Saturday’s home opener for the Minnesota Wild could not have come quickly enough for the fans. After an 0-3-0 start, the team was desperate to get back to home ice and the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center. Their opponent Saturday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins, were in a somewhat similar position. They were just 2-2-0 through their first four games and were looking to improve.
Once the play was underway after player introductions, the Wild actually had the first three shots of the game. Zone time was somewhat evenly split for the first few minutes, but the first good scoring chance for either team came on the Penguins’ first shot of the game off of Sidney Crosby. However, Devan Dubnyk kept it out of the net.
Later, Sam Lafferty hit Matt Dumba, and Ryan Hartman returned the favor by eventually dropping the gloves. Dubnyk made another excellent save on the ensuing 4-on-4, this time against Woodbury native Jake Guentzel.
The Wild took the first penalty that resulted in a man-advantage, with Ryan Suter sitting for interference at 14:26 into the first period, and the Penguins scored 28 seconds later. It was Patrick Hornqvist’s third of the year with assists from Justin Schultz and Crosby. Aside from that power play goal, the first period was fairly evenly matched. Neither team dominated the offensive zone for long, extended periods. Shots on goal were close, and 11-10 in favor of the Wild, and both teams had multiple scoring opportunities.
The Penguins started the second frame with a Crosby goal just 3:26 into the period on a delayed penalty. Kris Letang found an open Crosby with space and that was all he needed, making the rest look easy.
At this point, the Wild needed a quick response to get back into the game, and after a penalty to Jack Johnson, Jason Zucker scored just 28 seconds after Crosby. It was a goal on the power play coming off a redirection from a shot by Brad Hunt.
Just under 30 seconds later, it looked like Marcus Foligno might have tied it up but the play was called dead after an early whistle. Over the next several minutes of game time, both teams exchanged multiple scoring opportunities, and then Adam Johnson scored on a big rebound given up by Dubnyk. It put the Penguins up 3-1 and was the Minnesota native and former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog’s first career NHL goal. Over the next couple of minutes, Kris Letang scored to make it 4-1 and then Joseph Blandisi made it 5-1.
That was it for Devan Dubnyk, and Alex Stalock made his season debut relieving Dubnyk for the final 26 minutes of the game. In the closing minutes of the period, Jared Spurgeon scored his first of the season to cut the Pittsburgh lead to 5-2. Things fell apart in the second period, and it was hard to watch. Hard to watch for everyone:
The third period was rather bland, especially compared to the six-goal second period. Six minutes into the third period, it looked like Joel Eriksson Ek might have made it 5-3, but the goal was called off for goaltender interference. The Wild did not look great for most of the third, but they made it over halfway through the period before giving up a goal, as Guentzel scored for Pittsburgh and made it 6-2.
In the closing minutes of the period, Hunt picked up his second point of the night as he scored on a great shot from the blue line. Just 21 seconds later, Luke Kunin notched his first goal of the season, making it 6-4. This late push was enough to make it a close finish to the game and enough to make head coach Bruce Boudreau pull Stalock for the extra skater. However, the Penguins took advantage of the empty net, and Sam Lafferty picked up his first career NHL goal to make it 7-4.
For the first time in the history of the Xcel Energy Center, the Wild lost in regulation in their home opener. They are now 14-1-4 all time in their first home game of the season. The Wild are one of just three teams without a win so far this season — they are joined by New Jersey (0-3-2) and Chicago (0-2-1). Given that both of those teams have taken games to overtime, the Wild are 31st in the league standings and are the only team without a point.
The Wild need to figure things out. Every loss raises the level of concern in St. Paul higher and higher. There is talent on that roster, and yet they sit at 0-4-0. They have not scored more than two goals in a game (apart from tonight) and have not given up fewer than four. Just about everything is going wrong that could be going wrong. Dubnyk is not playing well, Eric Staal is having a bad start to the season, and Mats Zuccarello has yet to make an impact. The only real bright side to take from this is that there is plenty of room for improvement.
Getting going in the right direction has to start with Dubnyk. After giving up five goals in just over half a game, Dubnyk now has a goals-against average over 4.5 and a save percentage around 86 percent. Obviously it is a small sample size, and not every goal has been his fault, but the Wild are not going to win many games when their top goaltender is putting up those type of numbers. Dubnyk needs to be better, and the defense needs to be better in front of him. After all, a goaltender alone cannot carry a team.
The Wild also have to stop taking the first penalty. They did so tonight, and the resulting power play led to the Penguins scoring the game’s first goal. Already in this early season, the Wild have spent a lot of time playing from behind, and continuing to play from behind will just lead to more losses. This team is not doing themselves any favors by giving up a great early scoring chance by taking the first penalty.
The Wild will be back at it on Monday as they head to Ottawa to take on the Senators at 12 p.m. Central.
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