Having already locked up a playoff spot and coming off of three days rest, the Minnesota Wild players and coaches said all the right things about playing hard, keeping up the momentum of a seven-game winning streak, and not taking the foot off the gas. But despite a zero-to-60 effort in the second period that led to a pair of two-goal leads against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night, the Wild not only took their foot off the accelerator, they all but slammed on the brakes as the Blues took advantage of the Wild’s injuries and uncharacteristic defensive miscues. The result, a disappointing, 4-3 come-from-behind loss against a Blues team that is desperate for points as they try to hold on to the last playoff spot in the West division.
Marcus Foligno had a goal and an assist and Jordan Greenway had a pair of helpers, but while Jonas Brodin got the scoring going for the Wild it was his critical mistake one-on-one against Robert Thomas that led to the Blues game-winning goal with just 23 seconds left. Joel Eriksson Ek also added a goal, but left in the third period with what originally seemed to be a lingering upper-body injury, though he said he was fine in postgame interviews. Cam Talbot made 28 saves on 32 shots.
The Wild’s well-publicized difficulty in outshooting opponents reared its ugly head early, as the Blues jumped out to an early 11-4 shot lead through the first half of the opening stanza. But though St. Louis was able to shell Talbot early, the Wild netminder was up to the task as the Minnesota defenders limited the Blues to only one high danger chance in the first period.
Offensively, though the Wild were stymied for the most part, Dolla Bill Kirill Kaprizov was doing his normal thing and leading the team in expected goals, and Nico Sturm made a nice blue line interception to earn the Wild their best chance of the early game.
But as if getting outshot and outchanced was bad enough, with about five minutes left in the period, newly-signed Ryan Hartman took a shot to the foot and gingerly went down the tunnel. The trainers took a look at Hartzy in the tunnel before taking him to the locker room, but thankfully, he would later return in the second period.
Despite missing Hartman, the Wild found their feet late in the third, tightening the Blues’ shot lead to 13-10 and earning the first goal of the game thanks to a nice one-timer by Brodin.
The Wild kept the mojo going in the second, as under a minute in Minnesota turned an offensive zone faceoff win into a chance by Jordan Greenway. Jordan Binnington got tied up and couldn’t get across to the rebound, and Eriksson Ek tapped the rebound into a wide open net for a two-goal Wild lead.
Minnesota continued to dominate the offensive zone on back-to-back shifts by the Zuccarello-Rask-Kaprizov and Fiala-Hartman-Johansson lines. But though they maintained about four minutes of pressure, chance after chance mostly missed the net. Despite the lack of results on the scoreboard, the strong forecheck and dominant zone presense kept the Blues heads buzzing and legs burning - a feeling the Wild hoped to keep subjecting the Blues throughout the game as well as the rest of their upcoming schedule.
Just after the midpoint in the second, Kevin Fiala went to the box for an offensive-zone interference call, having cross-checked Robert Bortuzzo in front of Binnington. The Xcel Energy Center announcer didn’t even have enough time to finish the announcement before the Blues’ Mike Hoffman made the Wild pay for Fiala’s mistake, sniping a Vladamir Tarasenko pass past Talbot just eight seconds in to the power play.
The Wild, though, showed they could answer nearly as fast. Foligno earned back the two goal lead for Minnesota, taking a beauty of a setup from Matt Dumba and sending a seeing-eye shot past Binnington through a Zach Parise screen.
Moose wasn’t done, as he turned a hussle play for the puck into the Wild’s first power play of the game, battling the Blues’ Marco Scandella and drawing the defenseman into a hooking call. The Wild weren’t able to capitalize, but the aggresive forecheck during the power play (by Hartman especially) brought about some heightened animosity that only ratcheted up as the second period concluded.
Goaltenders Binnington and Talbot even had a couple choice words leaving the ice.
You can understand why the Blues might have gotten a little frustrated, as outside of the eight-second power play, the Wild owned the second period, outshooting the Blues 16-5 and out high-danger chancing St. Louis 9-0.
I mean, not to belabor the point, but come on. This is the 5-on-5 dominance the Wild enjoyed earlier in the season but haven’t been able to generate lately. For one period, at least, it was back with a vengance.
But seeing how good it can be again is precisely why it was so frustrating to watch it all fall apart.
