The Minnesota Wild fell to the Calgary flames 4-1 Sunday night on home ice at the Xcel Energy Center. The loss continues a season worst 5 game home losing streak for Minnesota, while the victory marks the third straight for the Flames. The Wild are now 24-18-3 on the year, good for 51 points, leaving them tied with the Columbus Blue jackets, The Wild hold onto the 7th seed in the Western a Conference on a tie-breaker. Minnesota’s home ice dominance has faded to a 13-7-2 mark with the 5 straight loses on home ice. The Wild’s workhorse net minder Niklas Backstrom is now in a 3 way tie for the second most wins in the NHL this season with 22, trailing league leaders Niemi of the Sharks and Nabokov of the Islanders with 23. Backstrom is now 22-14-3 with a 2.50 goals against average and a .908 save %. The friendly confines of the “X” have become a house of horrors with the Wild surrendering 13 goals, while scoring just 4 during the last 5 home games. Sunday night Minnesota’s offensive production was reduced to a single goal by Zach Parise with assists going to Captain Mikko Koivu and rookie Charlie Coyle. Outside of spreading 35 shots on goal around the team, that single goal sums up the offensive output for this game. In the month of April with the regular season winding down the Wild have embarked on an all to familiar course that sees them fading to the edge of playoff envelope. The Wild didn’t play a bad game Sunday night, they just didn’t play well enough to defeat a surging Flames squad that is now 12th in the Conference with 42 points and enjoying their chance to play spoiler as their regular season comes to a close.
The Western Conference is still very tight with the 7th and 8th place Wild and Blue Jackets a scant 3 points ahead of both Detroit and Dallas, tied for 9th and 10th respectively. With just 3 games remaining Minnesota finds them selves in a battle for their playoff lives. The Wild will face two teams out of playoff contention in the final 3 games of the regular season. Those teams ore the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. Coming up Tuesday Minnesota faces off with the Los Angeles Kings who are currently holding the 4th seed with 57 points in the West. The Wild still control their playoff destiny, needing to win two of their final three games to make the post season for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Is it time to panic for the Wild faithful? I’d say no and Wild management would seem to agree as they go ahead with playoff ticket sales opening to the general public on Monday morning. At this point Minnesota seems likely to face either the powerful Anaheim Ducks or the juggernaut that is the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. For larger stretches of Sunday’s game the Wild were in control and dictated the pace of play. The problem was they could only evade the Flames net minder Joey MacDonald one time. Minnesota Head Coach Mike Yeo said after the game,“We certainly don’t like to do things the easy way, that’s for sure.”
The Wild seemed to get off to a solid start and played well in long stretches throughout the game, but in the end lost to a team they should have beaten. The time is long past for taking any moral victories. At this point in the season Minnesota has to win, period. With three games to play the Wild can obtain a total of 57 points. That means the best Minnesota can do is 5th in the Western Conference. That would require a series of losses by the teams immediately in front of them, San Jose and St. Louis. The Canucks and the Northwest Division title are out of reach.Remember back on the first of April when the Wild were battling for the divisional lead and everything was puppies and rainbows? The fourth seeded Kings are out of reach as well, even if the Wild could tie them in points, they hold the unreachable total of 24 regulation and overtimes wins that makes up the first tie-breaker. As has been the case many times this season the Wild have the unique ability to play a good game, doing many things right, yet make any opposing goal tender look like a leading Vezina Trophy candidate. That was the case with Joey MacDonald on Sunday. The Flames net minder made 34 saves on 35 shots, several of them spectacular, while his defense forced many others to come from the perimeter. The Wild had trouble all night long getting the puck in close and generating scoring chances off of rebounds. Time and time again Minnesota would get a shot on goal and see the puck quickly exiting the offensive zone. The lone tally for the Wild came off of some sustained pressure that saw Mikko Koivu hit Charlie Coyle with a tape to tape pass to the right of the slot. The rookie flicked the puck down to Parise who made a right to left deke, got MacDonald to sprawl, allowing him to evade a poke check and tuck the puck into the net past the outstretched foot of the Flames net minder. That goal would tie the game at 1 apiece at the 18:44 mark of the opening period. The opening goal of the game went to Calgary’s Mark Cundari, a power play goal coming with Mikael Granlund in the box for interference. His infraction would be one of just 4 penalties the Wild would take all night. Unfortunately Minnesota would have a bad night on the penalty kill, allowing 3 power play goals on 3 Calgary power plays. OUCH! That one stings, until recently the Wild had one of the top penalty killing averages in the league ranking in the top 5 to 10 overall. That average has now dropped into a tie for 21st at 80.2%.
Calgary would take the lead for good as the game neared the midway point. Mikael Backlund scored on one such rebound, generated by a two on one break. Backstrom made the initial save but Backlund poked the rebound home in the ensuing scrum. That would be the only goal scored in the 2nd period. Through two periods of play the Wild led 25-12 in shots on goal, had many quality scoring chances, and stayed out of the penalty box. A total of 6 penalties were assessed through the first two periods resulting in 3 power plays for Minnesota. The Wild looked good with the man advantage each time but Flames net minder MacDonald was up to the task along with the Calgary penalty killers. At the 6:06 mark of the second Clayton Stoner and Cory Sarich dropped the gloves for a lengthy bout. The Wild defenseman is becoming a more skilled pugilist and his 4th scrap of the season showed it. Sarich has 37 career fights in the NHL to Stoner’s 18. Stoner also has fought 31 times in his American Hockey League (AHL) career. Both fighters landed several good blows but the winner was definitely Stoner. Toward the end of the boutStoner landed a hard right that clearly broke Sarich’s nose and push it to the left side of Sarich’s ugly mug. That was the end of the penalties for Calgary but not Minnesota. The Wild took a total of two minors in the third period and both time the puck ended up in the back of the net. It’s tough to win a game when your opposition scores 3 times on the man advantage. This demonstrates just how important winning special teams situations can be.
Sunday’s game is water under the bridge now and the Wild need to focus on the task ahead, beating the Los Angeles Kings. This is the last time Minnesota will face a top five oponent, The Kings have clinched a playoff berth but have virtually no chance of catching the Ducks in the Pacific division. Anaheim’s goal is a top 4 finish and securing home ice in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For our intrepid Wild squad the goal is simple, stop the bleeding and remain in the top 8. Sunday was a rare occasion for Minnesota goal tender Backstrom, he lost the game after one in which he was pulled. Until Sunday he was 17-0-2 over the last few seasons in games in that situation. As I said earlier there are no more moral victories, the Wild just need to look forward and prepare to win their last three games of the regular season. “Win and you’re in” is still in effect for the Wild. They are not dependent on other teams outcome’s to make it to the post season. GonePuckWild will be here as the regular season reaches it’s climax, keeping you informed each step of the way. Until next time this is your Game Day Correspondent, Scott Drain, confidently shouting, “LET’S GO WILD!!”