ST. PAUL – The excuses for the Wild’s slow start came at a furious pace.
There was the fact Minnesota played only four games in the season’s first 15 days as a reason for a disjointed 1-1-2 beginning that included a shootout loss at Carolina and an overtime loss to Columbus in the home opener.
There was injury bug that hit with wingers Mikael Granlund (groin), Charlie Coyle (leg) and Nino Niederreiter (ankle) all joining Zach Parise (back) in the press box.
Finally, there was the issue of the Wild playing only one of its first six games on home ice.
A six-game homestand – and the return of Granlund and Niederreiter – were expected to help the Wild get things on track and escape the cellar of the Central Division.
Only that didn’t happen.
The Wild closed the six-game stretch with a 2-0 loss Saturday to the Chicago Blackhawks, leaving them with a 3-3-0 record on their longest homestand of the season.
The Wild failed to capitalize on third-period breakaways by Eric Staal and Jared Spurgeon, and Artem Anisimov’s power-play deflection of Duncan Keith’s shot with 5 minutes, 22 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner. Alex DeBrincat added an empty-net goal to account for the final margin.
Wild goalie Devan Dunbyk was fantastic in making 33 saves, but Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford also was great, making 24 saves to get his second shutout of the season.
“You’re not going to win hockey games if you don’t put the puck in the net when you’ve got open nets,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It’s just not going to happen. Granted both goalies were out of this world. But when you have open nets, and you have two breakaways in the third period, you’ve got to score because eventually the other team is going to get that one chance and put it in.”
The troubling thing was that Anisimov’s deflection came without him being touched in front by any Wild penalty killer. Not Jonas Brodin, not Kyle Quincey, not anybody.
There was no doubt Saturday’s game was an entertaining one with a bit of a playoff feel and an announced crowd of 19,218 that included a boisterous collection of Blackhawks fans.
But as with so many previous postseason matchups between these teams, Chicago came out on top. It was the Blackhawks’ second consecutive shutout victory after dropping five of their past six and three in a row.
The Wild had an opportunity to tie the Blackhawks in the Central standings with a win but instead will embark on a four-game road trip (Boston, Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia) sitting in last place in the division with 12 points and a 5-5-2 record.
“It’s disappointing, the whole homestand,” Staal said. “We’re expecting better out of ourselves. To me (to come) out of this 3-3, we’re disappointed with that. We’ve got a big challenge on the road. (We’ve) got to regroup as best we can to be better in some tough buildings and be excited for the challenge because it’s going to be up to us to make this better and to climb the hill.”
The Wild’s homestand followed a definite pattern.
There were two Tuesday losses – 1-0 to Vancouver and 2-1 to Winnipeg – in which the Wild played some of their worst hockey. There were two bounce back performances on Thursdays, a 6-4 victory over the Islanders and a 6-3 win over Montreal. And then there were the past two Saturdays in which the Wild beat Pittsburgh 2-1 and then lost to the Blackhawks.
“It’s a good question,” Dubnyk said when asked why the Wild have failed to get any real traction. “There have definitely been a couple of games where I don’t think we were ready to go from the start of the game and I think we addressed that. I think we’ve picked our game (up), we’ve picked our level of play up recently.
“But we know as well as anybody that you have to do it every single game and you can’t take one game off a week, or every couple of weeks. There’s just no way that you are going to win in this league by taking any nights off. Not saying that tonight was a night off at all. There just have been a few too many of those for us, but we know that and we’re going to continue to build.”
Added Staal: “It’s tough to put a finger on it (in the) immediate aftermath of the game. Just the rhythm and what makes us successful, I don’t think we’ve been doing it consistently enough. We have at times but I think overall, for 60 minutes each game, it hasn’t been done consistently enough. We’ve got to find a way to be better individually and then collectively as a group.”
One thing the Wild must do is snap out of a power-play funk. Minnesota was 1-for-22 in the six games at Xcel Energy Center with the man advantage, including 0-for-2 on Saturday.
Boudreau grew frustrated with his team early this season, but did his best to not show any anger after the brutal loss to the Canucks nearly two weeks. Boudreau was again very measured with his comments on Saturday.
“It’s just disappointing to lose,” he said when asked about the homestand. “The other games to me are forgotten, so I’m not looking at it as a homestand. I’m looking at it as we lost tonight.”
Boudreau went on to point out that six of the Wild’s seven defeats have come by one goal and in situations where the score has been tied in the last 10 minutes.
“I don’t think we’re trying to find ourselves, we’ve just got to do what we’re supposed to be doing,” Boudreau said. “We could have won 11 out of those 12 games and everybody would be saying, ‘Geez, you’re a super team.’ But it’s not, it hasn’t gone our way right now. We’ll get back to the drawing board and we’ll put a good road trip together and things will be good again.”