The Wild appeared to be in perfect position to gain a bit of redemption on Monday night at Xcel Energy Center.
Playing their 17th home game of the season, and the first in which a significant number of fans was allowed in to watch (3,000 to be exact), the Wild came out looking sharp against a Colorado Avalanche team that had outscored them 11-1 in back-to-back victories two weeks ago in Denver. Minnesota had gone 5-1-1 since leaving Colorado, including sweeping two one-goal games last weekend in Vegas.
When Ryan Hartman opened the scoring at 8 minutes, 40 seconds of the first period, giving the Wild an early 8-1 advantage in shots on goal, he pointed into the stands as fans celebrated.
The jubilation was short-lived.
The Avalanche put their skate on the plucky Wild in the second period and showed Minnesota just how far it has to go to match its speed and ability to dominate at the flip of a switch. Colorado has one of the NHL’s top players in Nathan MacKinnon and he wasted no time reminding the Wild and the spectators at the X just how quickly he can change a game. MacKinnon, one of the league’s fastest skaters, took a stretch pass from defenseman Samuel Girard in the neutral zone and exploded away from the closest Wild defender before putting the puck past goalie Cam Talbot only 18 seconds into the period.
Andre Burakovsky scored at 1:29 after Talbot made a save but was unable to hold onto the puck in his catching glove. Brandon Saad made it 3-1 when he scored after he wasn’t called for a cross-check on Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon and J.T. Compher tipped Cale Makar’s shot past Talbot just over two minutes later to put the Avs up by three. The Wild, outshot 20-5 in the second, attempted to blame themselves for the letdown but that’s taking away from the Avs’ ability to turn on the jets.
“After the second period we came in and all knew what we had to do,” said Hartman, who finished with a goal and two assists. “That was our game plan in the first period, we play them hard. We didn’t play them hard in the second period, made it easy on them. We kind of kicked ourselves after the second, talked about how to play them and guys pushed back and made it a lot harder for them in the third period.”
The Wild rallied for three goals in the final period, including a 6-on-4 (with the goalie pulled) power-play goal by Kevin Fiala with 35 seconds left, but still came away with a 5-4 loss. That dropped the Wild to 2-5 against the Avs this season, including three consecutive losses. The Wild’s franchise record 11-game home winning streak also ended as they dropped to 13-4-0 in St. Paul.
Wild coach Dean Evason said afterward that his team wasn’t in the Avs’ face enough. “The last shift of the game, that’s how we’ve got to compete, and it’s not fighting, it’s competing, it’s battling, it’s getting in people’s faces and winning that confrontation,” he said. “We didn’t do enough of it and if you don’t do enough of that against a team like that then they’re going to stick it to you. They obviously did in the second period.”
Wild fans will remember Saad from his days with Chicago, when the Blackhawks proved to be the biggest obstacle for a Wild team with great expectations. The issue with the Wild at the time was there wasn’t a lot of room for significant improvement. That club had Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and several other veteran pieces that it thought would lead to a Stanley Cup run at some point. The Wild never got past the second round of the playoffs and lost in the first round four times.
While the Avalanche are the better team at this point — the absence of wingers Marcus Foligno, Mats Zuccarello and Parise didn’t help on Monday — this time the Wild aren’t doomed to being an also-ran to the best. General manager Bill Guerin has done a good job of reshaping the roster but it remains a work in progress. The Wild’s shortcomings are obvious — the team is still in a playoff spot in third place in the West Division — and that’s why Evason said his team’s best path to a victory over the Avs is to frustrate them.
The Wild are in a desperate need of a No. 1 and 2 center — Joel Eriksson Ek is probably best used as a No. 3 — and have to find someone who can help set up Fiala, who isn’t as talented as super rookie Kirill Kaprizov but certainly has star talent when put in the right position. The Wild entered Monday with the second-worst power play in the NHL, converting at 10.8 percent, before going 2-for-6 against the Avs. Minnesota has more speed than it did when Guerin arrived but more needs to be added to keep up with a team like the Avalanche. The good news is that help should be on the way with prospects like 2020 first-round pick Marco Rossi, a center, and others expected to arrive next fall.
The Wild will need all the help they can get because there is no escaping these high-flying Avs. The NHL plans to return to an 82-game schedule next season and is likely to revert to its previous division alignments. That will put Minnesota and Colorado back in the Central.
If the Wild can retain Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen in goal (Seattle could get one in the expansion draft this summer) and continue to add skill around Kaprizov, Fiala and a solid blue line corps, Guerin should be able to build a roster that can beat the Avalanche at their own game. What happened in the second period Monday served as the latest reminder the Wild aren’t there yet.