The locker room was silent and crestfallen — a common postgame environment lately for the imploding Wild.
But this time, it was different. Stunned players sat with blank “What just happened?” looks after the Wild, in desperate need of a victory, somehow blew a three-goal lead at home Sunday night to a New York Islanders team that is near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, played the night before and deployed its backup goalie.
Wild players were booed off the ice by many of the announced 18,851 irritated spectators after the 5-4 loss. The besieged coach had a hard time finding words. The scrutinized captain didn’t know what to say either.
“There’s no explanations,” said Mikko Koivu, who assisted on goals by Jonas Brodin and Nino Niederreiter on back-to-back, first-line shifts to give the Wild a 3-0 lead only 2 minutes, 59 seconds into the second period. “It just can’t happen. If you ask what happened, I really don’t know right now. I don’t want to say things that I don’t mean.”
Coach Mike Yeo, whose seat has to be scalding with this season disintegrating, said: “I’ve been thinking about it since the game ended and I can’t find the word to describe the feeling right now. … Believe me, it’s our job to find explanations, but holy cow, that’s a tough one to find an explanation for. There’s no reason, no excuse for what happened.”
Bloomington’s Kyle Okposo, one of three former Gophers in the Islanders lineup, scored two third-period goals, including the winner past Josh Harding 27 seconds after Justin Fontaine tied the score at 4-4.
Despite its first three-goal lead since Nov. 5, the Wild coughed up such a margin at home for the first time since Jan. 31, 2012. The Islanders rallied to win from a three-goal deficit for the first time in almost 20 years.
The Wild has now lost five in a row, given up 24 goals in that span and has picked up only 11 points out of the last 34 available to fall to 10th in the Western Conference.
“It’s hard to find the words for this because this is beyond disturbing,” Yeo said. “We have to find a way to win that game.”
Following Niederreiter’s goal against his old team, the Wild had four shots in the final 17 minutes of the second period. John Tavares scored to cut New York’s deficit to 3-1, but the turning point came on a goal by former Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck.
After killing off Mikael Granlund’s minor, Wild penalty killers Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon got trapped in the defensive zone for a minute with Granlund.
Veilleux was all over the ice, literally, going down to block shots or trying to clear the zone. Finally, after getting the puck in the slot, Veilleux froze. Instead of icing it and allowing Yeo to call time, Veilleux coughed it up.
With all five defenders gassed and running around, Clutterbuck deflected Thomas Hickey’s shot with 62 seconds left in the second.
“We couldn’t get it out, and that’s what happens,” Mitchell said. “You start running around, I was probably screening Hards on the shot and we’re scrambling and exhausted and it’s in the back of your net.”
Yeo said the Wild “stopped playing” after the goal, and Hickey tied the score early in the third. Less than six minutes later, Okposo blew a shot by Harding from the top of the right circle for a 4-3 lead.
Fontaine scored the tying goal past Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin 1:32 later, but with 5:48 left and the fans still celebrating that goal, Okposo buried Thomas Vanek’s rebound for a 5-4 New York lead the next shift.
“In a game with little things that add up to make the difference, we’re not coming even close right now,” Yeo said.
It will be interesting to see how the Wild reacts to such a devastating loss Monday.
“Sitting here sulking about it is not going to do ourselves any favors,” center Kyle Brodziak said. “It’s a really tough one to take, but it makes [Monday] that much more important.”