Third line propels Wild past Devils to end losing streak
NEWARK, N.J. -- The Minnesota Wild finally found a way to get the job done, because they simply had to get it done.
Four straight losses coming out of the bye allowed their wild-card pursuers to hammer and tong into closer contention, raising more alarms in a complacent Minnesota dressing room after a listless 4-1 home loss to Edmonton.
The woebegone New Jersey Devils set another trap Saturday afternoon, Feb. 9, inviting the Wild to step into it and fritter away valuable points to yet another inferior team -- their 2018-19 modus operandi.
Not this time.
A revamped lineup tailored to leverage more production from slumping Mikael Granlund at center actually unleashed the unheralded third line to steal most of the glory in Minnesota’s 4-2 victory at Prudential Center.
Marcus Foligno had a goal, assist and fight to earn a Gordie Howe hat trick. Luke Kunin potted a goal and assist while Joel Eriksson Ek scored for the second time in as many games since being called up from AHL Iowa.
“It’s hard not to like the Ek-Kunin-Foligno line,” said coach Bruce Boudreau. “Young guys who came to play. I thought it was great.”
Eriksson Ek and Kunin played together in the minors and for more minutes, never knowing when they would get their next opportunity in the NHL. Winger J.T. Brown was waived, center Mikko Koivu was hurt and suddenly the kids were back in Minnesota.
“You hate to see what happened to Mikko, but Ek thinks he’s got a bigger role and this is his chance to cement something that I can play that bigger role rather than be a fourth-line center,” Boudreau. “And he’s doing it.”
The line combined for eight shots and did its due diligence defensively as well.
“This was a game for us that we needed to step up,” said Foligno. “We have a couple injuries and just needed some energy and last game against Edmonton we didn’t bring our best effort, so it’s just good that we got the line back together where we had success earlier before the break. We just kept it simple again and got rewarded tonight.”
Entering play five teams were within four points of the Wild, who have a tenuous grip on the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference. St. Louis and Vancouver were within two points while Colorado, Edmonton and surging Chicago had closed the gap to four.
The Devils’ 48 points are the second-fewest in the NHL. They are 15 points behind the Penguins for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. They were 2-5-1 in their last eight games and winless in their past four home games.
Big surprise, but the Wild allowed the first goal of the game for the 36th time in 55 matches. The Devils skated 200 feet to get it.
Off the rush, Brett Seney unloaded from the top of the right circle and beat Devan Dubnyk top shelf short side at 6:57. Here we go again.
Or not. The Wild showed backbone and did not crumble.
“After the first shot there, I thought he made a couple of big saves at the end of the first period to keep it a 1-1 game,” said Boudreau, who would not tip his hand about Dubnyk or Alex Stalock starting Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders.
“The saves might not have looked tough, but the ones that were along the ice were going through bodies. So we couldn’t see them. Those were big.”
Foligno answered for the Wild at 12:19 of the first period.
Yeoman’s work by Kunin created a scrum in the slot that eventually cost Devils goaltender Corey Schneider his stick.
A turnover went to Greg Pateryn at the blue line. His shot sailed wide, but Foligno corralled it off the boards, spun around the net and uncorked a backhander under the crossbar with Schneider sprawled and out.
Early in the second, Zach Parise bagged his team-leading 22nd of the season on a power play, redirecting Ryan Suter’s point shot.
With five minutes left in the second period, Eriksson Ek swept in a rebound to open a 3-1 lead.
Jesper Bratt’s tally early in the third cut the deficit to 3-2. But Kunin responded with a bleeder through Schneider to put the Devils in a sleeper hold.
The Wild improved to 6-0 in road matinees, a curious statistic they can pad Sunday when they bus over to Brooklyn for a 2 p.m. game against the Islanders, who are in first place in the Metropolitan Division.
“Edmonton was just one of those games,” said Parise. “So it was nice for us to rebound. We were flat. There’s just no other way to describe it. We were just flat. Now at least we have a winning feeling and carry that into tomorrow.”