The puck escaped from a tangle of bodies, sliding through the slot and across the front of the net, and Wild winger Jason Zucker homed in on it.
He realized he couldn’t reach the puck on his forehand but after his backhand went sailing through the crease instead of into a wide-open net with Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer caught out of position, Zucker second-guessed himself.
“Maybe I could have,” he said.
Once he relived the replay, Zucker confirmed his gut reaction — that he took the only shot available.
And while it was one of the most egregious close calls of the night, it wasn’t the only one.
A 3-1 loss to Colorado on Tuesday in front of an announced 18,785 at Xcel Energy Center was littered with them, a setback that had repercussions in front of and behind the team in the standings after it ended a season-long five-game homestand 1-3-1.
Not only did the Wild fail to leapfrog the Coyotes and jump back into the second wild card position in the Western Conference, but Colorado is now only a point back of the Wild — which is still a point shy of Arizona and has played one more game than both teams surrounding it.
“At this point in the season, effort is not enough,” center Eric Fehr said. “We need to find ways to win games, and we’re trying but so is the other team. We have to find a way to score goals. That’s what it comes down to. Defensively, we’ve been pretty tight. But you’re not going to win in this league scoring one or zero goals.”
Grubauer was steady — and fortuitous, as evidenced by Zucker’s near-goal — during a 36-save effort. Add in 35 saves by his counterpart Devan Dubnyk, and this was very much a competitive Central Division battle.
But the difference was execution, and that’s where the Avalanche had the edge.
“It’s getting to be that time of the year when you have opportunities, you’ve got to put them in,” Wild winger Zach Parise said.
Perhaps establishing a lead instead of playing catch-up would help the Wild.
Colorado opened the scoring 10 minutes, 31 seconds into the first on a blistering slapshot from defenseman Tyson Barrie.
The Wild evened it 1:52 into the second on a power play deflection by Parise, the unit’s lone goal in three opportunities, but the Wild couldn’t cash in on that momentum.
Soon after, Avalanche winger Colin Wilson roofed the puck over Dubnyk off a wraparound amid a scrum in front that included center Carl Soderberg hanging over Dubnyk. The Wild challenged for goalie interference, and the goal was quickly reversed for the team’s fifth successful challenge in 10 tries.
But minutes later, the Avalanche converted again, and this time it counted. Colorado center Tyson Jost got behind the Wild defense and lifted a rising backhander by Dubnyk at 13:04.
After that, the Wild had plenty of chances to rally — with Zucker the poster boy for the misses.
He had another backhander hit Grubauer up high, and one other shot before the second ended trickled through the crease after Grubauer caught a piece of it.
“If you want to win, those have to go in,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “And they get the one opportunity on a breakaway, and they put it in. It’s very frustrating.”
Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole added an empty-netter with 1:54 remaining.
“We can’t [get frustrated],” Parise said. “If we do that, we might as well throw the season away.”