The Minnesota Wild came roaring back this week after finally getting three days off.
Wait. No, they didn’t.
The Wild indeed got a mini-break last weekend after playing 10 games in 18 days. Fatigue after that much hockey condensed into such a short time is real, and they looked the part. The Colorado Avalanche shelled Minnesota's goaltenders early and often in two games. It was a thorough defeat at the hands of the team’s biggest rival and killed any good vibes Minnesota was feeling after seven consecutive wins. Shot totals were hardly close. The Avs out-scored the Wild 11-1 on both goalies in the two games. To top it all off, Minnesota hardly got a sniff of the Colorado net.
Losing to the Avalanche is not inherently bad. It's a team with depth and Stanley Cup aspirations. Nathan MacKinnon is a bona fide superstar. Most importantly, Colorado has finally learned how to defend at an elite level. They are ranked first in the league in xGA per hour. However, the Avs owned the Wild in every aspect of the game, and the losses negatively affected the perception of a team that was riding high.
The Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues also both out-played the Wild, and Minnesota leaned heavily on Cam Talbot in those games. Even though the Wild picked up wins over Anaheim and St. Louis, they looked sluggish — nothing like the team that swept the Arizona Coyotes. The three days off to completely get away from the rink and recoup the weary hands and legs must’ve felt like a gift. Naturally, after such a respite, you would think the team would come out rejuvenated and fresh. To top it off, their return to the ice came against the seventh-place San Jose Sharks.
The result: two inexplicable losses.
Before their hiatus, the Wild could reasonably use fatigue as an excuse for getting outplayed. But that doesn't explain why they were swept in San Jose.
The Wild managed just 53 shots, combined, in both games. They broke double digits in shots on goal just once in six periods, plus a five-minute overtime period. The issues that plagued the Wild, like not getting sustained pressure and a lack of shots on goal, have persisted since the break. It’s not like the Wild can claim they faced a formidable goalie. Both Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk sport sub-.900 save percentages. In fact, those two are ranked ninth and 10th in the league for the worst save percentage among goalies who’ve played 15 or more games. It's just that the Wild never tested them.
Their defensive efforts against the Sharks were equally as bad. Minnesota routinely gave up shots near the net, including 15 high-danger opportunities. The forward lines struggled to defend deep in their end. Even TV analyst Wes Walz mentioned that Kirill Kaprizov shouldn’t be the only forward defending below the goal line. But he was because his linemates, center Victor Rask and veteran winger Mats Zuccarello, weren't backchecking.
Even though the Wild watched Kaprizov, a Calder Trophy favorite, struggle to get to the offensive zone because of his lack of a decent center, Dean Evason stubbornly stuck to his lines. Rask and Ryan Hartman may have had a hot streak earlier in the season, but they’ve cooled off since. Early in the season, Evason would lean on whichever players were having a good game on any given night. Lately, he’s been more reluctant to change things up, and it has cost the Wild.
The losses to the Avalanche should have served as a stark reminder to the Wild that they cannot coast into the postseason. These losses to the Sharks show that while this team has a very different makeup this year, the outcome in the playoffs could be grimly similar to the recent past: a first-round exit.