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Defenseman Spurgeon is Wild's 'unsung hero'

Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon shoots against Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith during the second period at Xcel Energy Center on Dec. 31. Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ask anyone in the Wild locker room and they will tell you: Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is the NHL’s most underrated player.

“I don’t think he gets talked about as much as he should,” goaltender Devan Dubnyk said before the season. “Not that he cares; he couldn’t care less. It’s not what he’s about. To me, he’s one of the best defensemen in the league because he’s fantastic both offensively and defensively.”

That was nearly six months ago, and Spurgeon hasn’t done anything to change that sentiment.

Despite his lack of size — he stands 5 feet, 9 inches and weigh 170 pounds — he certainly plays big on the ice.

Look no further than Tuesday, Feb. 5’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres for a perfect example of how the diminutive defenseman can put his fingerprints on a game.

With most of the team sleepwalking, the 29-year-old Canadian took it upon himself to carry the load for the Wild.

Spurgeon flew around the ice with reckless abandon and eventually potted a highlight-reel goal that featured him whacking the puck into the net out of midair.

That was only the beginning for Spurgeon. He struck again about 10 minutes later with a slick wraparound goal that helped keep the game close.

That brought Spurgeon’s goals total this season to 10, one away from his career high with more than a quarter of the season to play.

He also became the second defenseman in franchise history to record 10-plus goals in three or more seasons. Injured Matt Dumba is the only other player on that short list.

“I feel like a lot of it has to do with the forwards and the work they’re doing,” Spurgeon said. “These teams are so good defensively now that we have to have the (defensemen) jumping up in the play, and I think all six of us can do that.

“Obviously, we lost a big piece with Matt Dumba going out” with a ruptured right pectoralis muscle, he added. “As a group we’ve tried to pick it up for him, even though nobody is going to replace a guy like that. You just take the opportunities whenever they’re there, and hopefully they go in.”

If they continue to go in, maybe the rest of the league might finally start to take notice.

“He’s the unsung hero of the league,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Nobody knows about him. It’s good that he gets a little recognition.”

Bitetto 'excited'

One of the newest members of the Wild, 28-year-old defenseman Anthony Bitetto, admitted the frustration was getting the best of him when he was riding the pine with the Nashville Predators, unable to crack the lineup amid a super deep blue line.

“It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” he said. “There’s days I would go to the rink and be kind of fighting it because I wasn’t playing. That’s part of this business. You’ve got to stick with it.”

After being claimed off waivers a week and a half ago, Bitetto made his Wild debut in Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Sabres. He looked a little rusty, which wasn’t surprising considering he hadn’t played in more than a month.

“It’s a fresh start,” Bitetto said. “These are big games coming up, and these are the fun times to play. I’m really excited.”

Rau: Keep it simple

Kyle Rau has made a habit of dominating the minors, and while he would love to bring that same production to the big leagues, he is focusing on keeping it simple for now. The 26-year-old former Gophers forward from Eden Prairie was called up Monday and was put straight into the lineup on Tuesday.

“I’ve got to start pretty simple and then build my game up from there,” Rau said. “As of right now, the name of the game right away is get it in and get it out. Nothing crazy. That said, if the play is there, I’ve got to be able to make it. I’ll try to make something happen if it’s there. I’m just not going to force it.”