Ninety minutes before Friday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, Zach Parise sat on the Wild bench with headphones in his ears and a stick held horizontally across his chest.
Parise does this mental visualization before every game he plays.
It was the first indication that the Wild winger, expected to miss two to three weeks with a bum foot, planned to return after one game off.
But even Parise’s intrepid return to the lineup and the largest crowd of the season — 19,081 fans — at Xcel Energy Center couldn’t kick the Wild out of its slump.
The Wild, a shell of the 13-4-4 team it was just 13 days ago, couldn’t overcome a sixth consecutive sleepy start, a wasted five-minute power play and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (circa 2003) as the Avalanche took the front end of a back-to-back, home-and-home series, 3-1.
“We played a soft hockey game,” Parise said, bristling. “We cheat. We turn the puck over … We turn away from everybody. We make it pretty easy for them, and that slows us down. We can’t get any speed generated because we keep backchecking.”
The Wild’s 7-0-1 start this month is a distant memory. The Wild (15-8-4), sinking to the precipice of the top-eight Western Conference bubble, has lost three in a row and four of six. It has been scored on first in six consecutive games. It has been outshot 73-32 in the past six first periods.
Parise said the skid won’t stop until the Wild “stop cheating,” saying, “We’re just making not intelligent plays. We turn away from guys on the forecheck, in the neutral zone we turn away from people, letting them skate up through us when we turn it over.”
For the third consecutive game, the Wild needed a 2-0 deficit to create any sense of urgency. This 2-0 deficit, delivered by Nathan MacKinnon’s redirection 4 minutes, 34 seconds into the second, came after the Wild siphoned every ounce of energy in the arena that was created by drawing a five-minute power play.
Cody McLeod, who has agitated the Wild for five-plus seasons, was given a boarding major and game misconduct late in the first period for riding defenseman Jonas Brodin face-first into the boards in front of the Avalanche bench. Brodin left the game but returned to start the second.
The Wild’s power play cradled both periods, and it managed one shot.
If it wasn’t for Josh Harding robbing John Mitchell on a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush, the Avs would have made it 2-0 earlier.
“Right now we look slow and deliberate with everything we do, with the way we bring the puck up ice, to the way we play inside the zone,” coach Mike Yeo said of the Wild’s 3-for-29 power play the past 10 games. “We get zone time and we can be in there for a minute and not get a shot. We just kind of move it around slowly. We don’t have an attack mentality right now. We have to change that.”
Former Gopher Erik Haula, making his NHL debut, and Nino Niederreiter set up Dany Heatley’s fourth goal in six games with 4:58 left in the second, but Giguere — the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner with Anaheim who gave up one goal to the Wild in the Western Conference finals — made 16 of his 27 saves in the third.
“We played the right way in the last period and we didn’t show up for the first two,” Niederreiter said. “It’s killing us right now.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter concurred, saying: “We’ve had slow starts, and there’s no reason for it. When you’re winning, you tend to forget about the little things lately. We’ve had success and sometimes when you have success you forget about the details of the game.”