Before the Wild's game against Calgary on Sunday, coach Mike Yeo spoke about the tension that can grip a team at this time of year. With the pressure running high to make the playoffs, he said, players must remain upbeat and excited, even under trying circumstances.
The Wild has been giving itself plenty of practice in that department lately, with a 4-1 loss to the Flames continuing a troubling trend. Though it outplayed Calgary throughout the first two periods at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild managed only one goal — from Zach Parise, just before the first intermission — and lost a chance to tighten its hold on a playoff berth. The loss dropped the Wild to 0-4-1 in its past five home games.
Calgary goaltender Joey MacDonald stopped 34 shots, and Mark Cundari scored his first NHL goal to give the Flames a first-period lead. Mikael Backlund broke a 1-1 tie with the winning goal at 8 minutes, 50 seconds of the second period.
The Wild outshot the Flames 35-24 but scrambled in the third period, with mistakes that contributed to its eighth loss in the past 13 games. During the five-game winless streak at home, it has scored only four goals.
"I'm getting kind of tired trying to search for positives,'' a frustrated Parise said. "We've got to win games. Now we can't afford mistakes, the way things are shaking out right now.''
The Wild remained in seventh place in the Western Conference, but eighth-place Columbus won Sunday, matching Minnesota with 51 points. The Wild has a game in hand on the Blue Jackets. Ninth-place Detroit and 10th-place Dallas are three points back.
Yeo liked what he saw in the first two periods, as the Wild outshot Calgary 25-12 and created some good scoring chances that were quashed by MacDonald. He was disappointed, though, at the Wild's inability to sustain its preferred style of play in the final period. It failed to get pucks behind the Flames defense and committed turnovers that ruined its chances at a rally.
The Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line was buzzing much of the game, with Parise racking up nine shots on goal in 22 minutes of ice time and Koivu putting six on net. They combined for the Wild's only goal, as Parise swept across the crease to score at 18:44 of the first on a play created by Koivu and Coyle's vision and persistence.
But the Wild failed to score on three power plays, all of which came in the first half of the game. That extended another pattern the team would like to break. The Wild has scored only once on its past 16 power-play chances at home; this season, it has converted on 11 of 80 home power-play opportunities, ranking 27th in the NHL.
"We were chasing all night, and that makes it tougher,'' Yeo said. "In the third period, we weren't consistently coming out and sustaining pressure and putting them on their heels. Unfortunately, I think we made it a little bit easy for them.''
Yeo said he hopes the Wild relishes the challenge it faces. As tense as the situation may seem, he said, it beats playing out a string of meaningless games as other teams fight for playoff berths. "You want to play in games when the intensity is up and everything is magnified,'' he said. "That's what being a competitor is all about.''
The Wild has ensured it will play more games under that kind of pressure, leading Kyle Brodziak to focus on another of his coach's instructions: to stay positive. "We've put ourselves in a tough spot,'' Brodziak said. "But we're still in the driver's seat. It's still ours right now. And we've got to keep it.''