Coming out for the third period, the Blues turned their frustration into fuel, and the Wild momentum came to an abrupt halt. First, Sturm took a Torrey Krug shot to the hand, and was in significant discomfort on the bench - though he too would later return. Then, a Dumba hooking penalty led to Hoffman’s second power-play goal of the night, as a shot through a Tarasenko screen brought the Blues back within one, the Wild holding on to a precarious 3-2 lead.
Later, a poor no-look pass behind the Wild net from Dumba to Brodin was intercepted easily by the Blues’ Thomas, who found Jordan Kyrou all alone in front of Talbot and buried the puck past him, tying the game at three.
Greenway finally gave the 4,000 Wild fans a reason to cheer in the third when he steamrolled a pair of Blues players on the same hit...
... but Minnesota didn’t pull out of the spiral until about 14 minutes in to the third when they finally generated their first shot of the frame. But as happened multiple times tonight, whatever Wild momentum generated was culled by a bad-looking injury - this time it was Eriksson Ek who limped off the ice after getting his head accidentally clobbered by Jayden Schwartz. The Wild centerman made an attempt to come back to the bench, but left again to be evaluated and did not return.
The Blues, meanwhile, kept up heat, and with just 23 seconds left on the clock, Thomas fought past a flat-footed Brodin and roofed the puck past Talbot for the game-winner.
On the scoresheet, the loss won’t loom too large considering Minnesota will have a hard time catching the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, and would have a long way to fall in order to tumble out of the third-place spot. But the last thing the Wild want is to hit a rough patch down the stretch and heading into the playoffs, and the last last thing they need is to lose one or more key players to injury. Luckily, Hartman, Sturm and Eriksson Ek all look like they’re going to be fine, but missing any one of the three could be the wrench in the works that derails any hope the Wild might have of being the hot team that can upset the Avalanche in the first round.
The Wild get two more cracks at the Blues at home this week before eventually finishing the regular season in St. Louis in mid-May. Hopefully by then the Wild can figure out what is causing them to falter at five-on-five and struggle against teams like the Blues. Because if they can’t figure that out, they could be looking at another short one-and-done playoff series.
Does Nick Bjugstad return to the lineup?
With the Wild rolling and in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, Wild reporters Michael Russo and Jessi Pierce both speculated in pregame tweets that the Bjugstad wouldn’t see the ice until poor play or injuries made his return neccessary.
But as much as Wild fans have been clamoring to see Bjugstad back in the lineup, no one wanted the price of that move to cost the Wild a key player at a key time - especially if that player is arguably Minnesota’s best centerman.
Luckily, Russo tweeted in the postgame that Eriksson Ek was made available for media after the loss, something that is not usually done with injured players.
Regardless if its due to banged up players or just generally poor play (and the Wild suffered a significant amount of both against the Blues), Bjugstad’s return might be just around the corner.
Will special teams decide the game?
Our @Justin_The_Hein looked at the Wild’s power play versus the Blues’ penalty kill in the game preview, but it was the Wild’s PK that doomed Minnesota’s chances against the Blues. St. Louis went 2-for-2 with the man advantage thanks to a pair of Hoffman goals, but it wasn’t just the fact that they scored that hurt Minnesota, it was the fact that St. Louis’ power-play goals took a grand total of 37 seconds to execute - eight seconds on Hoffman’s first goal and 29 seconds on his second. The Wild had little answer for the Blues after their second power-play tally, and St. Louis eventually wore Minnesota down en route to the comeback win.
As for the Wild’s suddenly successful power play, they went scoreless on their one opportunity.
Will Evason return to hard line-matching to start the homestand?
It certainly seemed like that was the plan early on, with the Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno line matched up consistently against the Blues’ top line of Brayden Schenn-Ryan O’Reilly-David Perron. With the Wild flowing in the second period and gaining some long offensive-zone time against the Blues, Minnesota dropped the line-matching and just went with what was working. But whenever the momentum died, the prescribed matchups came back, and maybe that, combined with the untimely penalties and mojo-killing penalty kill efforts, was what ended up ultimately dooming the Wild in this game.
Perhaps Evason needs to let the players get into their own offensive groove and trust that the defensive pairings will clean up the mess. Because it’s clear that whatever the Wild are doing now isn’t working. Though the Wild have proven they can overcome poor five-on-five possession and offensive generation against the lower-tier teams in the division, that’s not going to fly against the top teams in the West, especially in the playoffs.
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