MINNEAPOLIS -- It wasn't too long ago that this Stadium Series game in Minneapolis had all the makings of a very large, chilly, tire fire.
After years of Minnesota waiting to get an invite to the outdoor carnival, it looked as though the Wild's descent through the standings would cast a pall over the entire event.
It didn't turn out that way.
After firing head coach Mike Yeo a little over a week ago and installing John Torchetti as the interim coach, the Minnesota Wild rolled through Western Canada in beating the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. That set the stage for Sunday's big outdoor clash against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
With all due respect to the Canadian teams, Sunday brought the Wild's first true test under Torchetti and a chance to assess whether change had really been effected in the State of Hockey. That question was asked and answered as the Wild scored early and often en route to a 6-1 pounding of their archrivals for their fourth straight victory.
Here are five takeaways from the Wild's Stadium Series victory:
1. Unlikely hero to the rescue: There has been no small measure of redemption for a handful of slumbering Wild players during this win streak, but no one has stepped forward the way Jason Pominville has. Of course, the bar was set pretty low for Pominville, who has three years left on a contract that pays him $5.6 million annually. He began the season without a goal in his first 21 games, and then endured a 16-game goal drought in December. But since Torchetti has stepped behind the bench, Pominville has appeared as the man the Wild thought he was when they signed him to the big extension after acquiring him from the Buffalo Sabres at the 2013 trade deadline. Pominville had a goal and two assists Sunday to go with two goals and an assist through the first three games. "I think, at one point, I was trying to ... just thinking too much and not going out there and playing," Pominville said after Sunday's win, with his two children joining him on stage in an interview room. "And I just said go out there and play and have fun, and that's what we've been doing. Obviously, we've been able to get on the score sheet, which helps your confidence, and I mean, confidence is a big part of the game. When you get it, a lot of good things can happen. When you don't, you go through tougher stretches. And we're feeling it right now, and as a team, it's good."
2. The new bench boss boost: No doubt, Torchetti will remember fondly his first home game as Wild head coach after he won three straight on the road after replacing Mike Yeo. I assumed from the get-go that Torchetti -- who has never been able to secure long-term employment as a head coach in the NHL, despite years as an assistant with a variety of teams, including the Blackhawks and Florida Panthers -- was a placeholder, and that in the offseason GM Chuck Fletcher would hire someone else. But there is no questioning the immediate impact Torchetti has had on the once-fragile Wild. Star winger Zach Parise praised Torchetti's emotion and energy behind the bench, and said those have been key to the turnaround. What kind of outcome would put Torchetti in line to remain head coach? Well, the playoffs are certainly within the team's grasp. If the Wild won at least one playoff round, it would make it difficult to argue against keeping Torchetti.
3. Blackhawks too hesitant: This was not a great day for the Blackhawks, who entered the game having won two in a row. "Yeah, it was disappointing," head coach Joel Quenneville said. "It was a tough start, and it didn't slow down. I thought they were much more ready to start, way more intensity, way more urgency, way stronger in the puck area. We had delay in our game and too much hesitation." The Blackhawks are in a dogfight with the Dallas Stars for the top spot in the Central Division, and the week leading up to the Feb. 29 trade deadline will be interesting for the team, as GM Stan Bowman will once again be looking to add pieces for the stretch run. The Blackhawks waived Rob Scuderi last week and have created cap space that will allow them to acquire a significant asset or two. Specifically, it's believed the Blackhawks would like to add a scoring winger on the left side. Obvious candidates would be Andrew Ladd, a former Blackhawk, or Mikkel Boedker, if the Arizona Coyotes can't ink him to a contract extension.
4. Punishment coming? The Blackhawks could be without defenseman Michal Rozsival, who was ejected in the second period after he leveled Jason Zucker with a hard check to the head. Zucker's head hit the ice after the collision. He left the game on the back of a cart and did not return. He did stay in the building, Torchetti said, but the coach did not provide further information. Rozsival was assessed a five-minute major for interference and a game misconduct.
5. Lots of people showed up: Although Sunday's game was a few thousand short of a sellout (50,426 was the announced attendance, only the second of 17 outdoor games not to sell out), it was still a pretty nice weekend for the State of Hockey. The ice was in great shape, and Sunday's game had great pace (the Wild had great pace; the Blackhawks not so much). Throw in the almost 40,000 who turned out Saturday for an alumni game, and that's a pretty good weekend of hockey for the Twin Cities.
For me, there is something unique about these alumni events, a chance for fans to remember past glories, and a chance for old-timers to rekindle sometimes dormant friendships. And some of these guys can still bring it. Former North Stars goalie Gilles Meloche, 65, made a handful of terrific saves in Saturday's game. Still, the save of the day was former Blackhawk and current goaltending coach Jimmy Waite stoning Hall of Famer Mike Modano on a breakaway. On Sunday morning, Modano was still ruminating on how the puck stayed out of the net. Next weekend, the granddaddy of all alumni events is set for Coors Field in Denver, as Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings old-timers will renew one of the NHL's most storied and, at times, bloody rivalries in advance of the league's second and final Stadium Series game Saturday night.