Wild forward Charlie Coyle knew center Eric Staal was on the ice, a goal shy of three as the Panthers’ net stood unprotected.
But with a defender closing in on him, Coyle flung a shot down the ice — putting the finishing touches on a commanding 5-1 win over the Panthers on Tuesday.
“It was the safe play,” he said, “and, yeah, I wanted to get him the puck obviously. But I think he’s OK with it.”
Coyle’s decision might have cost Staal a chance at his 14th career hat trick, but the goal was still significant. His empty-netter nixed a 12-game goal-less skid, as Coyle scored for the first time since Dec. 5.
“Charlie needed that one,” Staal said. “I’ve been on that road, as well, where you want one and it’s been a few games. Sometimes when you get that empty net, it’s a relief and it’s big for him. I think in the long run it’s going to help everyone.”
The offensive outburst, from Coyle and the rest of the team, fittingly coincided with winger Zach Parise’s season debut, suggesting the forward group’s potential is much improved with a deeper lineup.
And now with winger Nino Niederreiter ready to return from injury, putting the Wild at full strength for the first time this season on the brink of Game No. 41 Thursday against the Sabres at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild will have the opportunity to rediscover a scoring prowess that helped stoke its surge just a year ago.
“This is going to be great for us,” Coyle said. “No excuses. Now we got everyone in the lineup. We got a good team in here. It’s up to us to prove what we have and play the way we can.”
A hot-and-cold offense headlined the first half; even after scoring five goals Tuesday, the Wild ranks 17th in the NHL with 113 tallies and a 2.83 goals-per-game average — this after finishing second in the entire league last season (263 and 3.21).
Roster turnover could help explain the drop-off; so could the injury bug that infected the team, with Parise sidelined as he dealt with leg pain and weakness from a herniated disc before opting for surgery while Coyle, Niederreiter and winger Mikael Granlund also had setbacks.
“We weren’t playing the level of hockey we wanted to play,” winger Jason Zucker said. “Now that we have everyone back, we don’t have any excuses. We need to go out there and play our game.”
Getting Parise and Niederreiter back in the mix is encouraging, especially considering their reputations as producers. Niederreiter had been out with a left ankle injury suffered Dec. 22 after getting hit with a puck and going into the boards.
“Good to go,” he said. “Feel pretty good, and look forward to get back.”
Tuesday’s game also offered reasons for the Wild to be optimistic.
Staal continues to impress as a dependable veteran, leading the team in goals (17) and points (35).
“To see him play, I guess I felt like he probably had it in him knowing him and knowing how hard he works at the game and how much he cares,” said center Matt Cullen, who previously played with Staal in Carolina. “I’m not surprised he’s playing the way he is. It’s great to see it.”
Even though it was an empty-net goal and not a highlight-reel finish, Coyle’s contribution could still be just the push he needs to get on a roll.
“As long as the puck crossed the line, you feel a little better,” he said. “You just want to keep doing the right things.”
What’s more, the fourth line chipped in, with Cullen scoring twice.
Not only did the unit’s performance appear to merit another game, as coach Bruce Boudreau expected to keep wingers Marcus Foligno and Daniel Winnik paired with Cullen against Buffalo, but it enabled Boudreau to utilize all four lines.
And that depth might be what finally unlocks the offensive consistency the Wild has been seeking.
“That’s what our team was last year,” Staal said. “We were balanced. We had the ability, especially at home, to have four lines going and on the attack. You spend more time in the offensive zone, and it makes a difference.”