Smith: This is the kind of engaged Matt Boldy the Wild will to need to make playoffs



LAS VEGAS — It looked like an innocent dump-in by Ryan Hartman, a flipped puck harmlessly heading for Vegas Golden Knights goalie Adin Hill.

That’s when Minnesota Wild winger Matt Boldy raced into the offensive zone like a man possessed. He blew past defenseman Daniil Miromanov and created a turnover by Hill in the crease before flinging an odd-angled shot in off the goaltender for the eventual game winner in a 5-3 victory.

“I was thinking, ‘Just throw it at the net,’ to be honest,” Boldy said. “Wasn’t much to it … just got lucky I guess.”

Luck or not, this was the kind of engaged and bold play by Boldy the Wild are going to need if they want to climb back into the playoff picture. The entire team played with the same kind of intensity and commitment Minnesota showed when they played for Marc-Andre Fleury in Friday night’s win. And it’s not a coincidence that two of the Wild’s best players — Boldy and Kirill Kaprizov — led the way, combining for 27 shot attempts after racking up 22 Friday.

“He’s a guy that competes his (a—) off every night,” said rookie Brock Faber, who tied Connor Bedard for the rookie points lead (31). “He probably has four grade-A (chances) a game. When he’s going, guys feed from that. … He’s a guy that it’s extremely important for us to keep playing that way.”

There have certainly been games this season — or even strings of games — where Boldy hasn’t been a difference-maker. Some nights, the 31-goal scorer from a year ago isn’t noticeable enough, too easily pushed off pucks. When coach John Hynes called several of his players “passengers” in Wednesday’s 2-1 win in Chicago, you can bet that Boldy was one of them. It was no surprise then that Hynes tweaked his lines for Friday’s game, putting Kaprizov and Boldy together, along with Joel Eriksson Ek, their non-stop motor and top defensive forward. The result for both games has been dynamite, with the trio’s work ethic, their hardness on the puck, their shot-first mentality, and hunger in puck retrievals becoming a tone-setter for the rest of the group.

“I think we’re just playing our own styles, but doing it together,” Boldy said. “We’re all big, strong, hard on the puck. And when we play that way, it’s hard to defend.”

How can the Wild bottle up this Boldy every game? Don’t forget that Boldy was one of the hottest players in the league down the stretch last season in helping lift Minnesota back into the playoffs. And the team’s 11-3 run to start Hynes’ tenure started with a brilliant game by Boldy, with him and Kaprizov leading the way. President and GM Bill Guerin gave Boldy some “tough love” in exit interviews after another first-round exit, noting how the 22-year-old had room to grow in playing tough, playoff-style hockey.

“That’s the challenge of being a young player that has really good talent is understanding what it takes to win and the style of game you need to have and a commitment you need night in night out to be an impact player,” Hynes said. “It’s something we’re working with him on and he recognizes that and I hope we can continue to help push him to that and him taking ownership of when he plays like that, what the results look like and what impact he has on our team.”

The Wild have now won six of their last eight, including some impressive road victories in Florida, Carolina and now Vegas — the defending Cup champs. Of course, they laid a couple of eggs too, blowing third-period leads against the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks before the All-Star break. Those letdowns could come back to haunt them by the end of the season. But, for now, Minnesota is five points back from the St. Louis Blues for the second wild-card spot, having taken advantage of a night where fellow playoff hopefuls Arizona, Calgary and Seattle all lost.

“All year we’ve known we’re a team that can win, a team that can make the playoffs and go on a run from there,” Faber said. “We’re a confident group. We have had our struggles, our ups and downs. A three-game winning streak, but it’s only three. We need to put together a lot more. We had the confidence of and it’s just putting that together for 60 minutes has been our problem.”

The Wild were far from perfect on Monday. The night didn’t start well, with a Jonathan Marchessault centering pass taking a wacky bounce off Faber and floating over the head of Filip Gustavsson for a 1-0 Vegas lead 22 seconds in.

“I didn’t see it flying behind me, that was the problem,” Gustavsson said. “Thirty seconds in, you look at ‘Fabes,’ you look at (Jake) Middleton, look at each other, where’s the puck? No one found it. It’s a bad feeling. But we turned it around. Stanley Cup champs from last year and we play like this, it’s how we need to play every single night.”

The power play came through with two goals in the second period, taking advantage of two minutes of five-on-three time. The penalty kill stepped up by killing off four straight power plays stretching from the second through third periods. Gustavsson had some shaky moments, but he made the saves when they counted, including a glove stop on Marchessault in the final minute with Vegas having the extra attacker.

Hynes met with the group before the game and told them they should be mentally and physically exhausted by the end of each game. That’s their recipe.

“The motivation now is the playoffs and to play meaningful games down the stretch and claw our way back into it,” Hynes said. “That’s still available in front of us. In order for us to do that, it can’t just be because we’re playing one game at home for ‘Flower.’ When you look at the commitment and style of game, the effort level, that’s the effort level it’s going to take for us to win games. We’ve got to be mentally and physically exhausted.

“That’s what’s required to win. It’s why we’ve been up and down all year long, why we’re not in a playoff spot. The commitment level, the mental engagement, the drive to win the game. That’s what it takes to be a team that makes the playoffs, it’s why it’s so hard to make the playoffs.”

Most teams take on the identity of their best players, which makes Boldy’s last two games an encouraging sign. You saw it all on Monday. The vision and quick playmaking instincts on his pass to set up Eriksson Ek on the second goal in the second period. The aggressiveness in driving to the net to create a shot and scramble that led to Marco Rossi’s go-ahead goal in the third.

The all-out effort and shot-first mentality in the game winner eight minutes into the third. And Boldy’s emphatic fist pump, a rare show of in-game emotion, said it all.

“I never really consider myself just a goal scorer, just a passer,” Boldy said. “I just try to be a hockey player. I try to make plays that are there. Sometimes it’s easier said than done.

Boldy knows that there are times when “I try to make more plays than I need to,” and he’s focused on being more of a shooter recently. He’s gotten the results too. But Boldy was also among the big group of players Hynes trusted at the end of the game to protect a one-goal lead with Vegas holding the extra attacker. It showed a lot of trust by Hynes. It was all capped off when Brandon Duhaime delivered a hit at mid-ice to free up the puck and Eriksson Ek cruised in for an empty-netter to seal the game.

The Wild earned a day off in Arizona on Tuesday, but all these positive gains mean little if they can’t beat the Coyotes on Wednesday. “Massive game,” Gustavsson said. “Four points. They beat us 6-0 in our own building, so we’ve got some revenge to do.”

“There’s a lot of confidence in this room,” Boldy said. “A great group of guys that have the ability to play hard every night and come out with a win. To be able to do it against a team like that, the Cup champions, it’s a confidence boost. But it’s on to the next game.”

(Photo of Matt Boldy scoring a goal in the third period against Vegas: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)





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