WINNIPEG – As threadbare as the Wild roster may be, coach Bruce Boudreau doesn’t believe that should have any impact on its ability to play effectively in its own zone. “No matter who’s in the lineup, you can play defense,” he said.
The question remained, though, whether the Wild would actually follow through with a better defensive effort Friday at Winnipeg. And the answer wasn’t enough to placate Boudreau, after his team again squandered a lead in a 4-3 loss at Bell MTS Place. While the Wild had its moments, a slow start, some blatant mistakes and another late-game lapse left Boudreau unsatisfied.
Playing for the first time in six days, the Wild spotted the Jets and their high-powered offense a 2-0 lead by leaving two players wide open for first-period goals. Chris Stewart, Mikko Koivu and Marcus Foligno scored consecutive goals to put the Wild ahead 3-2 with four minutes, 21 seconds left in the second period.
Winnipeg got the last word, as so many Wild opponents have done in this young season. The winner came from Plymouth native and former Gopher Blake Wheeler with 6:46 remaining after the Wild could not gain control of the puck in the neutral zone. That prompted Boudreau to suggest his team do some “soul-searching,” knowing points lost in October can loom large in April.
“[The Jets] got four, and that’s not as good as you want,” Boudreau said of a Wild defense that has given up fewer than four goals only once in five games. “Look at the end of the year, at [teams whose] goals-against average is three and over, and see where those guys end up. They’re never in the playoffs.
“It seems like we’re afraid to win. All five games, we’ve been tied or ahead with less than 10 minutes to go. When you’re that close in every game, and you come away with nothing, we’ve got to do some soul-searching.”
His players didn’t argue. The Wild spent much of its abundant practice time last week working to tighten a shaky defense, only to give up two goals in the first 9:49 and successfully kill only one of three penalties.
The second defensive pair, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, had a particularly rough night. They miscommunicated on the second Winnipeg goal, as both went to the same area and left Nikolaj Ehlers alone in front of the net. That goal came after sniper Patrik Laine scored from the left circle on a power play with no defenders nearby.
Wild center Eric Staal said his team took some time to get up to game speed because of the five-day gap between games. They found their legs late in the first period — propelled by the line of Stewart, Koivu and Jason Zucker — and closed fast, as Stewart shoveled a backhander over Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck with 53 seconds left before intermission.
“We got better and clawed our way back,” Staal said. “But it’s frustrating right now. We’ve got to find ways to raise our compete and just get the job done.”
The Koivu line struck again to tie the score in the second period, and Foligno’s redirection of a Mike Reilly shot on a power play put the Wild ahead 3-2. But Winnipeg tied it when Laine’s shot on a power play deflected off Koivu’s stick with 32.7 seconds left in the second period, and the Wild had no answer.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” Zucker said. “We can’t keep doing this. All these games matter.”