ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild finally got to unveil their new cast, and Zach Parise and Ryan Suter helped send the crowd home happy.
Acquiring these coveted stars has heightened expectations, and the Wild opened this lockout-shortened schedule with a performance to match the hype.
Dany Heatley had two power-play goals on assists from Parise, and the offence-enhanced Wild surged into their much-anticipated season with a 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.
“For us to just go play, it really felt good,” Parise said.
Parise put eight shots on goal and Suter blocked four shots from his spot on the blue line while playing more than 27 minutes, 6 1/2 months after they stunned the NHL free agent market by signing 13-year, $98 million contracts with this team that has missed the playoffs the past four years.
“I was smiling the day we signed those guys, and I’m still smiling,” Heatley said. “They’ve added a huge element to our team.”
Mikael Granlund also scored for the Wild in his first NHL appearance, Pierre-Marc Bouchard had a late goal in his first game in more than a year and Niklas Backstrom made 25 saves to help make the amped-up crowd of 19,298 forget all about the 119-day work stoppage that delayed the opener by 3 1/2 months.
“Tonight was awesome when we were coming out, the energy in the building. The boys were pumped up,” Heatley said.
John Mitchell scored early in his debut for the Avalanche and Cody McLeod cut the lead to one with 14:51 remaining in the game, but they were done in during a penalty-ridden second period that had goalie Semyon Varmalov on his heels.
“We’ve got to stay out of the box,” defenceman Erik Johnson said. “A couple of the penalties were penalties we shouldn’t have taken. We have to do a better job of eliminating guys in front of the net.”
With Parise, Heatley and Mikko Koivu, who added two assists, the Wild ought to have more guys in front of the net this season.
The addition of Granlund, their first-round draft pick in 2010, is another big boost. And Bouchard, who missed the last half of last season because of lingering concussion symptoms, is back to give the third line a healthy dose of skill and scoring touch.
“It was a great feeling,” Granlund said. “I just want to enjoy every moment here now and just let it go.”
After Steve Downie was called for cross-checking early in the second period, Parise’s wrist shot bounced off Varmalov’s blocker and back to Heatley, who knocked in the rebound and watched it graze the crossbar on the way in.
Just 53 seconds later, Granlund tipped in defenceman Jared Spurgeon’s slap shot to give the Wild the lead.
Midway through that period, the Avalanche put themselves in another precarious spot. Downie was whistled for both cross-checking and roughing, giving the Wild an extended extra-skater situation.
Then, Ryan O’Byrne picked up a penalty for holding the stick, and the Wild were given an opening-night gift—nearly 2 minutes of a 5-on-3 advantage. Varmalov denied Matt Cullen, Parise and Heatley.
But the Wild stayed patient, crisply passing the puck back and forth until picking their shooting spots, and Heatley muscled for position at the crease to redirect a short try from Parise.
“I love the fact that I’m going to get to be up here … and talk about how good he is,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said, adding: “The work ethic is just relentless.”
The Wild outshot the Avalanche 18-5 in the second period.
“It doesn’t matter who’s out there. You can trust that they’re going to do the job,” Koivu said.
By adding Mitchell to their third line and P.A. Parenteau to the second line, the Avalanche have some more complements for standout forwards Gabe Landeskog, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk and David Jones.
But they’re missing centre Ryan O’Reilly, who remains unsigned after leading the team with 37 assists last season.
The Avalanche have a capable veteran backup goalie in Jean-Sebastien Giguere, but they’re counting on Varmalov, who finished an up-and-down first year in Colorado strong, posting a 1.88 goals against -average over his final 18 starts.
Landeskog, the Calder Trophy winner last season as the league’s top rookie, is the other young piece of the Avalanche core as the youngest captain at age 20 in NHL history.
McLeod scored on a rebound of Greg Zanon’s slap shot from the point after the Avalanche won a faceoff in the Wild zone, but that was the extent of their attack after controlling the first period and holding a 12-5 edge in shots.
“There’s no question that penalties on us changed the momentum of that game,” coach Joe Sacco said. “Before that, everything was going pretty good.”
NOTES: The Wild improved to 11-0-1 in home openers in their history. This was the sixth-highest attendance total in team history. … Mitchell had 16 points and a plus-10 rating for the Rangers last season.