By Brian Hall, The Sports Xchange
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild have ridden goaltender Devan Dubnyk and a surprisingly potent offense to the best record in the Western Conference.
It turns out Minnesota can rely on backup netminder Darcy Kuemper, as well.
Kuemper made 34 saves, and Erik Haula had a goal and assist as the Wild beat the sliding Dallas Stars 3-1 on Thursday.
“I thought he was by far our best player tonight,” Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau said of Kuemper. “He played really good. He finally got rewarded for the effort he’s been putting in in practice. To be thrown into games — coming back off the road and having to play Chicago and stuff — we have the faith in him. That’s why we do those things.”
Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon also scored, and Mikko Koivu had two assists for the Wild (38-13-6), who have won five of their past six games and matched their win total from all of last season.
One big reason is Minnesota’s ability to recover from a loss. The Wild are now 14-3-2 following a loss this season, including eight straight wins. They’ve lost back-to-back games in regulation just once this season and are 10-1-2 following a regulation loss.
“Tonight, it was goaltending,” Boudreau said of recovering from losses. “I think for the most part it’s the desire to win. We put ourselves in a good position and we want to continue to stay in that position. There is a really good profound desire to succeed.”
Cody Eakin scored his second goal of the season and Kari Lehtonen made 23 saves for Dallas, which has lost seven of its past eight games and slipped to the third-worst points total in the NHL.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been through a stretch like this,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “This stretch has been incredible. I feel that first period was puck possession and did a great job all areas, really, and you come away with nothing again. I know there’s frustration there. I’m asking them to go out and work, do the job and the bounces aren’t going our way.”
Minnesota was 1-for-2 on the power play on Tuesday after going 0-for-5 in a 1-0 loss against Anaheim on Tuesday.
Dallas outshot the Wild 35-26, but Kuemper was strong in net in giving Dubnyk a night off. Dubnyk leads the league in wins, goals-against average and save percentage this season, leading to Thursday being just Kuemper’s 13th game of the season.
“I’ve been feeling good in my last few starts, just tried to keep that going,” Kuemper said. “Got the good results today and a lot of seeing the puck is the guys in front of you; especially the d-men, working hard to keep the guys out of the front of the net and boxing out. Big props to them and it makes my job pretty easy.”
Kuemper wasn’t beaten until Eakin scored 5:19 into the third period.
Antoine Roussel wristed the puck toward the net, and the puck deflected off Wild defenseman Christian Folin’s skate right to Eakin. Minnesota challenged goaltender interference on the play as Patrick Eaves tried to slide between Folin and Kuemper and made contact with the goaltender as Eakin was shooting.
A video review upheld the call on the ice of a goal to snap Kuemper’s shutout bid.
Suter started the scoring with his first goal in 12 games with just 0.8 seconds left in the first. Stars forward Curtis McKenzie was called for goaltender interference with 40 seconds left in the period and Suter cashed in on the power play in the final second to tie his career high with his eighth goal of the season.
It’s the fourth time in Suter’s career he’s reached eight goals and the third time in five seasons with the Wild. The tally was also his career-best fourth power-play goal of the season.
Haula scored his 12th of the season 4:51 into the second. Haula was standing in front of Lehtonen as Jordan Schroeder went behind the goal and sent a centering pass to Haula, who quickly snapped the puck in the net.
Spurgeon finished the scoring 13:04 into the third with his eighth of the season.
Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter was given a game misconduct and Dallas’ Radek Faksa received a 10-minute misconduct with 1:43 left after Niederreiter upended Stars forward Patrick Sharp. Faksa’s and Niederreiter’s legs collided and Niederreiter was out of balance before hitting Sharp. Niederreiter was also given an interference major penalty and Haula was hit with a 10-minute misconduct after getting into an altercation with Faksa.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Eakin said of the team’s recent stretch. “I think you can see our frustration out there tonight in the third period. It’s hard, we just got to keep going, stay positive, continue to work and play for each other.”