ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP)Kevin Fiala is becoming the top-flight scorer the Minnesota Wild have been lacking for so long.
Their playoff push has begun to take off, too, just when they looked bound for the lottery.
Fiala scored for the fifth straight game, this time against his former team, and the Wild beat Nashville 3-1 on Tuesday night to pass the Predators in the Western Conference race.
”If we play like this,” Fiala said, ”we’re going to be dangerous.”
Luke Kunin and Zach Parise also had goals and Alex Stalock made a season-high 37 saves for the Wild, who have won four times during Fiala’s streak. He also set a franchise record with his fifth consecutive multi-point game, becoming just the third player in the NHL this season with such a streak, joining Leon Draisaitl and Nikita Kucherov.
”He’s magic, man. He gets it, and he’s the guy where fans are starting to get out of their seats now,” Stalock said, later adding: ”He just has a ton of confidence right now.”
Craig Smith scored on the power play to end Nashville’s scoreless streak at 70:02. The Predators lost their third straight game and had a seven-game winning streak against Minnesota snapped.
”We came back and battled hard in the second and third period, but it’s tough when you make decisions or do things that are going to beat yourself in this league,” coach John Hynes said.
The Wild (73 points) skated past Nashville (72) and Arizona (72) into ninth place in the West, just behind Winnipeg (74) for the second wild card. The Jets have played 68 games, two more than the Wild and Predators and one more than the Coyotes. The Wild and Predators play each other two more times over the final 16 games, in Minnesota on March 15 and at Nashville on April 4 in the regular-season finale.
The Predators started flat, looking every bit the team that lost 8-3 at home the night before to Edmonton. They could be forgiven if they were distracted, after the tornadoes that tore through the Nashville area about an hour after the team plane took off for Minnesota, killing at least 24 people and leaving scores of others homeless. There was a moment of silence held for them before the opening faceoff.
Bridgestone Arena was opened to storm victims for a pizza lunch. Wild owner Craig Leipold, who brought the Predators into the league as an expansion club in 1998, pledged $25,000 for relief efforts, and the Wild donated the same amount as an organization. The NHL then matched those pledges with a $50,000 donation of its own.
Kunin, playing for the first time in six games due to an upper-body injury, notched his 14th goal off his own rebound after a slick pass from the end boards by Joel Eriksson Ek just 4:07 into the game.
Then Fiala, who was acquired by Minnesota about a year ago for Mikael Granlund in a swap of then-underachieving forwards, showed off his considerable skill with a toe-drag move to deke a sprawled-out Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis and set up his top-shelf shot past goalie Juuse Saros to give the Wild a 2-0 lead midway through the first period.
Fiala, who leads the team with 50 points and is second with 21 goals behind Parise (24), has 12 goals and 10 assists in the last 15 games. The 23-year-old Fiala has scored in seven of eight games. He assisted on Parise’s goal early in the third period.
”He’s on fire right now. I mean, nice goals, too, not my kind of goals, but nice goals,” Parise said.
The Wild, who play only six of their final 16 games at home, are 6-3 since firing coach Bruce Boudreau, who was replaced by Dean Evason.
”Two weeks ago, we were on the outside of the playoffs. Trade deadline, we’re moving guys. I mean, what is there to lose at that point? We’re going to have fun,” Stalock said.
The Predators made their change on the bench more than a month earlier with the dismissal of Peter Laviolette. They’re 13-11-1 under Hynes.
Saros, who stopped 30 shots, made his fifth start in the last six games ahead of the struggling Pekka Rinne, who was pulled after allowing all eight goals to the Oilers.
The Predators had failed to score on 10 straight power plays until Smith snagged an airborne rebound and knocked it in with 14:53 remaining. Nashville entered with the 26th-ranked power play in the league at a 16.1% conversion rate. The bright spot for the Predators was that their NHL-worst penalty kill denied all seven power plays by the Wild.
”Every single point right now, it’s such a tight race, it’s huge,” Granlund said. ”You lose, you win, you’ve just got to keep moving forward and get ready for the next one.”
NOTES: Parise has 10 goals and seven assists in his last 21 games. … Smith tied Filip Forsberg for the team lead with 18 goals. … The Predators recalled LW Yakov Trenin from AHL affiliate Milwaukee prior to the game, scratching the struggling Ryan Johansen with an illness, his first absence of the season. D Dan Hamhuis was also out with a lower-body injury. … Nashville beat Minnesota at home twice in October, 5-2 and 4-0.
Predators: Host Dallas on Thursday night.
Wild: Play at San Jose on Thursday night.
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