What a difference 14 days makes.
Exactly two weeks ago, the Wild waltzed into Washington as the top team in the Western Conference for a best-on-best battle against the East-leading Capitals.
When the Wild and Capitals face off Tuesday night in St. Paul, the Wild will have accumulated three out of 16 points since. The NHL-leading Caps have snatched 11 of 12 points since.
Basically, when it comes to the Wild and its monthlong plunge, Eric Staal has been on fire and almost everybody else has not.
While there’s no denying the Wild’s game began to show signs of cracking leading into the team’s late February bye, the about-face in virtually every team statistic since the calendar flipped to March has been astronomical and explains why the team likely ruined its chance of winning its first Central Division title.
From the season opener through Feb. 28, the Wild ranked second in the NHL in goals per game (3.38), third in goals-against (2.38), first in shooting percentage (. 122) and second in save percentage (. 924).
From March 1 to now, the Wild ranks 25th in goals per game (2.21), 26th in goals-against average (3.07) and … the biggies — 29th in shooting percentage (. 067) and 28th in save percentage (. 886).
Combine completely dried-up shooters with leaky goaltending, and winning becomes problematic.
Devan Dubnyk, once leading the NHL in victories, goals-against average and save percentage, is 5-8-1 in March with a 2.83 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. Darcy Kuemper was pulled in two of three starts since Feb. 28 and gave up four second-period goals in Saturday’s loss to lowly Vancouver.
Staal has scored nine goals since March 5, tied for the second most in the NHL in that span. Next closest on the Wild in March is Mikael Granlund with four with Charlie Coyle, Matt Dumba and Zach Parise scoring three times each.
But expand out the team-wide slumps broader, and the numbers are striking for a team that has scored four or more goals in a game 20 times this season.
Up front, some examples: Nino Niederreiter has scored no goals in the past 15 games and one in the past 20. Mikko Koivu has scored two in the past 24 games, Jason Pominville one in the past 20, Jason Zucker one in the past 14, Erik Haula one in the past 18, Parise two in the past 12 and Coyle four in the past 37.
Martin Hanzal has scored one goal in 13 games with the Wild.
On the back end, Ryan Suter has scored once in the past 28 games, Jared Spurgeon once in the past 22 games, Marco Scandella twice in the past 40 games and Jonas Brodin none in the past 31.
“A lot of guys have gone dry,” coach Bruce Boudreau said after a 3-2 overtime loss in Detroit on Sunday where the Wild had four scoring chances in the final minute of regulation and overtime. “We had a couple guys that are pretty dry that had some chances [Sunday], and one of these days they’re going to start going in.
“We all hope it’s soon.”
Still, the Wild hopes Sunday’s game in Detroit was the start to better consistency. The team competed harder than many recent games and certainly defended better, giving up 19 shots — three in the third period.
“It’s a good preparation for what we have to do to be successful,” Boudreau said. “That was an awful lot more like we played the first half of the year in giving up little when we were in trouble, getting it deep when we were in trouble, getting it out and not playing a kind of game that’s sort of back and forth.
“It’s not the way we’re going to win.”
Of course, skeptics will say when the Wild was winning, it was playing fast, up and down, high-scoring hockey, something that has particularly slowed down since the Feb. 26 Hanzal/Ryan White acquisitions.
But with game’s tightening throughout the NHL, Staal said Sunday’s game resembled what the Wild should anticipate from now on.
“We have to get used to it and we should be,” he said. “We’ve got good players in here that know how to play defense. It’s a better game than we’ve had the last few.
“Looking big picture, this is the type of game we need to keep playing. We need to grab a hold of that and understand that. This is the type of hockey it’s going to be the rest of the way and playoff time. Be comfortable in these kind of matches.”
Plain and simple, Dubnyk said, the Wild needs to “forget about what’s gone on the last couple of weeks here and just play our game. It’s not going to be perfect every night, but if we work and work and get pucks deep and stick to the identity that we’ve created this year, that’s what we need to do to build toward playoffs.”