The Wild’s first opportunity to host a Winter Classic on Saturday evening had to be considered a success. At least from a fan-experience standpoint. The fact it was minus-5.7 degrees at faceoff, making it the coldest outdoor game in NHL history, didn’t stop a sellout crowd of 38,619 from braving the elements at Target Field and taking part in a celebration of a game many in this state love. The mixture of a warming house in center field, several mini-rinks in the outfield on which shinny hockey was played, along with an ice fishing hole and even fake deer, made for a perfect setup.
Wild owner Craig Leipold, who had long lobbied NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to get the Jan. 1 showcase event, had to be pleased. As for what Leipold saw from his team on the ice? That was another matter.
The feel-good stories surrounding the Winter Classic spent the past few days overshadowing the fact the Wild entered Saturday’s game having lost four in a row. The skid reached five with an ugly 6-4 loss to Central Division rival St. Louis in a performance that the Wild excuse makers and sycophants likely were attempting to pardon when Minnesota trailed by four goals after two periods.
The list of excuses for this unsightly outdoor defeat? The Wild hadn’t played in 12 days because of games being postponed due to league-wide COVID issues. The Wild were without top defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin and center Joel Eriksson Ek because of injury or COVID. The puck was bouncing like a basketball because of the freezing conditions and trying to make plays was difficult. I’m sure there are a few more that I’m missing, but the excuse makers won’t be.
Unfortunately for those people, they don’t have an ally in Mats Zuccarello. The Wild’s veteran winger did not hold back in assessing what he saw over the first 40 minutes on Saturday. It was those two periods — especially a brutal second in which the Blues scored five goals to take a 6-2 lead — that proved to be the Wild’s undoing.
“It’s embarrassing, I think, the first two periods,” Zuccarello said. “You have 40,000 people coming, freezing their asses off and we were playing like that. You’ve got to give credit to St. Louis, too. Hell of a team, they play well, they outplayed us for 40 minutes for sure. A little bit of pushback in the third but it doesn’t really matter. You lose the game. There’s no excuses. It’s cold, it’s cold for both teams. The ice is bouncy for both teams.
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“They just outplayed us for 40 minutes and we didn’t play smart hockey, like we’ve been doing most of the time this year. I think everyone knows it, too. We talked about it between the second and third, we all agree, and it’s unfortunate it happened on a great night like this when a lot of people leave their house in this cold to support us. We give them a performance like that. We are as disappointed as everyone else and there’s no excuses.”
There might not be excuses but there does have to be some concern. The between periods conversation that Zuccarello referenced was loud and spirited, according to coach Dean Evason. The Wild (40 points in 31 games), once in first place in the Central, have fallen to third behind St. Louis (43 in 33) and Nashville (42 in 33) and are four points ahead of Colorado. The Avalanche, however, have played four fewer games than the Wild.
The Wild have had four games postponed because of the NHL’s need to juggle its schedule because of COVID issues and a game this Monday in Ottawa, as well as games Jan. 10 and Jan. 12 in Winnipeg and Edmonton, respectively, already have been postponed because of issues with the Canadian government limiting how many fans can be in arenas. The Wild is scheduled to play at Boston on Thursday before returning to Xcel Energy Center to face Washington next Saturday.
But the schedule disruptions aren’t unique to the Wild and overcoming adversity is a necessity for every team in professional sports these days. The adversity grew when Evason revealed he pulled top goalie Cam Talbot in favor of Kaapo Kahkonen after two periods, not because he had given up five goals on 14 shots in the second, but because of a lower-body injury.
“It wasn’t precautionary,” said Evason, who pulled Kahkonen with 8 minutes, 19 seconds left in the third period and Minnesota trailing by three in order to put an extra skater on the ice. “He came out of the game. We wouldn’t have taken him out of that hockey game. He’s a battler, he’s a competitive guy. We don’t take him out of that game because he’s still going to give us a chance to come back.”
If Talbot is forced to miss time, Kahkonen will take over as the starter. That isn’t the only worry. The Wild’s power play went 0-for-4 against the Blues and its 16.8 percent success rate on the season is 22nd in the league. Evason didn’t attempt to sugarcoat the Wild’s struggles with the man advantage.
“There’s a lot of reasons for our power play coming up empty as of late and we’ve got to do some real soul searching in that area,” he said. “It’s hurt us all year. It didn’t hurt us at the start because we were collecting a lot (of goals) 5-on-5. … It’s got to get better. It has to give us a better opportunity to win hockey games. There’s no question about it. It’s frustrating as heck and we have to do something about it.”
Evason also had to be frustrated with seeing the Wild return to their old ways of becoming the Furious Rallies in the final period. Minnesota scored two goals and outshot St. Louis, 18-4, showing a spark in the final 20 minutes that was non-existent in the opening 40. That’s inexcusable considering the crowd that turned out to watch the Wild in a nationally televised game the NHL considers one of its marquee events.
“We’ve got to work,” Evason said. “In between the second and third period, we went in and we adjusted some systematic stuff. Our coaches’ room is right beside (the players’) room. They were yelling at each other. Yelling to the things that we needed to do, the things that we didn’t do. Literally we had to go in and say, ‘You guys have said everything. We’re going to play like this now, systematically. Let’s go forward.’ They know what is going on. When you’re yelling in the dressing room between periods, you’ve got an idea what’s happening. We’ll work and we’ll work our way out of it.”
It was just too bad that on what should have been a special night Saturday in downtown Minneapolis the Wild remained in their current rut.