After a weekend sweep of Washington and Carolina, the Minnesota Wild returned to the Central Division to square off in Music City against the Nashville Predators. With Nashville occupying the first Wild Card spot and Minnesota fighting for home-ice advantage, points are the only focus of both teams.
At 2-3 in their last five, Nashville came in looking to extinguish the flaming Wild, who were 9-0-1 in their previous ten games. To do so, the Predators would have to crack the two-headed monster that has emerged in the Wild's crease. Goaltending duties were handed to Marc-Andre Fleury, who was undefeated in his new Wild sweater and would be debuting new team-appropriate pads.
With both teams were in need of two points, the matchup was primed to be a good one.
The game's intensity was felt immediately as Jake Middleton and Michael McCarron dropped the mitts.
Seconds later, the boxing matches on ice continued, with Marcus Foligno dropping the gloves with Borowiecki.
Attempting to fill the penalty box entirely, Brandon Duhaime took a high sticking penalty to put the Predators up a man. The 6th in the league Predators powerplay would get their first chance of the night. It took almost the entire powerplay, but Norris candidate Roman Josi got his 82nd point of the year on a shot from the top of the circle.
After losing five faceoffs in a row, Minnesota's penalty kill couldn't relieve pressure, and the puck found its way to the back of the net. Just about 8 minutes into the period, Alex Goligoski was caught with a high stick and earned a Wild powerplay. Despite retaining the puck for most of the advantage, the Wild were unable to capitalize and only earned one shot. Even though he gave up an early goal, Fleury had made some great saves, including this one on Borowiecki.
At the following faceoff, Nick Deslauriers and Borowiecki dropped the gloves for the third fight of the night.
Like they always seem to do, Minnesota found a way to even it up. Mats Zuccarello found a loose puck in the slot and made it 1-1.
Nashville wasn't content with a tied score and quickly found the back of the net after getting their second powerplay of the night. A great pass found Ryan Johansen, who had a yawning net to work with.
Minnesota soon found themselves on another powerplay, where Kaprizov beat everything but the pipe.
Despite chances again, the Wild were unable to close the gap. The frustration seemed to be showing in the already very tense game. It soon boiled over, and Kaprizov took a retaliatory cross-checking minor, sending the very good powerplay to the ice again. For the third time of the night, Nashville beat the Wild kill. Between losing faceoffs, taking unnecessary penalties, and losing guys in front of the net, the Wild kill was falling apart.
The rush to the box continued, with Roman Josi heading to the box with 30 seconds left in the period. The Wild were unable to capitalize, despite a Hartman breakaway, in the closing moments of the period. With 42 penalty minutes between the teams in the first period, it was clear that Nashville's plan to overexcite the Wild was working. If the Wild wanted to claw back into the game, they would need to play a more controlled game.
The Wild began the period with a minute and a half of powerplay time, which they were unable to convert on. If this game had proved anything so far, it was the importance of special teams in physical games. The physicality continued as Duhaime fought Lauzon, and it seemed as if both teams were officially on the hunt for the most penalty minutes in a game record.
Matt Dumba, soon after, stepped down on McCarron and lit him up. The hit was a bit late, and Dumba was called for interference in an effort to settle the game down. Nashville would take the ice with the hopes of going 4/4 on the powerplay. Unfortunately for both teams, the two players in the hit were stunned, with Dumba heading immediately down the tunnel holding his shoulder.
For the first time of the night, Minnesota was able to kill the penalty off. However, it didn't matter, as seconds after the penalty concluded, Josi found Tomasino, who took a quick shot and beat Fleury. It was a powerplay goal, and the Wild fell down by three. For the first time, it seemed like the bad boy era of the Wild was backfiring.
The goal didn't seem to wake Minnesota up, with turnovers continuing to extend shifts far beyond what they should've been. Fleury was forced to make several great saves, especially on a nightmare shift between the fourth line and the makeshift Brodin-Kulikov pairing where there could have been four goals in a span of a minute. With every passing second, the game felt more like a blowout.
Minnesota began to settle down and show signs of life midway through the period. After their most recent terrible shift, the fourth line had a great neutral zone regroup and found Bjugstad for a breakaway. After hitting the pipe, the puck sailed into the netting, and the goal differential remained at three.
With just under four left in the second, Kulikov snuck by Kunin, who was forced to take a hooking penalty. The struggling Wild powerplay would look to close the massive special teams gap that the first two periods had created. Halfway into the powerplay, Kaprizov was cross-checked, and the Wild would get a look at the 5-3. Dean decided to use his timeout to keep the top unit on the ice. After having a challenging game so far, Kaprizov did what he does: make a difference. Finding his rebound, he elevated the second shot over the shoulder to cut the gap to two and hit 40 goals on the year.
The Wild found themselves with over a minute left in the second powerplay. Minnesota was unable to capitalize, but Minnesota had some swagger back. As the clock ran out for the second, it was a tale of two games for Minnesota. Up until midway through the second, they looked worse than they had in the last ten games. They were running around, could not win a faceoff, and had let their emotions get the best of them.
To make matters worse, they were down three and saw Matt Dumba leave the game and not return (sources told Michael Russo that he was seen leaving the arena). However, the end of the period was all Wild. For a team that has been so good in the third period, would the Wild be able to claw back into this one?
With Nashville coming into the night 28-0-1 when leading after two, Minnesota had a massive task on their hands. It became clear why very early on, with Nashville dominating play, resulting in the home crowd getting very loud. Minnesota was able to throw some counterpunches and did not concede a goal. Before they knew it, they would get another look on the powerplay after Kunin took a high sticking minor.
At the middle of the man advantage, a shot tipped by Greenway found the crossbar but did not enter the net.
Even though the Wild did not convert, the momentum was all them. Unfortunately, Saros was up to the task, making countless great saves to maintain the Nashville lead.
With just under 7 minutes left, it seemed like the dagger was delivered to the heart of the Wild. On a 1-3 rush, Matt Duchene fired a great shot that surprised Fleury and returned the lead to three. At 4:30, Minnesota pulled Fleury to mount a final comeback. Luck did not go Minnesota's way, finding themselves on the wrong side of calls and posts.
Johansen scored his third of the night for his first career hat trick with seconds left. As time expired, the two-game winning streak came to an end, and some valuable lessons were likely learned by a Wild team that hadn't had a performance like this in a while.
Minnesota lost this game in the first 30 minutes of it. With emotions running hot, Minnesota lost what makes them a good team. Sure, they added a lot of grit at the deadline, but that was not what got them to where they are now. Every team needs a physical edge in the playoffs, but that is not what puts the puck in the net at the end of the day. Now 0-3 on the season against Nashville, Minnesota is undoubtedly beginning to hope that they do not end up being their first-round opponent. Any prayer of a comeback was extinguished by the outstanding play of Vezina-sleeper Juuse Saros.
Minnesota will continue its crucial Central Division schedule on Friday when they visit the St. Louis Blues.
Can they keep Roman Josi off the board?
NOPE. With a goal and two assists and overall dominance of all zones, Josi was the best player on the ice tonight, not named Juuse Saros.
Will we get another stellar goaltending performance?
Fleury did not have his best game in a Wild jersey and lost the goaltending battle, but it was far from his fault. With Minnesota spending a great deal of the first half of the game down a man, not finding sticks in front of the net, and not clearing his sightlines, Fleury did not have much of a prayer. Additionally, the Wild could not win a faceoff shorthanded, leading to much more pressure on the kill than necessary. The Johansen goal to seal the game was one he would likely want back, but it would be hard to fault him for what happened.
While it wasn't Flower's best night, there is no need for Wild fans to worry.
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