EDMONTON, Alberta – This time could have been different.
Given a second wind after months to rest up and prepare, the Wild had a chance to capitalize on the NHL’s streamlined, tournament-style return to finally achieve the postseason success that has eluded the franchise for years.
Instead, the team was foiled by a familiar set of glitches — spotty scoring, an untimely injury and inconsistency that was a microcosm of the season that crumbled late Friday night after the Canucks rallied 5-4 in overtime in Game 4 to claim the best-of-five series 3-1 and oust the Wild from the NHL’s Western Conference bubble and the Stanley Cup qualifiers.
“It was pretty disheartening for everyone,” Zach Parise said.
The exit was as swift as it was shocking.
After blowing 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 leads, the Wild had an opportunity to answer back in overtime, but the team didn’t even make it to the Vancouver end of the rink inside Rogers Place.
A point shot by Christopher Tanev sealed the Canucks’ comeback 11 seconds into OT, a goal tied for second-fastest from the start of a postseason OT session in NHL history.
“We thought we had the game in our hands [Friday] and just didn’t make the plays at the end,” Jared Spurgeon said.
Despite a near-perfect debut Sunday in a 3-0 textbook victory, the Wild couldn’t duplicate that effort vs. Vancouver.
Penalty trouble was costly in a 4-3 loss in Game 2, and the offense sputtered in the 3-0 loss in Game 3. Not until the first period Friday did the Wild register a goal at 5-on-5 and end an 0-for-14 skid on the power play.
And the pressure to score only increased once the Wild’s blue line wasn’t at full strength.
Ryan Suter didn’t play for an undisclosed reason; coach Dean Evason called him “unavailable.” His loss was notable since Suter could have helped protect each lead and ward off the Canucks late in regulation.
“He’s definitely a big piece of our team, and obviously, you missed him [in Game 4],” Spurgeon said. “But that’s no excuse. I’ve got to play better.”
This one-step-forward-two-steps-back waddle, however, wasn’t confined to the playoffs; the entire season was a string of stop signs after green lights.
It took a season-high, 11-game point streak in November and December to help clean up the damage from the worst start in franchise history, but the Wild was still uneven in January — the penalty kill in the NHL’s gutter and a woeful team save percentage its albatross.
The second half started to look promising once Kevin Fiala became the offensive leader and Alex Stalock stabilized the crease, but the improvement wasn’t enough to save coach Bruce Boudreau’s job. He was fired Feb. 14, and Evason was promoted from his post as an assistant on an interim basis.
What happened next was the team’s best hockey of the season, with its 8-4 run under Evason putting the Wild on the brink of a playoff berth.
But then the pandemic halted the season, and the team never got a chance to find out what could have been had it been able to continue that push.
Although Evason was pleased with his team’s play vs. Vancouver, the results weren’t the same as they were before the pause. And that accentuates the problems, not the progress.
“There’s always tweaking, obviously, at the end of the season,” said Evason, who received a two-year extension ahead of the playoffs to take over as coach full-time. “Our hockey club is no different. We’ll take some time to evaluate what happened here. We’ll go forward. But there’s no question they’ll be tweaking.”
Some of the scoring troubles should be addressed by Kirill Kaprizov, who is set to make his NHL debut next season after signing his entry-level contract in July. But it might take more reinforcements, especially lower in the lineup.
Captain Mikko Koivu’s next move is a mystery, as the 37-year-old’s contract is expiring, and while the Wild’s defense is rife with experience, better depth could have helped it overcome Suter’s absence.
And then there’s the goaltending. Normal starter Devan Dubnyk was shelved in favor of Stalock, and both are under contract for next season.
Add in the uncertainty of the future and the ongoing threat of COVID-19, and the Wild could be searching for quite a few answers during this ensuing layoff.
But one of the questions the organization is facing isn’t new, and that’s how to avoid yet another early demise.
“It’s going to sting for a while, and you don’t really know what’s ahead for this next season,” Spurgeon said. “But I’m sure when it does start, we’ll have this in the back of our mind and want to get off to a good start so that we’re in a better position going forward.”