Wild Score Three Times in First Period, Never Look Back
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Nino Niederreiter had a hat trick in his return from injury, Mikko Koivu contributed a goal and two assists, and the finally fully healthy Minnesota Wild beat the Buffalo Sabres 6-2 on Thursday night.
Niederreiter, who missed the previous five games because of a lower leg injury, needed less than 25 minutes of game time to get his third goal for the second hat trick of his seven-year career. His parents were even in attendance from his native Switzerland.
Niederreiter scored just 69 seconds into the contest , snapping a behind-the-net pass from Mikael Granlund beneath the pads of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner. Granlund had three assists.
Devan Dubnyk took a shutout into the third period for the Wild, until Sam Reinhart scored early and Evander Kane got a goal late. Dubnyk is 11-2-1 in his last 15 starts since Nov. 9.
Daniel Winnik and Charlie Coyle also scored for the Wild, who improved to 11-1-1 in their last 13 home games. They're 14-4-2 this season at Xcel Energy Center, with a 60-41 advantage in goals. With Zach Parise skating for just the second time this season and Niederreiter back in action, the Wild finally had their full complement of forwards as they reached the midpoint of the schedule.
The score became so lopsided that the final stretch began to feel more like an exhibition, and given all the connections between these teams it almost could have been an alumni game.
Sabres right wing Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella, who were sent east by the Wild last summer in a salary-shedding trade for right wing Tyler Ennis and left wing Marcus Foligno, were honored with a highlight video before the opening faceoff.
Scandella is one of four former Wild draft picks and players on the Sabres roster, along with left wings Benoit Pouliot and Johan Larsson and defenseman Justin Falk. Larsson was dealt to Buffalo nearly five years ago in the first Pominville trade consummated by the two clubs. Another former Sabres player on the Wild, right wing Chris Stewart, was a healthy scratch.
Sabres coach Phil Housley and right wing Kyle Okposo each grew up just a few miles from the arena, albeit many years apart, and Okposo also played two seasons in college for Minnesota.
This was the back-to-normal game for Buffalo, coming off an overtime loss to the New York Rangers in the Winter Classic outside at Citi Field on New Year's Day. The Sabres, who have the fewest wins and most goals allowed in the Eastern Conference, were probably glad this one didn't have the same media coverage.
Rasmus Ristolainen was ejected for a five-minute major penalty for interference after delivering a bloody blow to Koivu's face midway through the first period. With 1:23 remaining on the extended power play, Niederreiter knocked a ricochet past sliding defenseman Zach Bogosian that Lehner was too slow to stop.
Koivu returned with stitches and a puffy upper lip in the second period and exacted his revenge, going low for a one-timer off Granlund's pass to give the Wild a 5-0 lead. Granlund, who had a hat trick himself last week, has eight points in the last five games.
The Wild are 10-3-2 in their last 15 matchups with the Sabres, outscoring them 54-31, since March 9, 2007. That includes a 7-0 victory at Buffalo on Jan. 15, 2015, that was Dubnyk's debut with the team and the largest margin of victory in franchise history.
In the Wild's 5-4 win at Buffalo on Nov. 22, Niederreiter scored twice as Chad Johnson was pulled after giving up three goals on 13 shots in the first period. Lehner made 17 saves in relief to help keep the Sabres close.
NOTES: Niederreiter's previous hat trick also came against the Sabres on Nov. 13, 2014. ... Koivu has four goals and 11 assists in 15 career games against Buffalo.