Behind Pat Maroon’s sizable impact on Wild and a special night for Vinni Lettieri

ELMONT, N.Y. — Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t caught off guard by many things, with the future Hall of Famer typically having a good feel.

But when asked about new teammate Pat Maroon, the Minnesota Wild goaltender smiled and shook his head.

“Pleasantly surprised,” Fleury said. “I was thinking he was more of a tough, big guy, hits, can fight.

“But he’s very patient with the puck. He makes smart plays in the right moment.”

And Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over the New York Islanders at UBS Arena was the perfect example.

There was the opening shift, when Maroon corraled a dump-in by linemate Joel Eriksson Ek and quickly beat Semyon Varlamov top-shelf to give Minnesota a rare early lead. And shortly after Kirill Kaprizov put the Wild up a goal in the third period, Maroon effectively sealed the game. He hounded Pierre Engvall on the forecheck, stripped the Islanders forward of the puck and quickly found Eriksson Ek for the finish.

The line of Maroon-Eriksson Ek-Marcus Foligno has been instrumental in the Wild’s first back-to-back wins of the season. Call them this year’s version of the old GREEF line. Over the last two games, they have outscored opponents 3-1 while having a 78.3 percent expected goals share.

“People forget we have a lot of skill,” Maroon said. “We have tendencies. We’re big and strong and we lean on people. (Eriksson Ek) is a hell of a two-way player, he gets the job done. If we’re doing our job, we’re holding onto pucks, we’re wearing the other team down …

“That’s our identity.”

The Wild had very little cap space in the offseason, so they had to work the margins to upgrade their roster. Their biggest signing on the opening of free agency was Vinni Lettieri, the former Gopher, who came in on a two-year, two-way, $775,000 AAV deal.  The next day, in came Maroon, with Minnesota dealing a seventh-round pick to land the three-time Cup champion (along with prospect Maxim Cajkovic). Tampa Bay even retained $200,000 of Maroon’s $1 million salary. Maroon thought it might have been getting a little “stale” in Tampa, where it didn’t appear like he’d have an every-game role. But Wild GM Bill Guerin was pretty bullish on the fact not only would Maroon be a full-time player, but he wasn’t just getting brought in for his presence and personality.

“Patty can play, too,” Guerin said.

But did many expect Maroon (and Lettieri, for that matter) to play this big of a role early on? When Matt Boldy suffered an upper-body injury in the second game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it didn’t take long for coach Dean Evason to insert Maroon into the star winger’s second-line spot. Evason has raved about Maroon’s calmness, both off the ice and with the puck, in tense game situations. And Maroon has earned the staff’s trust, averaging his most ice time (14:05) since 2018-19 with the St. Louis Blues, his first Cup season. Maroon has nine points (two goals), nearly as many as he had all of last season with the Lightning (14).

“I worked on it all summer,” Maroon said. “Worked on my skill, worked on little things that can help me get where I need to be. It’s nice. It’s an opportunity here, I feel really good right now. It’s all about my teammates. They’re doing a really good job of keeping it simple. And if you keep it simple, your game takes over. For me, it was about having a good summer, working out and finding a way to get better, find a way to keep playing this game as long as I can.”

The Wild blew a rare lead Tuesday, with the Islanders scoring twice in a row to take a 2-1 advantage in the second period.  But they didn’t panic. They didn’t cave. They kept pushing. Even the much-maligned penalty kill went 4-for-5.

“Early in the season, maybe, I feel like if we got scored on, everyone would be like, ‘Ah, geez,’” Fleury said. “But we stepped up right away.”

Enter Lettieri. Lettieri said his grandfather, former NHLer and North Stars GM Lou Nanne, has encouraged him his whole life to just “shoot the puck.” And, with Nanne in the Bally Sports North booth as color analyst, Lettieri did just that. He sent a wrist shot through a heavy screen by Ryan Hartman, giving him his first goal as a member of the Wild. Nanne stayed pretty calm in the booth, giving a celebratory fist bump, while admitting his stomach was churning like Niagara Falls. When Lettieri went through the fist bump line after scoring the goal, his teammates serenaded him with “LOUUU!”

“It was perfect timing,” Lettieri said. Everything happens for a reason. And I wouldn’t take that one back for anything. That was pretty special.”

Lettieri, who has played in 90 NHL games for four teams, is getting an extended opportunity (even some power-play time) due to the injury to Freddy Gaudreau, who has been week to week. Lettieri could very well be headed back for AHL Iowa when Gaudreau is ready, but he’s soaking it all in, including living in his offseason home in the Twin Cities.

“I was just waking up the other day and I saw that big water tower that says, ‘Edina,’” Lettieri said. “And I’m like, it’s so weird not waking up to California or New York, where I used to play. It’s really weird that I’m at home, but it’s really special.”

There seems to be a totally different vibe around the team since Saturday’s thrilling, 5-4 come-from-behind win over the New York Rangers. There’s a sense of calm, and a bit of swagger back in their game. It took Evason calling out/challenging his alternate captains in one-on-one meetings Friday, and those same leaders (especially Foligno), speaking up. But they started to look a lot more like themselves.

“I think we had a moment,” Maroon said. “It’s a time where you say, ‘Hey guys, remember this moment right now, because we’ve got to go out there — no matter what the score is — and try to get back in this hockey game.’ You’ve got to work yourself out of it. And what we did in the second period and third period against the Rangers led into this game.”

The Wild (5-5-2) will play the Rangers again Thursday, though this time it’ll be at Madison Square Garden. And — potentially — the Rangers will have their No. 1 goaltender back in Igor Shesterkin. But the way Minnesota is trending, the habits they’re playing with, gives them a much better chance to win a tough game on the road. “The way we’re going about business now is right,” Evason said. “And to get rewarded for it is even a bonus.”

Young players like Marco Rossi and Brock Faber are blossoming before everyone’s eyes, and they’re getting contributions from guys who started the year in Iowa (Lettieri, Dakota Mermis). Captain Jared Spurgeon is nearing a return, though it’ll more likely be Friday in Buffalo as opposed to Thursday in New York. You can bet the Wild’s new identity line of Maroon-Eriksson Ek and Foligno will continue to get plenty of minutes in prime time.

And the way Maroon is playing, he’ll have some suitors in free agency next summer.

“(Maroon) is a great role model,” Lettieri said. “He’s like an older brother, he’s got that feel. He has the wisdom. He’s won three Cups. He knows what it takes to win, he does those little things so (well). He’s been so good to me and it’s really important for young guys to have that.”

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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