EDMONTON, ALBERTA — They waited.
For months, Wild players were in limbo — standing by to find out if they’d get a chance to continue the climb they began before the season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Then once it was confirmed they would be coming back, they had to wait some more.
The team had to get through another edition of training camp and then relocate to Edmonton and settle in there before the group could really get going.
And yet after all that buildup and planning and anticipation, the Wild was still left waiting — to shake hands and offer fist bumps to Vancouver players once they were done celebrating moving on from the Stanley Cup qualifiers.
The Wild was bounced from the bubble Friday night, getting eliminated after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Canucks in Game 4 at Rogers Place to fade 3-1 in the best-of-five series that wrapped the season so soon after it returned.
“It’s tough to take in right now,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said. “It’s pretty quick to get going, and then all of a sudden it’s done. We put in a lot of work and to end that quickly definitely stings.”
Vancouver’s Christopher Tanev scored from the point just 11 seconds into overtime to cap off the latest Canucks comeback that started after captain Bo Horvat was left all alone in front to bury a Tanner Pearson pass with 5:46 to go in the third to tie the game at 4.
It was the third blown lead of the game by the Wild, a missed opportunity that only added to the frustration of such an early exit.
“When you lead, especially with the type of group we have, you expect to get the job done and [have] the right result at the end of the night,” center Eric Staal said. “Credit them, they kept coming and kept attacking and were able to cash in on a couple broken plays and a couple of good plays.
“Disappointing finish, for sure, especially how quickly in overtime. We wanted to have a little longer of a crack at it. It stinks.”
One blow to the Wild came before the puck even drop.
No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter was inactive and had been since the final stages of the third period of Game 3, not playing in the last 6:51. After the game, coach Dean Evason said Suter was unavailable.
“To have his leadership, his veteran presence, his heaviness down low in front of the net, he’s a tough guy to play against,” Evason said. “Absolutely sorely missed in our lineup.”
Matt Bartkowski took the empty seat on the blue line, but it was the Wild’s regulars who looked ready to pick up the slack.
Similar to Game 1, there was an early fight with Ryan Hartman dropping the gloves with Jake Virtanen only 1:36 into the first period — a tussle that boosted both benches but especially the Wild.
Barely a minute later, the team opened the scoring on the power play when Luke Kunin crashed the net and stuffed the puck short-side on goalie Jacob Markstrom at 2:58 for his second goal of the series. His other one was also a special-teams specialty, a shorthanded goal in Game 2’s 4-3 loss.
The tally also snapped a 0-for-14 funk on the power play for the Wild.
Vancouver tied it at 1 by 12:52 when Pearson sneaked in for a partial breakaway that he buried behind goalie Alex Stalock, who ended up making 26 saves. Markstrom had 25.
But the Wild exited the period on top after Staal sent a top-shelf shot in a tight corner over Markstrom’s right shoulder only 41 seconds following Pearson’s goal — a quick response that counted as the Wild’s first 5-on-5 goal of the series. The goal was also Staal’s fifth point against the Canucks.
In the second, the Wild doubled its lead when Joel Eriksson Ek pounced on a rebound off a Zach Parise deflection for his career postseason goal at 5:38. Defenseman Jonas Brodin earned his second assist of the game on the play.
It was a poised reaction to a dicey few minutes for the Wild, as Stalock got caught without his stick and the Canucks hemmed the Wild in its zone.
The hard-earned advantage, however, was short-lived.
Just 1:42 later, Brandon Sutter poked in a puck that bounced behind Stalock and by 8:43, the game was tied at 3. Rookie standout Quinn Hughes record his first goal of the tournament when his point shot on the power play sailed through traffic and behind Stalock.
Vancouver finished 1-for-4 on the power play, while the Wild went 1-for-5.
That equalizer by Hughes seemed to tilt the ice in the Canucks favor, but the Wild weathered the pressure and managed to go into a make-or-break third period with a lead after rookie Nico Sturm’s shot off the rush at 19:08 trickled between Markstrom and the near post.
Sturm joined teammate Jordan Greenway as the only two players in team history to score their first NHL goals in the postseason; this was just his second postseason appearance after he debuted in Game 3’s 3-0 loss.
But the significance of his goal was downgraded when the Canucks retaliated late in the third, with Horvat capitalizing on busted coverage by the Wild.
“We didn’t think we gave them much,” Evason said. “Just a couple glaring breakdowns ended up in our net, and that’s the game of hockey. You make mistakes sometimes, and we made a couple mistakes that ended up in the back of our net.”
After eking out the rest of the third, the Wild had a chance to regroup before overtime and start fresh in the new period.
But after a Mikko Koivu faceoff win, the puck rolled into the Wild’s zone and it never left — getting stopped up the boards before Tanev buried it in the Wild’s net.
And then the game was over quickly after it restarted, just like the Wild’s season.
“It was pretty shocking for everybody,” Parise said. “Anytime your season ends just like that, it’s, I don’t know the word for it. It’s not an enjoyable moment.”