NHL: Wild goalie Kuemper gets first shutout
By Bucky Dent
In an outstanding defensive effort, the Wild (25-18-5) walled off the net's front. They allowed only five first-period shots and blocked nearly as many shots as Kuemper (2-1-0) faced, keeping 21 attempts from getting to net.
"I let a few rebounds go, but if you watched the guys in front of me," Kuemper said, "they made my job easy. We kept them outside and blocked a lot of shots."
Both teams were fighting fatigue entering this one, as each played for the second time in as many evenings. Minnesota had to travel after a Saturday loss toColorado, while Nashville was playing its sixth game in nine nights.
But the Wild looked like a fresh outfit. They scored twice in just over two minutes in the first period to take command and gradually squeezed life out of the Predators (19-21-7) with a detailed performance.
"An unbelievable response from our guys," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. "Winning is obviously what we're looking for, but how we played the game from start to finish ... everybody's buying in. They have a role and they're doing their job."
In winning for the fifth time in six games, the Wild leaned on left winger Dany Heatley to take command. Heatley initiated scoring at 12:03 of the first period with his ninth goal, redirecting a pass from center Charlie Coyle past goaltender Marek Mazanec.
Heatley then teamed with left winger Jason Zucker on a pretty give-and-go play, with Zucker burying the puck into the net's top for his third goal at 14:15. Coyle drew the second assist, giving him and Heatley two-point games for the second straight night.
"I'm playing with some good guys," Heatley said of his line, which includes Coyle and Zucker. "Chemistry's a big deal and we have it right now."
Meanwhile, Nashville lost for the sixth time in seven games and dropped 10 points back of the Wild. It fell to 1-2-1 on its five-game homestand, which many around the team felt was crucial for their hopes of making up ground.
"Full credit to them. They jumped on us," Predators coach Barry Trotz said of Minnesota. "We felt like we might have an advantage because they played last night and had to travel, but they forced us away from the net."
The Wild ended the game's competitive phase just after the midway point of the third period. Left winger Matt Cooke bagged his sixth goal at 1:14, converting a nice feed from behind the net by right winger Justin Fontaine.
Defenseman Marco Scandella closed the scoring at 10:16 with his third goal, a wrist shot from the left point that sailed over Mazanec's right shoulder. It sent many in the crowd of 16,221 into the night.
All that was left was to see if Kuemper, coming off a 39-save effort in a 2-1 shootout win Tuesday night at Los Angeles, could finish the shutout.
"I feel like my game is in a place where I'm comfortable with it," he said. "All I want to do is come out and be consistent every night."
NOTES: D Ryan Suter drew the second assist on Minnesota's first goal in the first period for his 300th NHL point. The former Nashville star, who left in the summer of 2012 to sign with the Wild as a free agent, was booed every time he touched the puck. ... Predators RW Patric Hornqvist (lower-body injury) returned to the lineup after missing the last two games. ... Minnesota returns home to play Ottawa Tuesday night, its lone game against an Eastern Conference foe in a 13-game stretch that started Jan. 7 and ends Feb. 1. ... Another former Nashville player, Jonathan Blum, dressed and played on the Wild's third defense pairing with Clayton Stoner. Blum played 91 games over parts of three seasons for the Predators, scoring seven goals. ... Predators G Marek Mazanec (8-10-4) finished with 19 saves.