ST. PAUL — There were some who wondered why such a big deal was made about the Wild’s loss to Arizona last Tuesday in which Minnesota blew a two-goal lead in the third period. It was only one game in a marathon season, right? So why sweat it?
Here’s the problem with that logic when it comes to life in the National Hockey League.
There will be games like the one the Wild played Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Xcel Energy Center. In a game in which the Wild most definitely deserved two points, they came away with none in a 5-3 loss that extended their losing streak to three games, gave them six losses in their past nine games and dropped them to fifth place in the Central Division, one point behind the Dallas Stars.
Take care of business against a struggling team like the Coyotes and Saturday’s loss — one in which the Maple Leafs got two goals off Wild defenseman Nick Seeler and added an empty-netter — stings but it’s just one of those unfortunate things. Failure to beat the Coyotes, followed by an incomplete performance in a 4-2 loss at Columbus on Thursday, makes Saturday’s defeat all the more difficult to accept.
Points are precious in the Western Conference and come springtime there is little doubt the Wild will be looking back at this current stretch of games and either lamenting the fact it cost them a playoff spot or, if they’re lucky, simply postseason positioning.
“It doesn’t feel good,” center Eric Staal said of the Wild’s first three-game losing streak of the season. “We’ve got guys who have a lot of pride, we’ve got a lot of guys who understand what it takes in this league to win on a nightly basis. It wasn’t too long ago we were playing pretty good hockey.
“We’ve had pockets that we’ve been not very good at all. Obviously, at the end of the day, you can’t have any pockets in this league. It’s very competitive and there can’t be any moments, even throughout the course of a game, where you really let it off. We’ve had moments of that and it’s cost us. We just need to regroup, get a fresh day tomorrow and just remember the type of work ethic and competitiveness we brought today.”
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau and his players had reason to be upbeat, even after losing to one of the best teams in the NHL before an announced crowd of 19,107 that featured plenty of fans wearing Maple Leafs jerseys. Many of those fans were in a celebratory mood at puck drop after learning that Leafs forward William Nylander’s contract stalemate had come to an end minutes before Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline when the restricted free agent agreed to a six-year, $41.77 million deal.
“I think it was as good of game as we can play,” Boudreau said. “We didn’t get the puck luck, I think Toronto got it, and they are a great team. … The effort was there. I thought every line was going and the team played really well. Other than the two points, which you would love to have, you have to take some positive stuff out of that game.”
Toronto took a 2-0 lead in the first period on a power-play goal by Auston Matthews and an even-strength goal from former Wild winger Tyler Ennis that hit Seeler’s left skate and went past goalie Devan Dubnyk. Staal beat Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen with 30. 3 seconds left in the first to make it 2-1, and Jordan Greenway tied it off a pass from Joel Eriksson Ek at 5:17 of the second.
The Wild took control of the game in the middle period, outshooting Toronto, 12-7, but still trailed by one after winger Zach Hyman had the puck go off his glove and into the goal at 14:38 of the second. The Wild dominated the third period and tied the score when Jason Zucker beat Andersen at 9:38 from the side of the net.
That was one of Zucker’s six shots on goal in the game. But that total did not include his best chance. That came early in the third when Zucker took a pass from Staal in the slot with the Wild on a power play. Faced with an open half of the net, Zucker somehow shot wide.
“That’s about as wide open of net as I’ve missed in my whole career,” Zucker said. “It’s never good. Especially for a guy like myself that feels that I can help this team by scoring goals. That’s a goal that needs to go in, especially at that point in the period. It changes things. It was good to get one back and tie the game at least but overall that can’t happen.”
The Wild continued to pressure after Zucker’s goal, but the Leafs got another lucky bounce at 16:40 of the third to retake the lead. Connor Brown passed the puck to Nazem Kadri at the side of the net and Kadri put the puck toward the goal. It again went off Seeler and past Dubnyk for the winner. Hyman’s second goal of the game into an empty net at 19:04 clinched the victory.
“I feel bad for Dubs,” Seeler said. “A couple bad breaks there at inopportune times. That’s disappointing, not much you can do there. Just hits off you and goes in and I did everything I could to try to stop it from going in. But like I said, Dubs played a really good game and that’s unfortunate that goes in.”
Said Zucker: “That (last goal was) hope throwing the puck across the crease and it still hit pads and went in so that’s unfortunate. But I think we can take a lot of good things out of that period and out of that game in general. I think we need to do that, but we need to make sure to capitalize on all of our chances. We had a lot there that we could have scored on.”
Zucker wasn’t the only Wild forward lamenting the pucks that did not get past Andersen. The Staal-Zucker-Granlund line combined for 13 of the Wild’s 41 shots — Toronto finished with only 23 — and many of those attempts were quality scoring chances. This included a late pad save on Staal that came as he was on the ice. Zucker and Granlund had numerous chances on which they attempted to set each other up with passes but just failed to capitalize.
“You want to bury it, obviously,” Staal said. “We had some pretty Grade A looks to get us that lead and they obviously got a bounce on the winner. (Andersen) made a couple (great) saves there at the end. The one on me at the side of the net, I thought that was going in. He kind of lifted his leg off the ice and it caught the top off his pad. Sometimes they go in and they didn’t tonight, but we pushed hard and just didn’t get the result.”
Although Dubnyk did not see a lot of shots, Boudreau did feel his previously slumping goalie played a solid game. “Two goals we scored in our own net, one was an empty net and I don’t think anybody in the world would have stopped Matthews shot in the first period,” Boudreau said. “He made the saves he had to make. When they got a goal, they came right back at one point and he made a great save on (John) Tavares and just sort of stopped the flow of everything. He was like the rest of the guys, they played really good.”
The Wild now will begin a three-game swing to western Canada this coming week that will include games in Vancouver on Tuesday, Calgary on Thursday and Edmonton on Friday. The Wild’s last extended road trip — a seven-game trek that began with a loss in Vancouver — actually ended with five victories.
While Boudreau was happy with what he saw Saturday, he wasn’t ready to declare his team’s struggles of late to be over. “I think if you take this game out West, it’s good,” he said. “If you don’t, then it’s going to be an uphill climb.”