Zulgad: Wild coach looks for positives, but knows pitfalls after lost opportunity

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Wild completed a winless weekend in their return from the All-Star break and bye week with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. Nonetheless, Bruce Boudreau found a way to put a positive spin on things.

“I look at it as we’re 3-1-1 in the last five, so let’s take it that way,” the Wild coach said. “I think we got our legs underneath us for most of the night. The only thing I’d like to see be better is us not missing those Grade A chances that we seem to get every night, and we want to be cute by making a play instead of just putting it as hard as we can right through the net.”

Boudreau long ago learned that growing exasperated with this group wasn’t going to get him anywhere. That’s why he included the Wild’s three consecutive victories before the break — over Columbus, Vegas and Colorado — as he discussed the past two losses. The Wild returned from their eight-day hiatus Friday with an uninspired 3-1 loss at Central Division-rival Dallas.

That victory moved the Stars into third place in the Central, a point ahead of the Wild, and pushed Minnesota into the first wild card spot. The Wild got a point on Saturday by forcing overtime with Victor Rask’s first goal in a Minnesota jersey at 16 minutes, 58 seconds of the third period, and Dallas won again, this time 3-1 over Nashville, to move two points ahead of Minnesota.

The Wild took a 1-0 lead over the Blackhawks when Jason Zucker buried Mikael Granlund’s power-play pass past goalie Collin Delia at 8:22 of the opening period. The Blackhawks rallied to take a one-goal lead after two periods setting up an entertaining third in which Mikko Koivu tied it at 8:11, Chicago reclaimed the lead on Jonathan Toews’ power-play goal at 15:25 and Rask tied it again to force overtime.

The Blackhawks opened overtime on the power play thanks to a delay of game penalty Wild defenseman Ryan Suter took with 18.9 seconds left in the third period. Suter had attempted to flip the puck out of his zone on the backhand but it sailed into the seats for an automatic penalty.

Chicago took advantage of its 4-on-3 power play when defenseman Erik Gustafson blasted a shot past Alex Stalock’s glove side for his second goal of the game with 3:41 left in the extra session.

“It was really unfortunate for Ryan,” Boudreau said. “We’ve watched it in slow motion many times. Just as he was going to shoot it, it flipped right up on him. It’s an unfortunate play but those are one of the times where I would say it was a well-earned point at this stage. We wanted two but we kept coming back, which is a good sign.”

The Blackhawks, who beat the Sabres 7-3 on Friday in Buffalo, have now won four in a row and still have star power in Toews and the phenomenally talented Patrick Kane. But this is still a franchise that sits second to last in the Western Conference and has a goal differential of minus-29.

This was a missed opportunity for the Wild.

But that was nothing new for Boudreau’s team this season. The Wild struggled to earn points against the Blackhawks, beating them 4-3 on Zucker’s overtime goal on Oct. 11, before losing 3-1 and 5-2 in Chicago in November and December.

“I think there was a lot better things tonight than there were in Dallas,” said Zach Parise, who was moved from the third line to a top-six role with Koivu and Charlie Coyle. “The amount of zone time that we had was a lot better, the amount of chances that we had. I’m not sure we had a single scoring chance in Dallas. So tonight to at least get some (scoring chances) and have some more offensive zone time, that’s a good sign. (I) just feel like at times we played well enough to  get out of here with a win, but it didn’t happen.”

The good, or bad, news for the Wild is this team isn’t going to have time to focus on any one game for the next two months. NHL players evidently love having a bye week, despite the fact it means a sprint to the finish once their just-enough-time-to-get-rusty vacation comes to an end.

The Wild still have 12 games left in the remaining 26 days of February, including three this coming week, three the week after and four the week after that. Minnesota will play at Buffalo on Tuesday, play host to Edmonton on Thursday and play at New Jersey on Saturday before playing at the Islanders a week from Sunday.

“We played a really good game, a solid game,” Suter said after Saturday’s loss. “It sucks that it had to kind of end like that in a bad play. But we played a solid game and that’s how we have to play.”

Actually, the Wild have to play better than that. The points race is tight in the Western Conference and two-point nights are likely going to be required on a consistent basis if Minnesota wants to make a seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

If the Wild begin to slip, first-year general manager Paul Fenton could decide to be among the sellers before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. The only way to make certain that doesn’t happen is for the Wild to create some separation between themselves and the many mediocre to bad teams in the Western Conference.

Minnesota didn’t take a step toward doing that on Saturday, so while Boudreau wasn’t disappointed with the performance he also had to know it wasn’t good enough.