ST. PAUL – The feel-good story that was the Minnesota Wild season unraveled a bit more on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center. A 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers was the Wild’s fourth consecutive defeat, left them at 2-7 March and gave them only nine goals in those losses.
Saturday’s loss (again) featured numerous missed scoring opportunities, more line tinkering by coach Bruce Boudreau and a slew of dumb turnovers by a collection of players who know better.
A month ago, the Wild had a nine-point lead on the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division and Western Conference lead. After Chicago’s 2-1 overtime victory at Toronto on Saturday, the Blackhawks now hold a five-point lead on the Wild.
All of this might lead one to believe that Boudreau is near the breaking point. The veteran coach, in his first season with the Wild, never has been afraid to verbally accost his players when his frustrations reached a boiling point in the past and this would certainly qualify as a time when Boudreau’s patience is being tried.
So when can we expect Mount Bruce to erupt?
Don’t get your hopes up.
While panic might be occurring all around him, Boudreau remained calm Saturday night as he discussed the Wild’s latest loss. Boudreau acknowledged that his players are likely holding their sticks too tight and trying to do too much but instead of venting he remained supportive.
“They all want to win, they’re trying really hard out there,” he said. “They want to do the right things, but right now when things don’t go the way you want them to people start doing individual things. They try to start making the tough plays. They stay out a little longer than they are supposed to because they want good things to happen. We talked in between the second and third (periods about) just getting back to the simplicity of what we did early on in the season which is where we had so much success.
“Just getting behind the (defense), play in their zone and don’t turn pucks over. Right now, you’re trying very hard to make the right plays and you see it yourself out there. There were so many turnovers that it’s ridiculous, but at the same time it’s hard to tell an athlete not to try their hardest and do what they think is right. But they’ve got to get it in their heads that what worked will work again. Once that happens, then I think we’ll get back on the road to success.”
In many ways the Wild’s unraveling feels like what we saw so many times during Mike Yeo’s tenure as coach. In those cases, the Wild would be left scrambling just to secure a playoff spot. But the Wild built such a cushion with their outstanding play for much of this season that falling out of the postseason picture isn’t a concern.
What is a concern is finding the formula that made this team so difficult to beat for much of the year. While Boudreau wasn’t here for the previous meltdowns, many of the players were around and you can see that doubt has crept into their minds.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” that has slipped away during the slump, said winger Charlie Coyle, who somehow missed on a great scoring opportunity in the second period Saturday and has only one goal with an opposing goalie in net in the past 32 games. “We’ve just got to get back to what made us successful before.
“Playing tight defensively and helping our goalies out back there. … They are doing their job back there. I think we’re getting away from simple plays. Sometimes you’re not scoring, you’re not winning, you try to change things up instead of sticking to the script. We’ve got to do that.”
Boudreau, in his 10th season behind an NHL bench, has been doing this job long enough to know when his players need a kick in the breezers and when they need reassurance that if they keep working hard things will be OK.
Clearly, he feels the latter strategy is the best play right now, especially with only 12 games remaining in the regular season. Idiotic scheduling by the NHL — done in part because of the existence of the incredibly foolish bye week given to each team – means the Wild will play again on Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg and then basically on an every other day basis.
“It’s going to be a battle of mental toughness,” Boudreau said. “If you understand the mental toughness of this whole thing, (then) when you get out of it you’re going to be a better team and better players for it because you’re going through it right now for the last 2.5 weeks.”
The Wild are not going to have much, if any, practice time to work on their game before the playoffs begin and if this slide continues this franchise’s hope for a long playoff run could turn into a first-round exit.
“Right now it just seems the mistakes we are making are really costing us and we’ve just got to get back to simplifying the game,” said veteran center Eric Staal, who is in his first season with the Wild and thus isn’t haunted by meltdowns of season’s past. “Getting back to the way we had found so much success earlier in the year. We’ve talked about it a lot, but we’re going to have to go out as a group and do it. We’ve got plenty of stretches over this time where we’ve played really well, but it hasn’t been good enough to warrant a win so we’ve got to get another chance tomorrow.”
And if the Wild drop another game against the Jets, the panic level will raise another level. Just don’t expect Boudreau to lose his cool.
Asked if the key was patience and calm, Boudreau said: “It’s the toughest thing to do but it’s not patience and calmness as much as simplicity. It’s like when things are going bad everything is hectic all around you and you want to simplify all of that a little bit. That’s what you’ve got to do and when we simplify it we’re going to have success.”