Two stories appeared side-by-side in the Monday morning sports section. They could have shared the same headline: “Seriously? Ugh!”
The Timberwolves delivered a no-show effort in their most important game in a decade, and news leaked that the Wild’s No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter had suffered a fractured bone in his right leg.
Two developments that brighten the mood like an early April snowfall.
Both teams are jockeying for playoff positioning in this critical week, but things have become a little harried for each one for different reasons.
The Wolves are limping along without Jimmy Butler and displayed an alarming amount of indifference in a 24-point loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
The Wild won its first game without Suter in impressive fashion, 3-0 over Edmonton, and then clinched a playoff berth late Monday night with help from the Los Angeles Kings.
Bad news came earlier in the day, though, when the Wild learned it must forge ahead without Suter, who ranks high on the list of players the team can least afford to lose.
“It stinks,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said of Suter’s injury. “There’s no real way of getting around it.”
That’s a perfect description of what transpired at Target Center on Easter night. Finally on the verge of ending their painfully long playoff drought, the Wolves went through the motions as if nothing meaningful was at stake. You’d find more excitement in a dentist’s waiting room than what Wolves players offered. Where’s the urgency?
The Wolves continue to demonstrate cluelessness on defense, which reflects poorly on both Tom Thibodeau and his players. There’s enough blame to be shared for that disconnect.
It’s stating the obvious that Butler’s absence hurts, but the Wolves have struggled defensively most of the season and are ranked 26th in the NBA in defensive rating.
For whatever reason(s), Thibodeau’s reputation as a defensive savant hasn’t translated on the court. And being one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams does not bode well for playoff success.
This should be an exciting time for the organization. The way the Wolves have played lately has made people cranky and restless.
At least Butler will return any day. The Wild isn’t so lucky with Suter, who is sidelined for the rest of the season, a gut punch made worse by the timing.
Playoff hockey remains wildly unpredictable so you never count any team out. Hockey offers too much evenness and randomness to assume any outcome. But the Wild’s odds shrink considerably without Suter based on his value.
Monday marked the first time in his six seasons with the Wild that Suter missed a game because of injury. He had missed only five games total, all coming during the 2014-15 season: two because of illness, two while serving a suspension and one as a healthy scratch at the end of the season.
Suter leads all NHL players in average ice time since joining the Wild largely because he plays in every situation. His minutes have to be accounted for by others now.
“We defend by committee, we score by committee,” veteran Matt Cullen said.
Suter’s absence leaves a spotlight on Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin and a group of young defensemen. They didn’t flinch in their first test post-Suter.
Not having Suter’s steadiness on the back end also puts more onus on Dubnyk to cover up defensive lapses. Terrific goaltending in the playoffs is basically a requirement. The Wild might need Dubnyk to occasionally play the role of Superman. He also was a cool customer in posting a shutout against the Oilers.
Positive signs everywhere.
“It’s one of those things where we all have to be better [without Suter],” Cullen said.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau took the right tack in addressing questions about Suter’s status Monday morning. He sounded downright defiant in noting that every team deals with injuries and adversity. In other words, no excuses.
Boudreau’s tone was refreshing. He didn’t whine or come across as dejected. He took bad news and calmly pushed it aside. His team responded by playing with urgency and purpose in a critical game.
Maybe that sparks something that carries them. Hopefully the Wolves were paying attention, too.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org