ST. PAUL, Minn. — Considering their on-ice chemistry, their off-ice bromance, you had to wonder whether Kirill Kaprizov was trying to pass to Mats Zuccarello when the Russian superstar’s 150-foot, empty-net attempt went wide Friday night.
It certainly felt that way when Kaprizov flashed a huge smile and pumped both fists after Zuccarello finished off his second career hat trick in a 4-1 win over Chicago.
“No, no, he went for it,” Zuccarello said, laughing.
“I don’t know,” Kaprizov said, smiling. “I just see ‘Zuccy’ go, jumping, skating. I just try to shoot in net or, I don’t know, maybe pass for him.”
The Wild’s top line could do no wrong Friday night, combining for nine points and a dominating 81.48 Corsi For percentage at five-on-five (out-attempting Chicago 22-5), per Natural Stat Trick. It looked like Sam Steel had some extra pep in his step knowing that Ryan Hartman is expected to return Sunday against the Senators after missing nearly two months with a shoulder injury.
But with the Wild (17-11-2) rolling, having won four in a row and 10 of their last 13, don’t expect Hartman to supplant Steel at No. 1 center in the near future.
“I think we’d be silly to break up that line at this point,” coach Dean Evason said.
The line set the tone early on with a highlight-reel goal five minutes in. Zuccarello, Steel and Kaprizov were zipping the puck around and zig-zagging in the Chicago zone for around 60 seconds. Evason admitted afterward he was thinking on the bench “too cute,” but couldn’t argue with the results — a terrific pass to Zuccarello for a tap-in.
The passing from the Wild’s top line on this Zuccarello scoring play ? pic.twitter.com/uTpftJvbbA
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) December 17, 2022
“It’s fun,” Steel said. “You’ve been on the other end of those ones and it’s miserable, where you’re exhausted and you can’t move and everyone is rotating. That’s the goal, really to get things going, since it’s so hard to defend. It was a good one to get early.”
Evason said the staff was a little worried early on because they “looked pretty.” A lot of east-west, tic-tac-toe passing. The Wild coach is adamant that they’re not good enough to play a “cute” game and have to stick with their identity of a gritty, tight-checking team with skill. “We were a little worried we got ahead of ourselves and thought maybe it might be an easier night than it was,” Evason said.
The game was closer than the 4-1 score indicated, with Marc-Andre Fleury making some timely saves, including a point-blank shot with just under a minute to go in the first when the Wild were up just 1-0. But Evason was encouraged to hear players on the bench yell, ‘Let’s get in and get after it” as the game wore on.
The Wild have been far from perfect in this recent stretch, but they’ve been finding ways to win, even if they’re taking advantage of a few teams in back-to-back situations. There are some winnable games coming up before the Christmas break with the Senators on Sunday and Anaheim/San Jose next week.
But they have to stick to the same formula where they’ve allowed three goals in their last four games.
“You go through a season and go through surges where not everything is clicking and you feel like you don’t get the bounces,” Zuccarello said. “And then you end up with an extended time where everyone feels good and confidence is up and the puck bounces your way and the passes that you make and the plays that you make are there and goes through. I think confidence level when you win games is important.”
Zuccarello has stepped up his game as of late. It was about a month ago when Evason said both Zuccarello and Kaprizov had to elevate their play, especially five-on-five. Kaprizov answered with a franchise-record 14-game points streak, and Zuccarello is currently in a nine-game points streak.
And it’s not just the offense that has impressed Evason.
“I just think he’s playing right,” Evason said. “Sure, offensively he’s getting points and stuff. But, again, it’s when you watch him working back and tracking, and having a good stick and checking and getting the end of PKs. He’s committed to a team-first mentality and then allowing that to translate into offense.”
Zuccarello, per usual, was self-deprecating after a big game. He could have had four goals had Petr Mrazek not made an incredible, sprawling stick save on Zuccarello. Mrazek called it desperation and “lucky.”
