Even by Minnesota standards, the Wild is in the midst of one epic free-fall.
For nearly three months, the Wild could do no wrong, playing consistent hockey, never even losing two games in a row.
But while the Chicago Blackhawks have taken their game to a new level, so has the Wild — only in stumbling, bumbling fashion while seeing its once nine-point lead in the Western Conference and Central Division on Feb. 18 turn into a five-point deficit on March 18.
The Wild’s March Freeze continued Saturday night when the New York Rangers, the best road team in the NHL yet playing for the second time in 24 hours, still beat the Wild 3-2 in front of 19,337 fans — the season’s largest announced crowd at Xcel Energy Center.
The loss was the Wild’s seventh in nine games and, for the first time this season, fourth in a row.
“This is a tough stretch for us right now,” said veteran Eric Staal, whose early goal gave the Wild a 1-0 lead for only the third time in 12 games. “No one’s going to help us out, but us. We’ve got to make sure that we come to play [Sunday in Winnipeg] … and get a good vibe going again.”
The Wild, which has led for 15 minutes, 41 seconds in the past six games (420 minutes), led for only 181 seconds Saturday.
After Staal’s goal, the Wild gave up multiple shorthanded chances and required Devan Dubnyk to make an acrobatic glove save to rob Jesper Fast. The Wild survived, but one faceoff loss later, former Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei one-timed the tying goal.
In the second period, the Wild then reverted to the Wild of yesteryear — a bunch of players who can’t finish odd-man rushes and hit wide-open nets.
There was no better example than the freshly created Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line.
Haula led two 2-on-1’s, Niederreiter one. They scored zero goals.
The best chance came when Haula gift-wrapped a pass for Coyle. All he needed to do was hit a gaping net from a few feet away. Instead, Coyle, who has one non-empty-net goal in 32 games since Jan. 7, shanked it.
“We’ve got to execute. That’s what it comes down to, putting pucks in the back of the net,” Coyle said.
Just 75 seconds after Coyle’s miss, Oscar Lindberg gave New York a 2-1 lead when he was lost a few feet in front of Dubnyk. The goal came after Rangers goalie Antti Raanta, 11-2 this season on the road, denied Chris Stewart from the goal mouth twice.
With Martin Hanzal covering for a pinching Jared Spurgeon, Spurgeon hustled 150 feet to get back. Coach Bruce Boudreau said Ryan Suter should have defended the net.
“When things aren’t going good, that’s what happens,” Boudreau said. “You get no puck luck. You get no bounces. Then they come down the ice and they score on their first chance.”
Boudreau is fed up with Coyle’s slump, but “the only thing you can do is keep putting him out there ’cause you’re going to need him. You need him to hopefully break out, and you see signs of it and it doesn’t happen.”
The Wild held the Blueshirts to five shots in the first 16:30 of the second. But Haula and Niederreiter coughed up two pucks, Dubnyk bailed them out, but that momentum shift filtered into the next period and Jimmy Vesey made it 3-1 on the Rangers’ sixth shot in a 64-second span.
That proved big because early in the third, Matt Dumba scored a power-play goal. The Wild couldn’t beat Raanta again.
“When things aren’t going your way, it’s just, I don’t know … when it rains, it pours, I guess,” Haula said.
Boudreau called the Wild’s plethora of defensive-zone turnovers “ridiculous,” and he wants his players, all pressing and trying to do too much, to simplify.
“It’s going to be a battle of mental toughness,” Boudreau said. “When you get out of it, you’re going to be a better team and better players for it.”
But, as Staal said, “We can talk about it a lot, but we’re going to have to go out as a group and do it.”