The Wild has had a knack all season of not letting one loss fester and turn into two.
Thursday night against a team fighting for its playoff life, the Wild turned to backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper to keep that streak alive.
With the Wild having not lost two in a row in 2½ months and having lost two in a row in regulation only once, Kuemper was “by far” the Wild’s best player, according to coach Bruce Boudreau, in lifting his team to a 3-1 victory over last year’s Central Division-winning Dallas Stars. Kuemper tracked the puck well and swallowed pucks while making 34 saves.
The 12th-place Stars probably deserved better.
“So good to see him play that well,” said Erik Haula, who scored the winning goal in the second period and assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s nifty third-period tally, the Wild’s first 4-on-4 goal this season. “You need two good goalies. … We know Duby [Devan Dubnyk] is a wall back there, but it’s nice to have another goalie who has his confidence up, and if need be, can step in anytime.”
Ryan Suter also had a goal and Mikko Koivu, with two assists, registered his 80th career multi-assist game and 133rd multipoint game — both franchise records — as the Wild won for the 38th time in 57 games, matching last season’s 82-game total.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me. I think we’ve got bigger fish to fry than that,” Boudreau said.
The Wild, which leads the Western Conference and Central Division, is seven points up on Chicago and extended its point streak against Dallas to seven games (5-0-2). The Wild is 9-2-4 in the past 15 meetings, and the Stars, who have lost seven of eight and are seven points back of a playoff spot, showed their frustration throughout the third period.
“If I’m Dallas, I’m thinking the way we thought after the [1-0 loss to] Anaheim,” said Boudreau, not thrilled with the way his team played. “Hockey has a way of sorting itself out.”
Boudreau lauded the Chris Stewart-Haula-Jordan Schroeder fourth line as the Wild’s best, saying many other players looked like they were playing in “quicksand” and the five-day bye coming up after the Wild plays Nashville and Chicago will present much-needed rest.
“It wasn’t pretty again [Thursday] at certain times,” Haula said. “Second period, we played a lot of D-zone. But good teams find a way to win.”
The Wild is 14-3-2 in games after a loss. It was the eighth consecutive time the Wild kept one loss from becoming two in a row.
“It’s pretty cool. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything similar,” defenseman Christian Folin said.
Kuemper, who entered the game with a 3.21 goals-against average and .904 save percentage, got the start because Boudreau didn’t want him to go three weeks between his previous start and likely his next one Feb. 28 in Winnipeg.
“I’ve been feeling good in my last few starts, just tried to keep that going,” Kuemper said.
Last-minute goals are often momentum-turners. Well, you can’t score later than the final second of a period, and that’s just what the Wild achieved with 0.8 seconds left in the first.
With 3.8 seconds left, Koivu — who has won 55 percent of his draws this season and was coming off a 20-for-26 performance Tuesday against Anaheim — won a key one back to Jason Pominville. The veteran quickly funneled it to his right for Suter, who one-timed a power-play goal. It was Suter’s first goal since Jan. 21 and his first point in 11 games.
The Wild is 21-5-2 when scoring at least one power-play goal this season. Then, 12 seconds after Koivu came out of the box in the second period, a high-flying Schroeder — admittedly motivated all game by being scratched against the Ducks — wheeled around two defenders and teed up Haula, the fellow ex-Gopher, at Kari Lehtonen’s doorstep.
“I saw his stick right in front and said, ‘Let’s give her a try,’ ” Schroeder said.