NHL teams each play 82 regular-season games to whittle a field of 31 squads to 16 that are deemed worthy of playing in a tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup. That means roughly half of the league won’t be participating once mid-April rolls around, and the local team, the Wild, found itself firmly in that bottom 15 entering Thursday night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche at Xcel Energy Center.
One victory in the season’s first six games and four in 13 October contests cast a dark cloud over coach Bruce Boudreau’s team, which sits in last place in the Central Division. Add in the fact that only seven of the Wild’s first 21 games were played in St. Paul, and it’s not surprising that a non-sellout crowd of 17,574 entered the building.
Still, there’s entertainment and enjoyment to be found in NHL games, and the Wild’s 3-2 victory over its division rival provided that in many forms. Here are a few:
Using his head: Wild goalie Alex Stalock improved to 5-3 by making 25 saves Thursday, and he was especially sharp in the third period, when he turned aside 11 Colorado shots. The Avalanche pressed hard for the tying goal, pulling goalie Phillip Grubauer for an extra attacker with nearly three minutes left in the third period, but Stalock slammed the door.
The former Minnesota Duluth standout from South St. Paul also provided some comic relief in a mostly sleepy first period for both teams, when he head-butted a fluttering puck out of harm’s way for a save on a shot from the point.
“You see it through traffic, and it comes on you late,’’ Stalock said. “A guy like [Henrik] Lundqvist actually does that a lot. … They’re shooting pucks high, and maybe that’s the scouting report. It worked out good, going right to the corner.’’
Makar’s mark: The most impactful player on the ice might have been Avalanche rookie defenseman Cale Makar. The 2019 Hobey Baker Award for Massachusetts, Makar led the Minutemen to the NCAA championship game, where they fell 3-0 to Minnesota Duluth. On Thursday, he proved he could score against a Minnesota team by collecting two second-period goals to knot the score after the Wild had taken a 2-0 lead. He finished with team highs of five shots and 24:41 of ice time, and drew praise from the Wild.
“He’s awesome. He’s a great player,’’ Wild veteran defenseman Ryan Suter said of Makar, who has seven goals this season. “The way he skates, the way he makes plays.’’
Added Boudreau, “I’d like to be his agent. He’s going to make a lot of money pretty soon.’’
Greenway’s moment: Forward Jordan Greenway’s second-period goal boosted the Wild’s lead to 2-0 and set off a celebration by the 6-6, 225-pounder, who repeatedly yelled, “Let’s go!’’ while being congratulated by teammates. The meme of Greenway’s glee took off on Twitter, though he didn’t remember the details in the moment.
“I don’t know what I was saying,’’ Greenway said. “But I’ll check that out.’’ When told he kept his celebration G-rated, Greenway was surprised. “Really? I left that out?’’ he asked with a chuckle.
One for the aged: At 64, Boudreau sometimes will throw out references that might be lost on younger generation. On Thursday, he compared a banged-up defenseman Matt Dumba with an NFL legend from the 1960s.
“A couple times he looked like Jimmy Brown getting up after an 8-yard run,’’ Boudreau said, referencing the Hall of Fame running back’s unhurried routine after being tackled. “There’s not too many people who would know what I meant by that, but as a Cleveland Brown guy … Ah, shut up.’’