The speeches and moments behind the Wild’s comeback win that could be a ‘season changer’

ST. PAUL, Minn — One by one, the Minnesota Wild assistant captains were called into a meeting with the coaching staff before Friday’s practice at TRIA Rink.

The team was reeling, having lost four in a row and six of seven heading into Saturday’s game with the red-hot New York Rangers. The Wild weren’t just losing — they weren’t playing like themselves. Frustration was building. The mood was tense.

They needed leadership. Badly.

So coach Dean Evason had Marcus Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek and Kirill Kaprizov each come in for a straightforward, heart-to-heart talk. Foligno said Evason told them he was disappointed, not just in them, but in how the team was tracking. The Wild have spent the first month without  their captain Jared Spurgeon (upper-body injury), who is usually the guy who calms things down on the bench, and tells the group they’re “fine.” Eriksson Ek and Kaprizov aren’t known as talkers, they’re more lead-by-example kind of players.

Evason challenged them all.

“We need more than just ‘look at me’ work,” Evason said. “We needed someone to say something.

“And ‘Moose’ was the guy that really took charge.”

There were many reasons for the Wild’s thrilling, come-from-behind 5-4 shootout victory over the Rangers at Xcel Energy Center. Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp in relief of Filip Gustavsson, who was pulled after giving up three goals on four shots. Eriksson Ek and his line with Foligno and Pat Maroon were dominant, reminiscent of the “GREEF” line of seasons past.

Newly-minted No. 1 center Marco Rossi scored a go-ahead goal, Brock Faber looked like a cagey veteran and Matt Boldy banked his shootout winner off the crossbar and pads of goalie Jonathan Quick.

But it was how the Wild came together — both in what they said and how they backed it up — that will likely be remembered if this is the start of something.

“This one could be a game changer,” Foligno told The Athletic. “And a season changer.”

This one looked ugly early. One shift after Boldy hit the post, the Rangers scored on a bad bounce — a double deflection of a point shot that went off the skate of Jimmy Vesey. Two minutes later, Artemi Panarin scored on a wrist shot that Evason said Gustavsson didn’t see. On the next Rangers shot, Erik Gustafsson beat Gustavsson cleanly on another defensive breakdown. The Swedish goaltender darted to the bench — his night was over. Boos started to rain down from the stands.

“He got pulled for the team,” Evason said. “He didn’t get pulled because he was bad.”

“None of those were on Gus,” Faber said. “We’ve left Gus out to dry a lot this year.”

Gustavsson bailed out the Wild countless times in last year’s breakout season. They returned the favor on Saturday. It started with a penalty kill late in the first period, with the Wild’s much-maligned unit — dead last in the league, having allowed 13 goals on 33 opportunities — thwarting the Rangers second-ranked PP.

“If they score again, it’s like, ‘Oh (f—), here we go again,’” Evason said. “And we didn’t. That had as much momentum-shifting powers as anything else in the game.”

That, and the first intermission speeches.

Evason came into the dressing room quickly, reassuring the group they were doing all the right things. They had doubled the Rangers in shots. They were establishing the forecheck. “Just keep doing it over and over,” he said. Then came Foligno, whom Evason had asked to speak.

Foligno repeated some of what Evason said, telling them to stay calm and keep their composure.

“We have to score goals, but we’ve got to do it the right way,” Foligno said. “We’re not going to jump in and play breakaway hockey. Keep steady and positive.

“If you stay negative and don’t get this one, it can bite you in the (a–).”

The Wild dominated the second period — their best 20 minutes of the season. The comeback was sparked by two goals in 29 seconds, the first by Ryan Hartman diving into the net to knock in a loose puck. The second was a tap-in by Eriksson Ek, set up beautifully by the rookie Faber, who made an Adam Fox-like move to maneuver into the right circle and slide the puck through a couple of defenders. “Unbelievable play by (Faber),” Boldy said.

“I’m just glad it got through to him, really,” Faber said.

Mats Zuccarello, who said Friday that the team just had to trust each other and stick with it, tied the game early in the third period, and the crowd exploded. Demoted from the top line and top power play before the game against his former team, Zuccarello didn’t sulk. He stepped up. So did Rossi, who continues to blossom in his top-line role. Rossi played a career-high 22:44 with seven shot attempts, with Kaprizov setting him up for a go-ahead goal five minutes into the third.

“After three-nothing, we played our game,” Rossi said. “We didn’t panic. We kept going. We didn’t look back at the scoresheet. We played our game and then the goals were coming and we had success.”

That was the difference in this one. Only the winless San Jose Sharks (374:35) have trailed more this season than the Wild (347:54), according to Natural Stat Trick. But instead of changing their game, trying to be aggressive or “cute” to make plays, the Wild got back to their identity. They had a relentless forecheck, with Rangers coach Peter Laviolette saying it felt like the Wild had zone time for a minute and a half in stretches. Minnesota was hard to play against.

“We’re not a dump and chase team, but we are a forecheck team,” Evason said. “I think we realized that.”

And a resilient one. Even after Chris Kreider tied it back up a minute after Rossi’s third-period goal, it didn’t change anything. The Wild outshot the Rangers 14-6 in the third, and Fleury sealed the shootout win with two sprawling toe saves.

While New York was short-handed, playing without Norris winner Fox, No. 1 goalie Igor Shesterkin, Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow, they had been one of the hottest teams in the league, winning six in a row. And the Wild were the better team in this one.

They looked like themselves.

“It feels good — not just because we won, but how we played,” Fleury said. “We showed how we should play, how we can play, how much success we can have when we do that. A good learning (lesson).

“We can take a deep breath, relax a bit and play more loose.”

The Wild (4-5-2) have a long way to go, with a tough road trip coming up in facing the New York Islanders, Rangers and Buffalo Sabres. This win matters little if Minnesota follows it up with a few duds. But at a potential swinging point in their season, it was encouraging how the leaders stepped up and kept the group together. This is the core that GM Bill Guerin is married to, having signed the likes of Foligno, Zuccarello and Hartman to preseason extensions. They’re going to have to be those voices that help what’s been an impressive young trio of Faber, Rossi and Boldy.

Foligno said Evason’s Friday talk with the captains was a tough conversation, but also an easy one because they understood. “He wanted us to take it upon ourselves to lift us out of this hole,” Foligno said. “It felt nice to answer the bell. We’re a strong core. I have all the faith in this team to keep pushing and do our best and be a playoff team. We don’t want to just say, ‘We’re going to be fine.’ We’re experienced and know what it takes to get out of it.”

After the Wild’s win, Evason asked Foligno to give another speech. This time, Foligno had the game puck in his hand, the one given to the player of the game.

“That’s the perfect win that we needed because we picked each other up,” Foligno said. “We don’t (f—–) quit.”

Then Foligno tossed the puck to Fleury, sitting in his stall next to Gustavsson.

“Good job, boys,” Fleury said. “(F—), tough start. It was hard on Gus, but you guys picked it up. I was (f—-) lonely, it was a little quiet back there. You guys were awesome.

“Way to battle back. Big (f—–) win for us.”

(Photo of Marcus Foligno pressuring the Rangers: Bruce Kluckhohn / NHLI via Getty Images)

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