The Central Division has a new leader.
After a two-month stint by Dallas as the No. 1 seed, the Wild finally leapfrogged the Stars to move into first place for the first time since Dec. 28, 2021, with nine games to go in the regular season.
This switcheroo is the culmination of a 14-1-4 surge by the Wild over their past 19 games, with the team pocketing a league-high 32 points since Feb. 17. But what put them over the edge was a Dallas loss Saturday evening after the Wild eked out a 3-1 win over the lowly Blackhawks two hours earlier in front of 19,312 at Xcel Energy Center thanks to a pair of late goals.
"It went to the end and … it's OK," coach Dean Evason said. "It's OK to grind. It's good for us to play games like this against teams that are maybe out of the playoffs or playing loose but yet hard.
"They're difficult games sometimes to play but if we play how the Wild play, we'll be fine."
Ryan Hartman's breakaway with 1 minute, 11 seconds remaining in the third period was the difference, the center scooping up a Chicago turnover to skate in alone and pick up his 13th goal of the season after sliding the puck behind former Wild netminder Alex Stalock (22 saves).
Frederick Gaudreau added an empty-netter 40 seconds later.
"You don't get that much time sometimes," said Hartman, who has the only later go-ahead goal by the Wild this season after scoring with 21 seconds left during a victory over Nashville on Feb. 19. "I was going to shoot high glove, and I decided not to last second. I almost even faked myself out."
Despite a photo finish against a team huddled at the opposite end of the Western Conference, this was a back-to-basics reset for the Wild after their 5-4 shootout loss against another non-playoff club in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Filip Gustavsson made 22 saves while improving to 7-1-4 in his past 12 starts with a 1.61 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in that stretch. He's allowed one goal or none in eight of those games and has surrendered two or fewer 23 times through 32 starts.
This was also the 26th game the Wild have been tagged for one goal or none, which is second in the NHL behind only Boston (28 games). They've also given up a league-low 2.05 goals-per-game and boast the top save percentage at .936 since Feb. 17. The Wild's penalty kill went 2-for-2, while the power play was 0-for-1.
"We talked about not looking at the standings and not looking at who we're playing," Ryan Reaves said. "Just making sure we're putting our game forward. Maybe not the best start we wanted. I think we responded after that."
After a snoozy first period, Reaves provided a jolt 7:45 into the second period, a backhander that pinballed in front of the Blackhawks net before counting as Reaves' fourth goal in his past seven games. Only Matt Boldy, who had his season-long seven-game point streak snapped, has scored more for the Wild (eight goals) in the eight games the Wild have played without the injured Kirill Kaprizov.
"It doesn't matter how it goes in as long as it goes in," Reaves said.
That lead held until 1:15 into the third period when Chicago's Lukas Reichel finished off a 2-on-1.
But the Wild didn't look flustered.
Instead, when the Blackhawks made a mistake, they capitalized.
"This is a game we should win," Gustavsson said. "That's what we said before, these two points are our points if we don't play the wrong way. It was tight out there today.
"It didn't feel like we really had the speed in the first period, and it was kind of slow. We got a goal and we tried to ride it out, but they scored 1-1 and then Hartsy bailed us out."
The Wild are 14-1-9 in games that are tied with five minutes left in regulation, and they own an NHL-best 21 wins at home since Nov. 19. That's where the team will play four times the rest of the way while the Central Division is finalized; the Wild (93) lead Dallas by a single point.
"There's no question that we feel the close games that we've been in … should set us up well once we get to the playoffs," Evason said.