The Minnesota Wild’s winning streak ended with a 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild entered Saturday’s Central Division battle trailing the Avalanche by 6 points with a chance to close the gap to four with a win. Minnesota ends the night now trailing the third place team in the division by 8 points and holding on to the last Wild Card spot in the Western Conference by a slim 2 point margin. The Wild didn’t play badly Saturday night, in fact they played quite well, what they didn’t do was capitalize on a third scoring opportunity as the Avalanche did. In his post game comments Minnesota Head Coach Mike Yeo said, “We weren’t giving up much. Maybe we could have done a few more things to create here and there. We had the puck the majority of the time and it’s frustrating not to get at least a point there.” Frustrating is a good word and a couple of other ones to describe this game would be maddening, perplexing and disappointing. The Minnesota Wild squandered a golden opportunity to show the rest of the Central Division and the Western Conference that they belong in the upper echelon of teams in the 2013-14 season. A fantastic start to the season was followed by a stretch of very sub-par play that saw the team fall away for the top teams in the Conference both in record and statistics. Coach Yeo was rumored to be on the hot seat and possibly within days of losing his job. What followed were two groups of events. The first was a series of injuries that sidelined some of the team’s top players. The second was a four game win streak against both Eastern and Western Conference opponents. Minnesota showed that they can win games with the likes of Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise missing on offense. A top four defenseman in Jared Spurgeon out indefinitely on defense and arguably the team as well as the league’s top goal tender, Josh Harding, out of action as well. The combination of these events has shown the potential the Minnesota Wild possess. Saturday night showed the trouble the team has in turning potential into points.
This game was looking like a carbon copy of their meeting in Denver back on December 14 that ended with the Wild taking the second point in a shootout. Minnesota had a great opportunity to get on the scoreboard with a power play early in the second period but were not only unable to score they were unable to register a shot on goal with each attempt either sailing wide of the net or being blocked by Colorado penalty killers. It took just over 9 minutes for the Wild to register their first shot on goal of the second period, a 60 foot slap shot by Marco Scandella.
The Avalanche took the rebound of that shot, headed up ice and scored the games first goal just 7 seconds later. Gabriel Landeskog beat Wild net minder Backstrom with a backhand shot off a feed by Paul Stastny. Over the next minute and a half the Stephane Veilleux and Matt Cooke would take penalties just 1:12 apart giving Colorado :48 of 5 on 3 power play and 1:12 of 5 on 4. The Wild’s 24th ranked penalty killers would manage to prevent the 13th ranked Colorado power play from scoring, until just after both penalties expired. The Avalanche would take a 2-0 lead at the 13:25 mark of the period just, 4 seconds after their power plays expired, much to the rather vocal dismay of the majority of the 19,117 fans in attendance. Ryan O’Reilly would scored his first of the night, a wrist shot that beat Backstrom from some 18 feet out.
Once again, as has happened a number of times this season, it seemed as though a two goal deficit is what is needed to get the Wild to score. Tonight the line with the best chemistry was the top line currently consisting of Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker. Working off a neutral zone Colorado turnover Heatley and Coyle worked a give and go play to perfection. Coyle took a perfect saucer pass and with a forehand backhand move he got Av’s net minder Varlamov to slide out of position and #3 buried the puck making the score 2-1. For those keeping track of the Wild’s scoring tonight, the Heatley/Coyle combo made it easy. Just 4o seconds later the two would do it again, this time Nate Prosser would collect a rebound and slide the puck to Heatley who traveled behind the net and made a precision pass to Coyle out front who wired a wrist shot past Varlamov’s stick side tying the game at 2 goals apiece. With Coyle’s second goal of the night and his 6th of the season the Xcel Energy Center crowd was in full roar and expecting more scoring and a 5th straight victory for the home team. They got 2 more goals and a victory; for the visiting team much to their and the Wild’s disappointment.
Colorado would score the game winner at the 12:44 mark of the third period. O’Reilly’s second tally of the game concluded a play that started in the neutral zone. Normally sure handed Ryan Suter failed to control the puck and lost a one on one puck battle with Ryan O’Reilly who sent the puck to Matt Duchene. O’Reilly got the puck back from Duchene just to the right of the net and when Backstrom went into his butterfly position O’Reilly flipped a nice backhand shot into the upper corner of the net and Colorado took a lead they would not relinquish. Colorado would tack on a empty netter with 1:10 to play. Maxime Talbot scored from nearly 100 feet away to crush any hope the Wild had of a last second game tying goal.
Minnesota would end up out shooting Colorado 27 to 18 with the Avalanche blocking an additional 15 shots and many more attempts missing missing the net area entirely. The Wild power play was also missing in action again Saturday as the team only managed to draw a pair of man advantage opportunities and going 0 for 2 with just 2 shots on goal from only 5 attempted shots. A rather pathetic performance in both drawing penalties and making use of them. Nights like this are not what you expect from the 9th ranked power play in the NHL.
The Wild defense did perform rather well and the offense controlled the puck for long stretches as Coach Yeo talked about saying, “We’ve been protecting the middle of the ice. We did a very good job of that today. We didn’t give up a lot of quality scoring chances but bottom line is you’ve got to find a way to win.” “We battled back, we got in the game and I thought we came out we in the third too. We weren’t giving up much but we’ve got to find a way to grab the lead there for sure.” This is a team that is struggling to put all the pieces together right now. The Minnesota organization has assembled the parts, gifted scorers both established and new to the NHL. Names such as Zach Parise and Jason Pominville along with Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine. The same can be said of the defense corps, a group of youthful and veteran players from Ryan Suter to Jared Spurgeon to Jonas Brodin. In goal the Wild just keep bringing top notch net minders up through their system , Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson, to join the veterans Harding and Backstrom. This is a team built to win, not just now but well into the future and the erratic play is the demon the players and coaching staff are trying to exorcise.
It’s true that the Wild are missing some important players due to injury right now. The freshly snapped 4 game win streak does show that Minnesota has the depth throughout the team to forge ahead as Coach Yeo said, “We’re short some bodies right now and we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got a game tomorrow against a team that’s very desperate.” Not long after Saturday’s loss to Colorado the team loaded up and flew to Nashville for a Sunday evening tilt with the Predators, another Central Division foe. Nashville is in 6th place in the division just 8 points behind Minnesota. The Wild are in a stretch of games where they play every other day from Sunday the 12th through Saturday the 18th with 3 of those 4 games on home ice. Coach Yeo says they can’t afford to look back, “The reality is this (Saturday’s loss) does not matter right now. All that matters is the next game and we have to move on.” The Wild must have a short memory win or lose as they head into a stretch of 12 games in 25 days before the extended Olympic break in February. Frankly, from now to February 6th, is the make or break time for your Minnesota Wild in the 2013-14 NHL season. Six of those games are against Central Division teams and another four matchups are with Western Conference foes. The Wild need to win at least 8 of those games to remain or move up in the playoff picture. Less than 8 and the guys can start making April golf tee times. Looking ahead I’ll be back Sunday morning with a preview of game two of this back to back weekend for your Minnesota Wild. The Nashville Predators are waiting fresh off a Saturday night 2-1 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators. Until then this is Scott Drain, looking ahead and still yelling, “LET’S GO WILD!!”