As the Western Conference’s snail race for the final two wild card berths continues, the Minnesota Wild are the latest team to grind to a halt.
Since returning from all-star weekend and their bye week, the Wild have lost four games in a row, three of which were to teams right around Minnesota in the standings. The latest, a 4-1 loss to the also-struggling Edmonton Oilers, was close to rock bottom. You could hear it in the lack of spirit from the usually raucous hometown crowd and in coach Bruce Boudreau’s post-game conference.
“Yep, this was the quietest I’ve heard (Xcel Energy Center) in the first period ever,” Boudreau noted about his team’s six-shot opening frame. “But we didn’t do anything to excite them either.”
What on one side was a step in the right direction that breathed some “much-needed oxygen” into Edmonton’s playoff hopes was, on the other, a lacklustre effort that further opened the door and invited the lineup of wild card hopefuls in.
The Wild has scored nine goals in their four post-bye games and the stretch is a continuation of some underwhelming offensive performances from some of the players who were expected to carry the load.
Eric Staal, well off the 40-goal pace he reached last season, was heating up before the break but has just one assist in the past four games. The long-awaited Jason Zucker breakout happened last season to the tune of 33 goals, but he has just four since Christmas and may not hit 20 this season. And Mikael Granlund, who has nearly hit 70 points the last two seasons, has just one goal since the end of November on just 67 shots.
“I can’t go out there and hang on his back and follow him up like a close talker and say ‘hey shoot the puck,’ Boudreau said of Granlund. “He’s a smart enough player. The last two years he was one of the top, I thought, top 10 players in the league. And now he’s got two goals in 38 games.
“If I had the magic button to make them play…” Boudreau said of all his struggling players, “I can put the systems together and play the way you want to play, but I mean everything else comes from within.”
The Wild’s offence ranks 26th in the league on the season and although they still hold the first wild card spot, they have played more games than most of the teams around them and are just two points clear of ninth in the West.
When Paul Fenton was officially hired as GM last summer, owner Craig Leipold made it clear the expectation was that this team would challenge for the Stanley Cup and Fenton agreed that the roster as currently constructed was in a good place. Some bad luck has been a factor: Matt Dumba was the NHL’s leading defence goal scorer when injury cut his season short in December, and elite two-way pivot Mikko Koivu had a season-ending injury of his own just this week.
But every team deals with injuries — just look at where Nashville sits — and now in Minnesota you have a coach who is bewildered at what’s happened to some of his key players as the team has fallen back to the pack.
“There’s some guys there that are just a shell of the players I’ve known for two-and-a-half years,” Boudreau said.
“This was sort of the last straw. Everybody now has caught us or within a point. So it’s either find your sense of urgency and do what you have to do to win or bad things are going to happen. If you look at our schedule starting at the end of the month this is the time you have to be successful.”
It’s true. The Wild have 10 games the rest of February with an even home-road split. Each of their next four games are against Eastern Conference teams — two versus New Jersey and one each against Philadelphia and the New York Islanders. After that, the Wild play the hard-charging St. Louis Blues on back-to-back Sundays at the end of the month and have three very winnable games against Anaheim, Detroit and the New York Rangers in between.
After that, the road gets very difficult. The Wild finish February with a road game in Winnipeg then play at Calgary, followed by a home-and-home with Nashville and a matchup in Tampa Bay. If they’re still trending the wrong direction at that point, it’s a stretch that could bury Minnesota’s playoff hopes and maybe even transform them into a deadline seller on Feb. 25.