ST. PAUL -- The sample size is small, but two games into the regular season, the Minnesota Wild's leading scorer is... Chris Stewart.
Not typically counted on as an offensive catalyst, Stewart is off to a good start this season, scoring a goal in each of the Wild's first two contests while also assisting on another.
"On the goals, he's done a great job. He's got a very good offensive IQ, he always has. That's never been Chris Stewart's problem," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "We're hoping his start continues, it's a good start for him, it certainly is something that's added that you're not really counting on but he is scoring the goals."
The one thing all three of his points have had in common is that they have all been earned within a few feet of the net. His assist in Detroit came on a quick pass from behind the net to linemate Joel Eriksson Ek crashing the goal.
Less than a minute later, he scored his first goal when Tyler Ennis found him in nearly the same spot; Stewart skated through the top of the crease, waited out goaltender Jimmy Howard then slipped the puck past him.
Two nights later against Carolina, Stewart showed off his hands, finishing a breakaway chance with a quick backhander that fooled Scott Darling.
"From the top of the circles in, he's very dangerous," Boudreau said. "His defensive part of the game is getting better, it's probably been the one thing that's kept him back a little bit from playing more. But he's getting better at it and he works at it."
The defensive aspect of his game has been aided by the presence of Eriksson Ek, an outstanding two-way centerman who is able to do some of the defensive dirty work. The two played together each of the first two games and have been tenacious on the forecheck, in game one with Marcus Foligno and last time out with Jason Zucker.
"I'm pretty comfortable with my role and I know what I have to do to be successful in this League," Stewart said. "For me personally, getting in on the forecheck and getting the puck stopped, once we get in and get it back, we do have the skill to make the plays.
"With the big boys in there, especially when I was playing with Marcus, the defensemen are going to be looking over their shoulders. That's the stuff that we have to do."
Stewart's start is one of the feel-good stories both inside and outside the dressing room. Few players on the team are as respected or well-liked as Stewart, typically the first one to stand up for a teammate or drop the gloves when circumstance dictates.
Now that he's scoring goals, it's an added bonus.
"He's a great leader and a great dressing room guy, great on the bench guy. And those guys are hard to find," Boudreau said. "And I mean, you could go up to every one of the players, and they would want [Stewart] not only on the team but in the locker room."
Wild forward Zach Parise was a full participant in practice once again, and Boudreau indicated on KFAN radio that he is targeting a potential return next weekend if things continue down their current path.
Depending on what doctors and trainers say, however, that timeline could change.
"That's the plan. I mean, who knows? Anything can change. He looked pretty good out there, working hard," Boudreau said. "I know he's champing at the bit to play. But it's the protocol and whatever the doctors say and the trainer says is what's going to happen."
Seven defensemen expected Thursday
Boudreau said after practice that he had not been approached about the possibility of sending defenseman Mike Reilly to Iowa of the American Hockey League, thus allowing the team to call up a forward.
Reilly's strong preseason and training camp earned him a spot in the NHL, but with Parise and Mikael Granlund both out of the lineup, it's left the Wild with one extra defenseman and just 11 forwards.
The team made do in Carolina, rotating any number of other wingers on the fourth line, but Boudreau said he will change things up on Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It wasn't that it was confusing or anything, it was so many different combinations during the course of the game that I might do something different," Boudreau said. "In a perfect world, would you like 12 [forwards] and six [defensemen]? Yeah. But I think this is a great challenge and I don't think it will happen all year long. Time will tell, but usually things work their way out."