ST. PAUL -- The Wild have taken their lumps since returning from an eight-day break, earning just four of a possible 12 points while their hold on a Western Conference playoff spot has dwindled to two points.
It’s not because of effort, coach Bruce Boudreau said.
“Look, I think our team tries to compete every night,” he said Monday, Feb. 11. “… The effort is never something with our team that I’m worried about.”
So, what’s the problem? After charging into their mid-winter break with three consecutive victories, the Wild have come out flat-footed, going 1-3-2 and getting passed by St. Louis in the standings. They hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the West heading into Tuesday night’s game against Philadelphia at Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild split a road series in New Jersey and Brooklyn over the weekend, beating a bad Devils team 4-2 and losing 2-1 to the New York Islanders in a pair of afternoon starts Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
On Sunday, the Wild were called for six penalties against the Islanders and, in Boudreau’s assessment, played about a period and a half against the Metropolitan Division leaders. But after an energetic practice at TRIA Rink on Monday, the coach defended his players.
“I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but we play hard every night,” Boudreau said. “We don’t get beat by six goals, or five goals. It’s either an empty-net goal or it’s a one-goal game.”
The Wild fell behind 1-0 in both weekend games, and in a 4-1 loss to Edmonton last Thursday the X, a common occurrence this season. The Wild have played 56 games this season, and the opponent has scored first in 37 of them.
“We’re playing hard in certain areas of the game, not the whole game right now,” forward Marcus Foligno said. “Our starts have not been anywhere near where we need them to be.”
The Wild are 16-18-3 when giving up the first goal, offering at least one simple solution for the slumping Wild.
“We’ve just got to play better in first period,” Boudreau said. “To play catch-up is a little bit tough. We’ve got to be ready for 60 minutes right from the get-go.”
By contrast, the Wild have been outshot only 22 times this season.
“You look at the end result and we’re outshooting teams. We’re working hard in that aspect,” Foligno said. “But we’re not working the aspects we need to get better at.”
Specifically, Foligno said, winning battles on the offensive boards and getting to the net, and being more aggressive on the back check.
“We need to attack the guy with the puck in our zone and not let them cycle,” he said. “I think you saw against the Islanders; we allowed them to skate around the zone and have possession and we were kind of just sitting back and waiting for them to screw up. But you’ve got to go after them.
“The first guy who attacks the puck has got to separate it from the man who has it. Sometimes when you don’t do that, it causes a lot of havoc, and I think that’s where we’re not working hard enough.”
The good news for the Wild is that they’re only two points behind Dallas for third in the Central Division, and sixth in the conference standings. The bad news is that St. Louis already has passed them in the standings, and the Chicago Blackhawks are four points back after winning seven straight games.
So, while the Wild are moving in the wrong direction, they remain a decent winning streak away from improving their situation. On the other hand, with the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline approaching, they’re just about out of time to convince new general manager Paul Fenton not to continue tinkering with the roster.
Since mid-January, Fenton has added and subtracted a combined 12 players through trades and the waiver wire, including current starters Anthony Bitetto and Victor Rask, who was acquired from Carolina for longtime Wild forward Nino Niederreiter.
“We’ll keep going and hopefully we’ll get a little bit of puck luck and we’ll win three, four, five in a row before this thing’s over,” Boudreau said.