Until the third period tonight in Tampa when the Wild’s backs were against the proverbial wall down 3-0 and the Lightning was down two key centermen – eventually three -- the Wild played slow hockey.
Slow skating, slow reacting, slow to pucks. And the Wild, which could barely muster a scoring chance or complete a pass in the first two periods, paid with a 4-1 loss to a desperate opponent fighting to make the playoffs in the East.
The result: the Wild’s first losing streak since three-plus months and its first losing streak in regulation in four months.
Bigtime character win for the Lightning, which lost Vladislav Namestnikov, Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette to serious-looking lower-body injuries. Big blow because remember the Lightning recently traded centermen Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula and is still waiting to get Steven Stamkos back from a knee injury.
The NHL was reviewing the Nino Niederreiter knee-on-knee with Johnson to determine if it was incidental or warrants discipline. I don’t think he intended to clip knees with him, but when he went in for a check, he led with the knee, so we’ll see how the league views it.
The Wild is 3-3 since the Martin Hanzal and Ryan White trade and has scored five goals in its past four games, and three of those were an empty-netter and two goals that only evaded shutouts.
Coach Bruce Boudreau admitted he’s concerned and said he feels it’s just a coincidence that this has come since the Hanzal/White pickups.
But there’s little doubt Boudreau is scrambling the lines nightly – and in-game – to assimilate the two new players and jumpstart Charlie Coyle, who has no points in 10 games and frankly is getting close to becoming a healthy scratch, I’d bet.
Jordan Schroeder is champing at the bit to get back in and there’s no doubt the Wild needs some speed.
Since the Hanzal/White trade, Erik Haula’s assumed a fourth-line center role, the third line is in a state of flux, Coyle and Niederreiter keep bouncing around and Zach Parise is playing right wing.
Of the constant line changes, Parise said, “You'd wish that right now we'd be able to find some consistency with that, and build a little familiarity right now. But, that's not happening. So we've got to do the best that we can with whatever's on the board, and try to make it work.”
Boudreau said, “I’m dying to get consistent lines. I really, believe it or not, dislike changing them, but some guys are not playing as well as they should and sometimes that means they don’t deserve to play up in the position that they’re playing. We’ll just have to regroup and see what we do [against Florida].”
The guy not playing well he’s referring to has to be Coyle.
The trade has been made. There’s nothing the Wild can do about that now, so Boudreau has no choice but to find these guys spots. But Hanzal’s skating seems to slow things down, he’s not winning draws for a guy that won 56 percent of them when he arrived and frankly if you’re not going to score, you can’t be completely out of sorts like he was – with his linemates and fellow defenders – the way he was on the Victor Hedman goal to make it 2-0 tonight.
That goal is beyond belief to watch. Moments before Hedman scored, the Wild let Hedman skate from the top of the offensive zone between the circles to shoot. Hedman was so stunned nobody challenged him, he changed his mind three different times when to pull the trigger.
Then, he scores anyway!
The Wild pushed late in the first, but the Lightning packed it in and the Wild couldn’t at least cut the deficit in half. That would have been huge and had to be dejecting they couldn’t. Then, Devan Dubnyk gave up a bad goal to Andrej Sustr, and the Wild’s game disintegrated until a third-period push.
“I just don't think our first two periods, … our puck movement wasn't good enough,” Parise said. “They do a good job in the neutral zone. Their D are in your face a lot. But our puck movement wasn't good enough to get through the neutral zone, to make plays, to get possession. So, when you're fighting for possession, again, you're not going to score a lot of goals. I feel like we tried to do a lot of stretch passes, they broke it up, and they came right back in our zone.”
On the Sustr goal, Dubnyk said, “Third one's mine. It took a weird roll, I went to turn it to the corner, where it was going, it took a weird turn and missed my stick and hit my pad and it went through. (I was) surprised it went through. I was down, but that's obviously a goal that I don't want to give up. So, I tried pretty hard all year to not give up goals like that, and it's been okay. So it's my job to make sure that those are in a limited fashion.”
Asked if he’s concerned about the way the Wild’s playing, Dubnyk said, “I wouldn't say worried about it. We need to get it going, and everybody in here knows that. Everybody in here also knows that we're more than capable of getting it going. We've had a pretty good season as far as not a ton of adversity, or things have gone our way pretty well the entire year. There's just going to be stretches and times in a season where things aren't going to be perfect, and we just have to work through it. We know we've got the bodies in here, and the talent, and skill to do it. And I've got no question that we will.”
The Wild’s 16-4-2 in games following a loss, seeing its 10-game winning streak in that situation snapped tonight.
Boudreau said it’s hard to know how to handle this when you haven’t been through it before all season.
“After 65 games, this is our first really little bit of adversity that we’ve seen, so it’s going to be interesting to see how we handle it on the rest of this trip.”
Talk to you Friday from Sunrise.