They were still several strides ahead of the San Jose Sharks in an early-season meeting between two of the Western Conference’s most promising teams.
Wes Walz and Stephane Veilleux each had a goal and an assist, and Minnesota rebounded from its first loss with a 4-1 victory Saturday night.
Manny Fernandez made 31 saves as Minnesota easily won a meeting of 6-1 teams, slowing the Sharks’ best start in franchise history with four goals on just 14 shots in the first 47 minutes of the finale of a three-game California road trip.
Early in the most-anticipated season in franchise history, Minnesota is headed home with one of the league’s top records and plenty of confidence in its ability to overcome injuries, tough travel schedules and any other challenge the NHL might pose.
“There was a long list of reasons why we shouldn’t have showed up,” Fernandez said of Minnesota’s third game in four nights. “But the guys bore down and came up with a lot of energy. We played well defensively. We didn’t give them much, and I think they got a little frustrated.”
And the Wild did it without Gaborik, who sat out after straining his groin in the third period Friday night. The Slovakian scorer missed 17 games last season because of two abdominal injuries, including a strained groin.
One night after their unbeaten season ended in Anaheim, the Wild outclassed the Sharks with superior skating, passing and defence. Mark Parrish and Brian Rolston also scored, while Fernandez was outstanding before losing the chance for his second shutout of the season on captain Patrick Marleau’s goal during 4-on-4 play with 6:20 left.
“I don’t want to be excited, and I don’t want to be a pessimist,” Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. “I think we played as well as last night. We got a couple of breaks on goals, and that’s why we’re on top. Manny was excellent. I know he’s on top of his game lately.”
Evgeni Nabokov, who stopped 14 shots, has been in net for both of the Sharks’ losses this season in his every-other-game platoon with Vesa Toskala, though Nabokov also had two shutouts in his first two starts at the Shark Tank.
But while Nabokov wasn’t completely sharp, the Sharks rarely even threatened Fernandez in their first home loss of the year.
“Right from the start, we were a little lackadaisical, and they got one on us,” Marleau said. “We made a mistake coming out the way we did, and it was taught to make the adjustment. This was a wakeup call, and now we have to go on the road and play a good, solid game like they did.”
The Sharks have plenty of areas to improve despite their lofty record. Reigning NHL MVP Joe Thornton has a minus-4 rating and still doesn’t have a goal this season, and San Jose went 0-for-4 on the power play after tying the franchise record with five man-advantage goals against Detroit on Thursday night.
“They beat us in the little battles,” defenceman Scott Hannan said. “It’s like a chess match with Minnesota because they’re so technically sound. It’s tough to play from behind against them.”
Minnesota scored before the first stoppage of play when Brent Burns stole the puck behind San Jose’s net and fed Parrish for his second goal of the season.
Veilleux scored early in the second period, flinging a quick shot under Nabokov’s pads from the slot when the Sharks got lost defensively. Walz scored his 100th NHL goal nearly four minutes later, tipping home Nick Schultz’s long shot off a faceoff.
“My deflection was lucky, but we worked hard to score,” said the 36-year-old Walz, who played his first NHL game with Boston in the 1989-90 season. “Yeah, (100 goals) means something. It only took me 17 years. Before I went over to Europe (for a stint in the Swiss league in 1996), it was a number that I didn’t think was possible.”
Notes: Walz returned to the lineup after missing two games with a hip injury. … The Sharks are headed on a five-game East Coast road swing. In all, nine of their next 12 games are on the road. … The Wild said Gaborik would return to the Twin Cities with the team Sunday to be evaluated by team doctors.