ST. PAUL – Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire has never been one to heap praise on his star players. Sometimes they give him no choice.
Marian Gaborik had one of those performances Sunday night, scoring with 4.4 seconds left in overtime and lifting the Minnesota Wild to a 5-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
On a 2-on-1 break, Gaborik took a cross-ice pass from Pavol Demitra and tipped it past Predators goalie Chris Mason, giving the Wild the win after Nashville tied it with a three-goal third period. Gaborik finished the game with two goals and an assist – including his third overtime game-winner and second this season.
“He’s playing his best hockey since he’s been here,” Lemaire said.
That’s saying a lot considering Gaborik is the franchise leader in goals, assists, power-play goals, and game-winners.
The Slovakian winger helped the Wild salvage two points after uncharacteristically giving up a third-period, two-goal lead – twice.
The Wild have won four of their last five – all in overtime or shootout. It entered the contest 24-0-1 when leading after two periods this season, but Nashville forgot about its meager 13 shots in the first two periods and was the aggressor in the third.
“Against the Wild, you tend to feel you don’t have a chance sometimes when you fall behind,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “I just let them know, I’ve seen this team do a lot of good things, and this team – we’re going to get a point out of here tonight. They showed their resiliency and character and just stayed with it.”
Martin Erat started the comeback with a wrister off a nice drop pass from Alexander Radulov in the slot to cut the lead to one.
Gaborik’s goal at 5:21 pushed Minnesota’s lead to 4-2, but Nashville regrouped and continued to press.
Ryan Suter put home a rebound of his own shot at 8:54 to cut the lead to one – a goal that drew protests from the Wild because goalie Niklas Backstrom appeared to have covered up the puck before Suter jarred it loose. Less than five minutes later, Shea Weber’s shot found an opening to Backstrom’s glove side thanks to a screen by Radulov to tie it.
“We love the drama,” Minnesota right-winger Mark Parrish said. “We want our fans to get every penny’s worth. We want to put them through all the emotions.”
The Wild certainly did, as the score remained tied at 4 until Gaborik scored his fourth goal in his last five games and his 32nd of the season. Minnesota has won 17 straight games in which Gaborik has scored since Nov. 21.
“When Demo got the puck I just tried to race over the defenseman,” Gaborik said. “Demo made a beautiful dish and I had an open net, easy goal.”
Parrish added: “Every time those guys got the puck, especially when thy are 2-on-1 and the right guy’s got it, we get a little excited.”
Parrish, Petteri Nummelin and Pierre-Marc Bouchard also scored for Minnesota, which won for the third time in four games against Nashville this season and improved to 7-2-1 in its last 10 games.
Bouchard’s goal was the Wild’s second power-play goal in three games, but just the fourth in their last 43 power plays since Jan. 18. It came against a Nashville squad that came into the game ranked third in the league in road penalty killing at 86.9 per cent.
After crossing the blue-line with the puck and four Predators around him, Bouchard split David Legwand and Suter to his right and had a clear path to the net. He then beat Mason high, glove side for his 12th goal of the season and his first in eight games.
“I asked him after the game if I could have my jock strap back,” Suter said.
Suter and Erat both tallied a goal and assist for Nashville, which lost for the fourth time in five road games. Jerred Smithson also scored for the Predators.
Mason allowed five goals on 28 shots to lose for the third time in four starts and has allowed eight goals in his last 35 shots faced.
Backstrom stopped 24 shots to win for the third time in his last four starts.
Notes: Minnesota is now six points ahead of Calgary and Vancouver in the Northwest Division … Both teams were playing without valuable offensive players due to the flu. Brian Rolston, Minnesota’s third-leading scorer, sat out his first game of the season, while Nashville’s No. 2 scorer, J.P. Dumont, sat out his second consecutive contest. … Predators RW Jordin Tootoo was back in the lineup after missing 16 games with a groin injury.