Jason Pominville stood at center ice, preparing for his shootout attempt and thinking how Charlie Coyle, his Wild teammate and fellow right-handed shot, had changed his angle to beat goalie Robin Lehner two shooters earlier.
Then Pominville heard the boos cascading from the crowd at the First Niagara Center. He laughed to himself, gathered the puck and skated down the ice for the Wild’s fourth shootout chance.
“I thought it was pretty funny,” Pominville said after Minnesota’s 3-2 victory. “The boos were good. I kind of expected it. It was fun. I just wanted to get my job done and get two points.”
Still, it was weird to hear Pominville being booed Saturday afternoon in Buffalo with the game on his stick. How could you not flash back to the glory days, to that magical night in May of 2006 when he scored in overtime to beat Ottawa and send the Sabres on to the conference finals?
Has it really been that long since Rick Jeanneret called them “scary good” and told us the “population of Pominville” went up by one every time he scored?
Ten years since Pominville and Thomas Vanek, his Minnesota teammate, were rookies on a young, exciting team that took this town on a wild ride?
In some ways, that OT goal that beat Ottawa was the peak event of that time, the last shining moment of that team’s innocence.
“Yeah, I think about that goal once in awhile,” Pominville said. “Guys bring it up, or I’ll see it or talk about it. But it is something that kind of got me more established and feeling comfortable.”
He’s 33 years old now, on the back end of his career. Early next month, it will be three years since the Sabres shipped Pominville, their captain, to the Wild (with a fourth-round pick) for Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, a first-round pick in 2013 and a second-rounder in 2014.
This season has been a difficult one for Pominville. He didn’t score a goal in his first 21 games and went 16 games without a goal later in the season. But with the Wild surging under interim coach John Torchetti, he has hit his stride, scoring five goals and 11 points in his last 10 games before Saturday’s matinee.
And one thing hasn’t changed since that night in ’06: Pominville is one of the most dangerous shooters in the NHL with the outcome on the line. Entering Saturday’s game, he was 24 for 63 in his career in shootouts − with seven game-winners. No wonder he was smiling at the boos.
Pominville skated in on Lehner and beat him low to the stick side to give Minnesota its fourth straight victory and eighth in 11 games since Torchetti took over for Mike Yeo with the Wild in an eight-game losing skid. The Wild are now alone in the eighth and final playoff spot in the West
Did the population of Pominville increase by one, I asked him?
“I hope so!” he said with a laugh.
He still treasures those days. Pominville basically grew up in Buffalo. He was drafted in 2001 and spent 12 years in the organization. Funny how things happen: Saturday, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart became the first Sabres rookie tandem to each score 30 points since, yes, Pommer and Vanek in 2005-06.
Does that make you feel old, he was asked? “No. I feel young,” he said. “It’ll always be special coming here. I came here as a kid and I left as a dad. So it’ll always be a special place for me.”
The population of the Pominville household has increased by two. He and his wife have a son, 6, and daughter, 4. He’s made a nice living in hockey. He was making $5 million in Buffalo and signed a five-year, $28 million extension when the Wild traded for him three years ago.
What he wants now is another shot at the Cup. He reached the conference finals his first two seasons in the league. It seemed easy enough, but has found out otherwise. The Wild have lost to Chicago in the playoffs all three of his years in Minnesota, the last two years in the second round.
“We had a solid group” early in Buffalo “and we were hoping it would stay together awhile,” he said. “You realize how things can change quick. Younger guys make more money. Salary cap arrives and you’ve got to get rid of some guys and keep others. Tough decisions for management and there you go.
“There’s only a couple of guys left that I played with on that team. It is what it is. They’ve made some good moves. They’ll be a good team going forward. They have some good young players and those two,” Eichel and Reinhart, “are going to be a big part of the franchise for awhile.”
The tough decision for the Sabres came three years ago. The Wild paid dearly, knowing Pominville was a dependable two-way player. He has played in 230 straight games for Minnesota, the third-longest streak in Wild history. He played in 82 regular-season games five times for the Sabres.
Pominville left Saturday’s game in the first period after suffering a lower body injury, a “quick strain,” as he called it. But he returned in the second period. As usual, when the game went into extra time, he was ready.
The boos were to be expected. The real question was, why the heck wasn’t he one of Minnesota’s designated first three guys in the shootout?