SAN JOSE, CALIF. – The Wild has played itself out of the top-8 in the Western Conference for the first time since Nov. 1.
It has its play outside of Minnesota to blame.
The Wild, a completely different team on the road compared to at home, was en route to its fifth consecutive road loss mere minutes into Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks.
The problems prior to Thursday have been a lack of execution, turnovers and soft plays in the offensive zone.
Thursday a new wrinkle occurred. The Wild paraded to the penalty box and the Sharks capitalized with three power-play goals on seven chances to send the Wild off into the chilly North California night reeling after a 3-1 loss at the Shark Tank.
“It must be nice to draw penalties like that,” coach Mike Yeo said, sarcastically, “when the other team goes stick on puck and you kind of hold your head.”
Yeo was referring to Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart, who whipped his head back like he was shot when checked by Justin Fontaine in the first period. Yeo felt replays showed Fontaine’s stick was at Stuart’s waist.
“To me that’s embarrassing,” Yeo said. “I don’t know. I guess we’ve got to ask our players to embellish more.”
Joe Pavelski scored the first of his two power-play goals on the Fontaine minor. It was the eighth consecutive road game the Wild surrendered the first goal. The Wild took four penalties in the first 12:47 of the game, with the Sharks getting a 90-second 5-on-3 on back-to-back holding and tripping minors by Fontaine and Matt Cooke.
With four seconds left in Cooke’s minor, Tomas Hertl scored.
The shame of the night was, the Wild outplayed the Sharks at even-strength. Jason Pominville felt it was “night and day” compared to Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at Anaheim. The Wild outshot San Jose 26-20 at even-strength.
“Our guys battled hard tonight and we didn’t do enough,” Yeo said. “We were obviously in the box too much, we didn’t finish well enough, penalty kill. It doesn’t matter how many times they dive, we’ve got to make sure we kill them off -- or embellish, I shouldn’t say just dive, but there were things bigger picture I thought we were much better with.”
The back-breaker goal in the second came off indisputably a bad call by referee Marc Joannette.
Wild center Zenon Konopka was nailed for a double-minor high-stick even though his lumber didn’t come close to hitting defenseman Jason Demers. It was actually Sharks center Freddie Hamilton who clipped his teammate.
Yeo said the referee “just shrugged.”
“I told him it was not my stick. It’s their stick,” Konopka said. “I told him, ‘You’re making the wrong call. It wasn’t my stick.’ Of course they score on it.”
The Wild fell behind 3-0 on Pavelski’s second of the game. At that point, the Sharks were outshooting the Wild 26-12 with 18 of their shots coming on six power plays.
“I think they’ve drawn the most penalties in the league and they showed it tonight,” Pominville said.
The Wild, which has been outscored 14-4 and trailed 2-0 in each game during its 0-4-1 road slide, fell to 5-8-3 on the road and dropped to ninth in the West. It’s tied with Phoenix and Vancouver with 41 points, but the Coyotes have played three fewer games and the Canucks one fewer.
The Wild fell to 1-8 in its past nine visits to San Jose and 2-11-1 in its past 14. Niklas Backstrom fell to 1-9-1 all-time in San Jose.
Thursday morning, Yeo said it was time for somebody on the second line to “step up” and “grab that opportunity.”
Since Mikael Granlund’s concussion nine games ago, the Wild’s struggling second line has consisted of snakebit Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle and a series of wingers, from Dany Heatley to Pominville to Jason Zucker to, on Thursday, Fontaine.
Yeo scratched Zucker one game after calling him up and elevate Fontaine, who has no goals since Nov. 9, from the fourth line.
With the Wild actually off to a good start, Fontaine’s high-sticking minor led to Pavelski giving the Sharks a 1-0 lead 5:54 into the game. His shot from atop the left circle sailed by Backstrom through Patrick Marleau’s screen.
After the Wild killed off a Ryan Suter interference penalty, Fontaine took an offensive-zone holding penalty. Thirty seconds later, Cooke was tagged for tripping Joe Thornton.
That gave the Sharks a 90-second 5-on-3. The killed the two-man advantage, but with four seconds left in Cooke’s minor, Jonas Brodin’s giveaway resulted in Hertl’s power-play goal for a 2-0 San Jose lead.
To put the four power plays in 12:47 in perspective, the Wild has drawn three or fewer power plays in 14 of the past 15 games. The Sharks got seven power plays in the game; the most the Wild’s gotten this season is six, and that was once four games into the year.
The Wild drew two power plays on this night but couldn’t get one by Antti Niemi. During one crazy sequence late in the second period, the Wild pinned the Sharks in their zone for what seemed like an infinite stretch.
But it was aggravating to watch. Despite the Sharks breaking two sticks, despite the Sharks constantly failing to clear the zone, the Wild barely made Niemi make a save. It played on the perimeter, it fired pucks wide, it kept putting passes in teammate’s skates (a constant sight in this game).
By the time the Wild players got to the bench, Suter logged a 3:07 shift and Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Pominville and Jared Spurgeon all logged 2 ½-minute shifts.
“We make it hard on ourselves, but when you get into a hole like we did, it makes it tougher,” Yeo said.
Brodin scored his sixth goal with 7:24 left, but the Wild, outshot 39-29, couldn’t get any closer.
The Wild wraps up its three-game road trip Saturday at Colorado.
“We put ourselves in this position and now we have to get ourselves out. We’ll be fine,” Konopka said.