ST. PAUL — Four consecutive losses. Nine losses in the past 12 games. A goal scoring drought that has resulted in only three goals in four games. A 17-15-3 record that puts them two points outside of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
Anyway you look at it, the NHL’s four-day Christmas break comes at a good time for the slumping Minnesota Wild. That was obvious after a 2-1 overtime loss to Dallas on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center in which Alexander Radulov somehow got a puck past Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk on the short side with 10 seconds left to give the Stars the extra point.
— Giles Ferrell (@gilesferrell) December 23, 2018
“I just looked up at the 12-second mark and I said, ‘OK, who am I going to put out for the shootout,’ because I figured (overtime) was done,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Radulov was just trying to get off the ice (before he scored). He couldn’t skate another … when he had the 2-on-1 he couldn’t skate at all coming in there. I don’t know, it’s frustrating. We hit the crossbar, they hit the post, we have three 2-on-1s, they have three 2-on-1s. It’s exciting for the crowd but we would have liked to have seen it go our way for sure.”
The overtime was thrilling and filled with opportunities for both teams — Dubnyk (25 saves) and Dallas goalie Ben Bishop (30 saves) were both spectacular for much of the night — but this was just the latest disappointment for the Wild. “I don’t know what to say,” dejected Wild winger Zach Parise said afterward. “It’s disappointing to lose that one.”
Especially after Wild winger Jason Zucker had tied the score at 1-1 with 2 minutes, 3 seconds left in the third period. That made him the first Minnesota player, other than rookie Jordan Greenway, to score for the team in a span that covered 254 minutes, 6 seconds.
— Giles Ferrell (@gilesferrell) December 23, 2018
“I’m not going to think about hockey for one second for the next four days and I’m pretty excited about that,” Zucker said. “I’m sure every guy in this room will say the same thing. I’m going to spend time with my kids and my wife and just do nothing. We’re going to eat some good food, we’re going to have a few drinks and we’re going to relax and I think that’s going to be a great way to clear our minds. Just come back and be ready to play hockey at the end of this break.”
The Wild won’t reconvene until Thursday morning when they board a flight for Chicago and then play the Blackhawks that night. It’s expected that they will get a history lesson from Boudreau in the hours leading up to that game.
Boudreau drew a comparison late Saturday between this Wild team and the 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks club that he coached. The Ducks started that season 1-7-2 and were shut out five times, including a 3-0 loss to the Wild at Xcel Energy Center. There was speculation that Boudreau might be fired before November of that season, but he not only survived, he ended up leading an impressive bounce back by the Ducks.
Last in the Pacific Division for a good portion of the season after the rocky start, the Ducks finished 46-25-11 for 103 points and ended up first in the Pacific.
“We knew that if we continued to play really good defense that eventually we were going to start scoring and we did,” Boudreau said. “I think this is a very similar situation in that if you look at how many goals we’re giving up and how many chances we’re giving up, and then if that can continue, eventually the shots from (Eric) Staal in the slot and (Mikael) Granlund in the slot and Parise in the slot, they’re going to start going in.”
Those Ducks were 12-15-6 entering their Christmas Break and had dropped two in a row, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in the last game before the break. But they won seven of their first 10 games when they returned. After a loss to the Kings, the Ducks won six in a row and 18 of their next 20.
So what did Boudreau tells his players upon returning? The same thing he will tell the Wild this time.
“There was a message after Christmas when we got back,” he said. “I used it and I’ll use the same analogy here: It’s like a game of golf in that we just played the first nine holes and we shot 45, but we’ve got the talent to shoot 37 on the back nine. That will make a great round and that’s what we have to do. It makes your sense of urgency a little bit sooner than you’d like it to be, but you don’t wait until Game 41 to say that this is the halfway mark. We’ll start right on Game 36, and when we start after Christmas it will be our second half or our back nine. We’ll just have to start there. You’d like to be like Tampa, 20 games over .500 right now where you’ve got that equity if you lose, but we’re not going to have that luxury.”
Is it realistic to think the Wild can go on an incredible run like the Ducks did? It seems like a long shot given what Minnesota has shown so far. It doesn’t help that Matt Dumba, the Wild’s best offensive defenseman, might be lost for the remainder of the season as he awaits surgery on an upper-body injury. Boudreau, by the way, is unlikely to mention how that 2015-16 season ended for Anaheim. The Ducks rebounded from a 2-0 first-round deficit against Nashville to win three in a row but then lost in seven to the Predators. Boudreau was fired after the season.
Right now, Boudreau’s only concern is making sure his team gets into the postseason.
This stretch hasn’t helped matters and the last two losses (at Pittsburgh and against the Stars) have been especially frustrating because the Wild had every chance to win either or both games.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing,” Boudreau said. “I was really disappointed for the players because you could see they stayed on the bench and they hung their heads. They really wanted this one, and I think the reaction when they tied it up was the reaction you’d like to see. I thought for sure this was one of those that you tie it up late and you win it in overtime.”
For now, Boudreau just wants his players to get away and to get their minds off hockey.
“They need a break and I know they’ll come back happier,” he said. “We have so many (players with) children on our team that this is the time of year for them. I just told one of the players, ‘Just enjoy these moments with your family right now,’ because they grow up and then you don’t have it anymore. So enjoy it and they will. It might take a day or two to get over it, but that’s why we’ve got a three-day, four-day break.”
Hopefully, the Wild enjoy the break because following it the pressure will be high and there will be little room for error.