It’s felt like the kind of rut that can derail a season.
Not only is the Wild winless in seven of its past eight games, but the losses keep getting more devastating.
After spunky comeback bids fell short and a takedown by the floundering Edmonton Oilers, the team has now flamed out twice out by botching multigoal leads — a blow to a group’s psyche that can be tough to shake.
But as grim as this 1-4-3 slide has looked, it hasn’t removed the Wild from playoff contention. Actually, after crumbling 5-4 in overtime to the Devils on Friday, it was still in the second wild-card spot.
“There’s other teams below us that have been stuck, too, in the same kind of fog that we’re in, and we’re lucky,” winger Marcus Foligno said.
This is the fortuitous reality of all the dillydallying in the Western Conference, and while the Wild hasn’t been backed into make-or-break territory yet, it’s getting closer — a looming wakeup call that raises the importance of its next challenge Sunday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center against the surging St. Louis Blues.
“I just hope we realize it now,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “[Sunday’s game] is a huge test as far as that goes, where they see where we are.”
St. Louis is one of only two teams that have made the Wild pay for its slump, leapfrogging it and the Dallas Stars — who also jumped the Wild — to grab the third seed in the Central Division amid a tremendous turnaround that saw the Blues transform from a reeling bottom-feeder to a recent juggernaut courtesy the nine-game win streak they’ll tote into St. Paul.
The Wild won the previous two meetings this season, looking outright dominant at times, but the Blues aren’t the only ones whose circumstances have changed since November.
Who will start in goal for the Wild is unclear. Boudreau didn’t specify Saturday after announcing Friday night the assignment would be up for debate on the heels of a rough showing by No. 1 Devan Dubnyk against New Jersey — a sticky crossroads to be at this late in the season.
“There’s a whole lot of different things that we look at here that I’m looking at,” Boudreau said. “We’ll see what transpires.”
Dubnyk surrendered five goals for the second straight outing, including four consecutive by the Devils after the Wild went up 4-1. The game-winner came after Dubnyk’s pass off the boards was intercepted.
“We’ll see what happens,” Dubnyk said Saturday. “I plan to be there every game. I’ll continue to do that.”
Like he does after every start, Dubnyk rehashed each goal he allowed to figure out what he could have done differently. He was disappointed with the tying goal late in the third that slid under his pad and labeled the overtime tally a mistake.
“If I get rid of those two plays, I’m pretty happy with that game,” Dubnyk said. “… It stings because you feel like you let the guys down when they played a really good game start to finish. It’s not a good feeling.”
That the contest even evolved to overtime points to another issue, and that’s the Wild’s inability to finish off opponents when it’s in control.
This is where it can look like the team isn’t playing desperately enough. It is perhaps a correlation to how its situation in the standings hasn’t become dire, but players maintain they sense the urgency required of a playoff push.
“Inside this room we feel the pressure,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “We put pressure on ourselves to perform, and we get paid to win games and we have to do that.”
And if the Wild doesn’t, it’ll have to worry about more than just the competition. The number of opportunities left will also be a factor.
“We gotta start putting wins together, making a streak of our own,” Foligno said. “The time is definitely now.”