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Wild Fixes What Ails in Victory Against Panthers

After back-to-back struggles, there are reasons for optimism ahead of battle against Blackhawks

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

CHICAGO -- With perhaps the biggest game of the season on deck Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Minnesota Wild picked a good time to get a number of things back on track Friday night against the Florida Panthers.

Bothered by slow starts in consecutive losses to the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota had a fantastic first 10 minutes in the 7-4 win over the Panthers. 

The Wild was all over Florida in the first half of the first period, getting on the board on Jason Zucker's 21st goal of the season. It took its foot off the gas for the final half of the opening 20, but players were pleased with the initial jump that had been lacking in the two games prior.

"We were down 2-1 after the first, but we were really happy, outside of the score, with how we had played and just kept moving from there," said Wild forward Zach Parise. 

"We wanted to come out and get that first goal. We thought that was huge for us," Zucker said. "They made a push. Good teams are going to do that."

As they have all season, the Wild also overcame its share of bad bounces. 

After striking in quick succession in the second period to grab a 3-2 lead, Jaromir Jagr scored a wraparound goal just 1:01 later to tie the game at 3-apiece after 40 minutes.

Minutes into a third period that was started by Devan Dubnyk, a routine play behind the net turned disasterous when the puck took a weird bounce off Dubnyk's stick as he played it behind the goal. It deflected right to the front of the goal, where a waiting Sasha Barkov ripped the puck into an open net for a 4-3 lead.

But instead of wilting, the Wild, playing the second of back-to-back games, got better as the third period went on.

Minnesota went on to score four unanswered goals, getting its swagger back in the process.

While the players in the dressing room didn't seem panicked, the Wild certainly struggled in consecutive losses, dropping back-to-back games in regulation for the first time in more than four months. 

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said it was the first time his team had faced adversity all season. He was curious to see the club respond.

On Friday, they did just that.

"I thought we played well. We didn't play very well the last two [games] but I think that means we've set the standard pretty high when it feels like panic sets in when we've lost two in a row," Parise said. "That means we're doing some good things this year."

Among the other positives from Friday:

• The re-emergence of Charlie Coyle, although he began to build his game the previous night in Tampa. After a tough stretch for the 25-year old winger, Coyle seems to be building his game back into first-half form just in time. During Minnesota's first-period push versus the Panthers, Coyle had three grade-A chances, but was unable to capitalize. He was rewarded with an empty-net goal in the final seconds.

"That's why I was so happy he scored a goal," Boudreau said. "But it doesn't happen all of the sudden. He played a real good game [in Tampa]. You knew if he could build on that, the success would follow. Hopefully, he'll play like that again on Sunday."

• Martin Hanzal played his best game since being traded to the Wild. The 6-foot-6 centerman drew a penalty, dished out an assist, won a majority of his draws and was a plus-1 while doing a little bit of everything. 

Minnesota will count on Hanzal to be a defensive presence down the stretch and into the postseason, but he's also capable of contributing offensively.

"You [saw] why we got him," Boudreau said. "He was a beast out there. I think everybody else, all [other] three lines were really good."

• Like with Coyle, if the Wild gets the early season version of Staal back on a nightly basis, the sky is the limit. The veteran center has admitted that he was feeling a bit worn down before the bye week and that the rest did him some good. 

In 18 games before the bye, Staal scored two goals, had four assists and was a minus-8. In seven games since coming back, Staal has four goals, two assists and is a plus-2.

"Physically, I feel pretty good. I went through a stretch there where, physically, I was fighting it a little bit, pace and speed wise," Staal said. "My game is so much about power and speed and being tenacious. I feel pretty good after that break, getting back on the attack."

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