Lodged between a rigorous start to January and a challenging final leg before the All-Star break looked to be an opportunity.
Four games, uninterrupted, against three of the NHL’s basement dwellers and the free-falling Ducks, an itinerary the Wild could capitalize on to receive as much as an eight-point boost in the standings — just the lift it needs to assert itself as a legitimate contender for one of the Western Conference playoff berths.
But after the bottom-five Red Wings toppled the Wild 5-2 on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, a performance coach Bruce Boudreau described as the worst he’s witnessed since he’s been behind the Wild’s bench, this stretch against the NHL’s most woeful — which continues Monday in Philadelphia against the last-place Flyers — could be more of a trap than a catapult if the Wild doesn’t reset in a hurry.
“We seem to play our best when we’re playing against the best,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Unfortunately, we have to change that. We have to find a way to be consistent and play our game no matter who we’re playing.”
The wake-up call issued by the Red Wings should serve as a cautionary tale in more ways than one.
The Wild not only can’t ease up against non-playoff teams, but it can’t make the mistakes that are a recipe for disaster regardless of the opponent.
Detroit dealt crushing blows to the Wild in the first minute of each period, early strikes that reflect poorly on the Wild’s readiness. The Red Wings opened the scoring 24 seconds into the first, tied it at 2-2 45 seconds into the second and took a two-goal lead 47 seconds into the third.
While the Wild was able to respond initially, evening it at 1-1 before moving ahead in the middle period, it faded the rest of the way. And a lack of pressure in the offensive zone was one reason why.
After scoring 17 seconds into the second, the Wild registered just one shot on net the rest of the period. Detroit, meanwhile, peppered goalie Devan Dubnyk with 21 pucks, two of which were goals. The Wild’s six-shot output in the third wasn’t much better — this after it had zero in the same period on Thursday while hanging on for a 3-2 win over the Jets. It was just the second time in franchise history that it went without a shot in a period.
“It’s brutal,” winger Zach Parise said. “I think that’s something again that’s gotta be figured out. You gotta find a way to create some offense.”
These lapses have coincided with dry spells for some of the team’s top sources for production, and center Eric Staal has been the poster boy for these struggles.
He’s stuck in an eight-game scoring drought and has just one goal in his past 13.
“I was fighting it,” Staal said. “I didn’t have a good night. It just felt like they were on top of me a lot. There wasn’t a lot of room to try to get anything going. Pushing hard to try to get something. It wasn’t happening.”
Better engagement from the entire team might have helped it find a way around the wall it seemed to keep running into against the Red Wings, but the group lacked a tenacity that didn’t show up until practice Sunday — a session jam-packed with battle drills that ratcheted up the intensity.
“Our systems are fine,” Boudreau said. “Our structure’s fine. It comes down to competing and willingness to win.”
That message might seem too rudimentary to relate, but it’s a reminder the Wild appeared to need after its last showing.
And if players rebound with it in mind, along with the other necessary improvements, plenty of time remains to make this section of the schedule a fruitful one.
“There’s nothing in this league that’s a slam dunk,” Dubnyk said. “It’s easy to look at points, but there’s no bad teams in this league. There’s nobody that you can just show up and go out on the ice and beat. It just doesn’t exist. We definitely need to understand that going forward here. We know exactly how we have to play to win, and we have to do that every game or we’re not going to.”