Petr Mrazek with a ridiculous save on Mats Zuccarello. Oh my. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/UUnJhl4xSV
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) December 17, 2022
It was Zuccarello’s first hat trick since 2015.
“Three open-netters,” Zuccarello said. “Even I can make all of those.”
Both Zuccarello and Kaprizov praised Steel for what he’s brought to their line. Last season, it was Hartman who did a terrific job in the middle of those two. When Hartman got hurt Oct. 30 in Chicago, the Wild tried Tyson Jost and Freddy Gaudreau before settling on Steel in mid-November.
“I think he’s really good,” Zuccarello said of Steel. “Quick on pucks, fast, makes plays, reads the play well.”
“He’s helping us always,” Kaprizov said. “He’s so fast. Good player. Very good battles. Great guy. Awesome.”
Evason said Steel — a former first-round pick — has the skill, but he also has the “grit” and straight-line approach of Hartman that Kaprizov and Zuccarello need.
“I think he’s grown,” Evason said. “I think he’s just gotten familiar with his teammates, gotten familiar with everything, you know. As we talked about when we decided to put him there is that he warranted that spot because he just kept getting better and better. He’s played wing, he’s played center, he’s a natural center. So, ya know, maybe hindsight we should have put him there sooner, right? But we tried different things and different team early, and you know, fortunately it’s working out.”
Evason on Sam Steel at #mnwild 1C: “He warranted that spot because he just kept getting better and better… So, ya know, maybe hindsight we should have put him there sooner, right?” ICYMI our story on why Steel has fit there https://t.co/x1Mhju6BPN
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithNHL) December 17, 2022
Steel said Hartman’s pending return wasn’t on his mind — “We’re all rooting for him to get back in the lineup.” But at this point, it’s more likely that Hartman could slide in with Gaudreau and Matt Boldy, with rookie Sammy Walker the potential odd man out.
With Brandon Duhaime’s return coming after Christmas, the Wild will have some more tough lineup decisions. No matter what, a key will be sticking to their identity.
“I think we’ve got to the point here, and obviously we’re just going to have to keep teaching and reminding this is how we play,” Evason said. “This is how the Minnesota Wild play. We play stingy, we play hard, we make it difficult to play against and then we’ll get our opportunities and when we do, we’ll hopefully capitalize as we have here as of late.”
The Wild’s latest win song — “All I Want For Christmas” — blared in their dressing room after the game. There’s been a fun vibe among the group, which has become closer due to team-building events like their “Amazing Race” in Calgary and Thanksgiving at Jared Spurgeon’s Edina home.
But winning has definitely helped, too.
“I think always can play better,” Kaprizov said. “If you played great, you can want better. If you play good now, I think everyone enjoy wins. You’re feeling better after wins. Everyone, locker room, outside locker room, more smiles, more laughing.”
Kaprizov then said in Russian through an interpreter: “We’re going to keep going that way.”
Kaprizov and Zuccarello have factored in on a goal 25 times this season, according to the NHL. The only other teammate duos to do so 25 or more times are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (32) and Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov (25)
Kaprizov plans to keep feeding Zuccarello — intentionally, or not. Even if that means his points-streak record goes down with it.
“I hope he have every game points,” Kaprizov said, smiling. “For how many games we have more in season? I don’t know — 44, 45. I hope he break all the records.”
I went back up to Zuccarello after his postgame interview and asked about his empty-netter, when Kaprizov’s long-range shot caromed off the boards right on his stick.
“He probably passed it,” Zuccarello said. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Always fun when a passer, who is known to be a little too selfless, is the one scoring a hat trick pic.twitter.com/GiVMLEzpqA
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) December 17, 2022
(Photo of Sam Steel, Mats Zuccarello and Kirill Kaprizov celebrating Zuccarello’s first-period goal Friday against the Blackhawks: Abbie Parr / Associated Press)