In an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, Wild coach Dean Evason inserted a new player between star wingers Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello.
Though the casual fan might have no idea who Sam Steel is — the 24-year-old Canadian is in his first season with the Wild after playing his first four seasons in the NHL with the Ducks in Anaheim — he was the man centering Kaprizov and Zuccarello for the Wild in Saturday’s dramatic 2-1 victory over the Hurricanes at Xcel Energy Center.
And Steel responded with his best game of the season, making Evason look like a genius in the process. Steel scored a goal late in regulation to force overtime, then assisted on the game-winner in the extra session as veteran defenseman Alex Goligoski played hero in a moment that won’t soon be forgotten.
Asked if he put any pressure on himself before the game, Steel admitted he had some nerves. But he also made it clear that he didn’t want to change the way he played, adding, “They put me there to play my game.”
It worked as Steel fit like a glove between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. He stayed with himself, played a simple game, and used his skill to get involved in the offensive zone.
“He was making plays,” Evason said. “We talk a lot about (Kaprizov and Zuccarello) just looking for each other. They didn’t tonight.”
That’s because Steel proved himself capable of making some plays.
The biggest play of Steel’s night came with the Wild struggling to solve Hurricanes goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov. Steel found some open ice near the slot, accepted a pass from captain Jared Spurgeon, and found the back of the net while falling down. That helped force overtime, where Steel delivered a perfect pass to Goligoski to set up the game-winner.
“You’ve been seeing him all season doing that same thing,” winger Brandon Duhaime said. “It was really clicking for him tonight. He was playing with two good players, and took advantage of it. He was real special tonight for us.”
It’s unclear how long Steel will remain between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. If he continues to perform at a high level, though, the Wild won’t be in a rush to move him around.
“You wait for opportunities like this,” Steel said. “Just playing with those guys is a treat.”
Now it’ll be on Steel to prove he should stay in that position.
This past week is a good example of how quickly things can change in the NHL.
There was a point not too long ago that Steel was playing on the same line as winger Tyson Jost. Now he’s playing between Kaprizov and Zuccarello — and Jost is playing for the Buffalo Sabres after being claimed off waivers.
“It’s a day-by-day league,” Steel said. “You can’t get too high or too low.”