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Zulgad: Same old, same old? Wild’s uninspired effort in playoff loss looks all too familiar

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at Minnesota Wild
May 20, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov (97) and forward Kevin Fiala (22) look on after allowing a goal during the third period in game three of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

There were many things about this season’s version of the Minnesota Wild that separated them from Wild teams of the past. The thing that stood out the most was the team’s resiliency and refusal to make excuses. General manager Bill Guerin worked to change the mentality in the locker room, and coach Dean Evason often hammered home the point that in a season affected by a pandemic adversity was to be expected.

The new-attitude Wild responded by surprising many, finishing in third place in the West Division and then putting on back-to-back impressive performances in splitting the first two games of their opening-round playoff series with the Golden Knights in Las Vegas. The Wild returned home for Game 3 on Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, playing host to a postseason game for the first time since April 17, 2018.

Evason’s club came out flying and took a 2-0 lead. Ryan Hartman scored off a beautiful pass from rookie Kirill Kaprizov only 2 minutes, 16 seconds into the game, and then Joel Eriksson Ek got his second goal of the series at 8:30. Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was spectacular in Vegas, was on the ropes and the Wild knew it.

Eriksson Ek appeared to take advantage again at 13:05 of the first period when he beat Fleury to make it 3-0. Or was it? Wild winger Kevin Fiala had brought the puck into the zone to set up the play but was slowed in the neutral zone by a hooking infraction that wasn’t called. Knights coach Pete DeBoer saw that because of the uncalled hook, Nick Bjugstad had entered the zone before Fiala could get the puck over the blue line.

The goal was overturned by the review and the Wild had to settle for a 2-0 lead. No problem, right? Not exactly. The Wild seemed to lose some momentum after the goal was taken away, and when Vegas captain Mark Stone scored his first goal of the series at 8:39 of the second period, Evason’s team folded. The Wild suddenly looked like the team that was ousted easily by the Vancouver Canucks in the playoff bubble last summer after winning Game 1.

Patrick Brown beat Wild goalie Cam Talbot to make it 2-2 at 15:19 of the second and at 17:33 Reilly Smith’s goal gave the Golden Knights a lead that they would only build on in a 5-2 victory.  The crowd of 4,500 that was allowed into the X to watch the game spent much of the evening venting their frustrations at referees Francois StLaurent and Wes McCauley. Those two didn’t have a great night. Vegas had five power-play opportunities to the Wild’s two — neither team scored on the man advantage — and there were a few bad misses by the officials.

This included an obvious first-period trip on winger Marcus Johansson, who went crashing into the Knights goal, left the game and did not return. The missed hook on Fiala also likely left the Wild fuming. But what really should have made them mad was their own play — especially since Vegas continues to be without the injured Max Pacioretty, who led the team with 24 goals in the regular season.

This loss couldn’t be blamed on the officials. It had far more to do with a Wild team that played a marvelous 20 minutes and then disappeared. There were too many Wild players who were happy to watch the final 40 minutes, while guys like Marcus Foligno played until the final whistle. The Wild outshot Vegas, 7-4, in the first period and then was outshot 36-9 for the remainder of the game.

“We gave them everything,” Hartman said. “We had no possession, no work ethic, no battle. We got away from our game and we let them dictate.”

He’s not wrong and that’s the problem. The Wild spent two periods looking tired and willing to go through the motions, as if they were facing the Sharks in a January game. Considering the intensity of the first two games of this series, it was shocking.

The Wild will have a chance to tie the series on Saturday night at home and will be expected to provide a better effort. Kaprizov’s assist in Game 3 was his first point of the series, and while Evason finally did play Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala on the same line at times in the third period, those two have combined for one assist and are a minus-7 so far in the series.

Evason’s club has responded before when faced with adversity this season and will get an opportunity to do so again after a performance that evoked memories of the Ghost of Wild past. Until Thursday that oft-excuse making collection had been forgotten. On Saturday, we’ll find out whether Game 3 was a temporary slip or something far more troublesome.