Cough. Cough. Cough.
That may be the sound of the Wild choking its season away.
The Wild never does things the easy way. So it was almost predictable that with a chance to clinch its first playoff berth in five years in front of the hometown fans, the Wild found a way against one of the supposed worst teams in hockey to get booed after 20 minutes, 40 minutes … a timeout … when the attendance was announced … and the final buzzer of a humiliating 6-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
“It was one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played in and obviously one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever been in,” veteran Matt Cullen said. “Bottom line, we got spanked in a game we absolutely needed to win.”
In a month where the term “must-win” has been overused, the Wild might face just that Saturday in Denver. If the Wild loses in regulation to the Colorado Avalanche in the regular-season finale, then Todd Richards, Marian Gaborik and the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets can get into the playoffs by earning a point against the Nashville Predators.
For a team that was leading the Northwest Division on March 30 after winning eight of nine games, the Wild’s 4-9-1 April meltdown has it on the brink of disaster.
“We have a Game 7 [Saturday],” Cullen said. “This is where you show what you’re made of, this is what careers are made on and these are opportunities that you don’t get very often. ... It’s a Game 7 to get to the playoffs.”
One more loss though and there could very well be organizational shakeup, starting with coach Mike Yeo.
How bad did things get after the Wild gave up six goals on the first 11 shots?
A sickened Craig Leipold, the Wild owner, left his center-ice suite and watched much of the third period from General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s press-box booth.
This is not a normal occurrence. Leipold, who has one of the NHL’s highest payrolls and doled out $196 million in long-term contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, could be seen pacing and shaking his head in disgust. Fletcher, incidentally, didn’t appear to be in the booth.
“It’s not the way obviously that we wanted this to play out,” Yeo said. “I just want the focus on [Saturday]. We can talk about this one until we’re blue in the face. I don’t think it’s going to do us much good to do that.”
The Oilers, who had won once in its previous 20 visits to St. Paul, had lost nine of their previous 10 games, scoring 13 goals. But they struck three times in the first, stunning a crowd ready to party.
That party turned into a near-riot in the second when angry fans began mocking the Wild any time a save was made (even by Josh Harding, playing for the first time since complications with multiple sclerosis arose 10 weeks ago), a shot was taken or the public address announcer let it be known the period was mercifully nearing a conclusion.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what happened. They capitalized on every opportunity that they had,” said Kyle Brodziak, his team blown out despite outshooting Edmonton 39-17.
Niklas Backstrom gave up three goals on five shots and was replaced by Harding with the Wild trailing 3-0. Backstrom was 17-0 all-time at home against Edmonton.
Backstrom will start in Denver: “I’ve got total confidence in Backy to play that game. I’ve got total confidence in our group to play that game,” Yeo said. “This one hurts. I’ve seen this group respond enough, I’ve seen our leadership enough to still feel confident.”
Added Brodziak, “You just forget about this. [Saturday’s] a new day. We’re fighting for our lives now.”