It’s a familiar story in the NHL: Team clinches playoff spot then immediately drops a couple of games. Is it a sign of cracks in the armor, or just two games in a competitive league?
Since the Wild wrapped up a postseason spot with a 6-3 victory at San Jose on April 24, capping a six-game win streak, they’ve lost a pair of games to the hard-charging St. Louis Blues, who are zeroing in on the fourth and final West Division playoff spot down the
After a 5-4 overtime loss Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, Wild coach Dean Evason and his players were focused on the bright spots. Minnesota trailed 3-1 and 4-2 in the third period before forcing OT on Kirill Kaprizov’s goal with 51.1 seconds left.
“We didn’t crack. They didn’t take our will away in the third period,” Evason said. “We kept pushing. We just kept pushing and pushing and pushing and, again, we’re very happy with how resilient the group was.”
The Wild have a chance to calm some nerves, their own or those of their fans, with yet another game against the Blues on Saturday at the X. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. In a 4-3 loss to the Blues on Tuesday, Minnesota blew a 3-1 third-period lead. The Wild are 1-2-2 against the Blues this season and end the regular season with back-to-back games in St. Louis on May 12-13.
“They’re a team that works hard. They’ve got great sticks,” said Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, whose high-sticking penalty led to the Ryan O’Reilly goal that put the Blues up 4-2 midway through the third period. “They get in a lot of passing lanes and make it difficult on you from that aspect. They do a lot of similar things that we do to teams. It’s a hard matchup, and I think this is good for us going into the playoffs.”
There were, in fact, bright spots for the Wild, including the coaching staff’s decision to move center Victor Rask from the first to third line after two periods to play with wingers Kevin Fiala and Marcus Johansson. Rask and Fiala combined for two goals and five points in the third.
“Me and Kevin, and also Jo, do have good chemistry,” said Rask, who had an assist on a Fiala goal that cut the Wild’s deficit to 3-2. “It’s nice when you can switch the lines when we were down a goal, and I think we did a good job. But obviously we wanted to win.”
Joel Eriksson Ek also had another good game centering maybe the Wild’s most effective line with Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway. They combined for six shots on goal, 11 hits and a plus-7, and Eriksson Ek started the Wild’s rally with a highlight-reel goal late in the second period.
After securing the puck high right, he reversed course around a chasing Niko Mikkola and moved through the circle. There, he deked O’Reilly and wristed a hard shot into the near corner to cut the deficit to 3-1. In his fourth full season, Eriksson Ek has a career-high 17 goals, and is 3-2—5 in his past five games.
“It’s incredible his drive, his will, his size, his strength. He is an absolute beast,” Evason said.
It was a rough ending for Dumba, who in addition to the late penalty was beaten by O’Reilly for the winning goal 3:43 into the 3-on-3 overtime. O’rReilly got behind Dumba in transition, and Jordan Kyrou found him with a pass from behind the red line for what would be his second assist.
Evason wasn’t overly concerned with his No. 2 defensive pairing of Dumba and Jonas Brodin, or any of his blue line. Top pair Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon were on the ice for two even-strength goals, and Spurgeon lost a puck on the wall, leading to Tyler Bozak’s short-handed goal in the second period.
“Nobody was good tonight until the third period, right?” Evason said. “So, it’s hard to evaluate.”