockey Night in Canada” might have found that boring. A siesta party. In the end, there were more empty seats and plenty of boos rained down for the Flames, who are six points from a playoff spot and 10 behind the Wild.
“I would boo too,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said.
But it’s the visiting card of the Wild. Their plan. They are heavy and difficult to tackle. There is no space. And they are relentlessly patient, offering very little unnecessary risk, especially when they have a lead. They are the kings of one-base play, feeling as at home in close matches as cowboys in the saddle.
And, of course, they have the goalkeeper. Filip Gustavsson picked up his second shutout, and his numbers since mid-November are suspiciously similar to those of Vezina Trophy favorite Linus Ullmark of the Bruins.
The Wild have allowed only seven goals in their last seven games. It’s the kind of style that wins in the playoffs. And they’ve won four straight, all without one of their best defenders, Jonas Brodin.
“That,” said winger Marcus Johansson, “is winning in hockey.”
Johansson, one of four Swedes acquired at the trade deadline, was a breath of fresh air, helping the Wild – finally – get a dynamic second line. The Wild have been blamed on superstar Kirill Kaprizov for too long – he entered on Saturday having scored 48% of the team’s goals since the All-Star break. But Saturday was the first time since Jan. 26 that the Wild scored three goals and Kaprizov scored none.
What might be most significant is who scored the goals. Long goal droughts were broken by Matt Boldy (15 games) and Marcus Foligno (18). “It’s been a while,” Boldy said. “So it felt good.”
“There’s been a lot going on about the number of points and goals scored by the Minnesota Wild or by Kirill Kaprizov, right?” said coach Dean Evason. “Guys hear the same thing. Everyone wants to contribute and be part of it.
General manager Bill Guerin’s main goal at Deadline was to provide help from the get-go. And while Gustav Nyquist will only be ready closer to the playoffs and Oskar Sundqvist’s debut has been delayed due to travel issues, Johansson has delivered. Johansson, who was beaten for most of his first stint with the Wild (2020-21 season), said he found his game this year in Washington, and it shows.
His effortless skating and hockey sense are evident. He fits in with fellow Swede Joel Eriksson Ek and with Boldy, who played his best game in a while. It is not a coincidence.
“He’s got a lot of speed,” Boldy said. “A lot of know-how. A lot of patience. He has been playing for a while, so he knows how to score goals, make plays. His decision making is so good all over the ice.
“Obviously he’s a hell of a player.”
An example was the Wild’s first goal. Johansson put Jon Merrill in the rush pocket first, and the defender hit the post. But the Wild kept the ball and Johansson came back to be the first of the two Swedes to deflect the puck (Ek got the goal). Johansson joked that Ek owed him dinner for taking what was initially his goal, but no one complained after the game.
“They’re pretty easy to play – it’s been really fun so far,” Johansson said. “We all move our legs. Move the puck. And each of us can play anywhere. So we don’t have to look for the right position. We can all just go and replace each other.
The sole focus was whatever the Wild would need. They did a great job of keeping the Flames on the outside and gave very few second chances. Everyone was buying, with Ryan Hartman setting up a big shot block near the crease in the third.
All of that helped Gustavsson, who wasn’t feeling his best in goal. He said every time he went to stop or play the puck, he bounced back. “It was kind of a funky game,” Gustavsson said. “But more pucks hit me anyway, so you get into a rhythm.”
The biggest stoppage of the night came midway through the third, with the Wild leading 1-0. Tyler Toffoli – the Flames’ leading scorer – went on a shorthanded breakaway. Both Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury have had a penchant for point saves this season, and this was just another example. Gustavsson, still calm and quiet in front of the net, waited for Toffoli to come out and made a left arm save.
“I had a penalty shot with him before,” Gustavsson said. “I thought he kinda looked up and tilted his stick like he was going to shoot. I just went over there and he shot right into my arm.
The Wild got a fortuitous rebound on their second goal, by Foligno, as the puck flew. “I don’t think I’ve seen this before,” Gustavsson said.
For Foligno, who has been injured for much of the season, from a knee injury to more recently a hip flexor, it must have felt good. The goal was assisted by Sam Steel, who played well considering it was his first game in weeks.
“I feel better about my game, which I did,” Foligno said. “If I can get into the playoffs, that’s good. I look at the long-term goal, and the goal is to be ready to go when it really matters. There are 20 games left and I want to build.
The Wild had a few team meetings early last month — “honest talks,” as Matt Dumba put it — underscoring how important running was to convince the brass to be buyers at the deadline. Guerin is betting on them with his acquisitions and must be happy with how they look so far.
Johansson, who broke his arm, suffered a bone in his back and hurt his shoulder during his last stint with the Wild, certainly looks healthier and more confident this time around. Sundqvist, who makes his debut Tuesday against the Flames, brings the kind of size, sandpaper and presence in net that Jordan Greenway did when he was at his best. And in Friday’s final deal just before the deadline, the Wild acquired veteran defenseman John Klingberg, which could end up paying big dividends.
Klingberg, who had some brutal numbers under the hood defensively during his year with Anaheim, has shown — at least for one game — what he can do with a stronger, more structured Wild team. Leading the first powerplay unit, Klingberg made plenty of calm, poised plays in the defensive zone and posted a plus-3 differential in 19 minutes of ice time. It’s no coincidence that Klingberg’s defensive duo partner Jon Merrill had one of his best games in a while.
The mood in the dressing room is relaxed and confident, with Gustavsson joking after the game that they have to decide on the official language of the group, now made up of seven Swedes.
“We struggled a bit just before that streak, and now it’s like we’re finding the defensive game and we can win with one goal usually,” Gustavsson said. “It’s just very positive here. Everyone is comfortable playing these types of games.
(Photo of Wild goalie Filip Gustavsson making a save against Calgary: Sergei Belski/USA Today)