The Wild encapsulated its entire season in one season-ending 5-4 loss to the Dallas Stars.
After a game Nino Niederreiter called “nuts” … after a third period that Charlie Coyle called “insane” … after the term “game of inches” needed to be “game of millimeters” because that’s how close the Wild came to forcing overtime in the waning seconds … the Stars skated into the second round, the Wild ripped off its equipment in despair and the largest crowd to see a game at Xcel Energy Center headed for the exits emotionally exhausted.
“We got close, but it was not enough,” captain Mikko Koivu said after the Game 6 defeat. “That’s the story of the season.”
The only thing that would have made Sunday’s first two periods more painful for many of the announced 19,310 fans was if the Stars had emerged in North Stars throwback jerseys.
After raising expectations with a victory in an overtime thriller in Game 5, the Wild returned home and put forth a shockingly poor effort the first 40 minutes. It gave up three first-period goals, saw that deficit turn into 4-0 and registered eight total shots in 33 minutes.
“We’re down 4-0, and the fans start booing us,” Niederreiter said. “We just knew we had to leave it all out there.”
That uncanny knack of getting fans excited during this up-and-down season came to life in the final period of the season.
Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin scored the two fastest playoff goals in Wild history 16 seconds apart. With the deafening arena vibrating, Stars coach Lindy Ruff called timeout, and a fired-up Koivu marched up and down the bench smacking teammates on the back.
“Probably one of the most useless timeouts I’ve taken because they couldn’t hear a word I said anyway,” Ruff said.
Spurgeon cut the deficit to 4-3 with a power-play goal and a little less than 12 minutes to complete the comeback. But less than two minutes later — and on the ensuing shift after struggling Jason Zucker somehow didn’t bury a gift-wrapped puck goalie Kari Lehtonen put on his stick at the goalmouth — Devan Dubnyk was victimized by his nightly fluky goal.
Coyle lost a defensive-zone faceoff, and Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski’s shot hit Coyle and floated into the air. Dubnyk lost sight of the puck and looked toward the left wall. He heard yelling. The puck had landed in his skates, and as Coyle tried to dive in desperation, Dubnyk scrambled and put the puck into the goal himself.
Dubnyk felt “sick” that the latest bad bounce would become the winning and series-clinching goal.
Jason Pominville cut the deficit to 5-4 with 4:47 left, and with 33.9 seconds left, Niederreiter crashed the net and came within a whisker of scoring. The crossbar cam replay showed the puck leaning on the lower part of goalie Kari Lehtonen’s right pad over the goal line. The NHL ruled the puck had not completely crossed.
“I feel like we should still be playing,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “The way that third period ended, I thought, ‘Man, just one more minute …’ ”
“It was fun. It was a blast, but we didn’t get the job done,” Wild interim coach John Torchetti said.
“I thought the Wild played one heck of a series. There wasn’t any quit in them,” Ruff said.
The Wild, which entered the postseason with 87 points, saw its playoff experience end 10 swift days after it started.
It was a disappointing end to a disappointing season that, sure, included a fourth consecutive playoff berth but also included coach Mike Yeo losing his job, season-ending injuries to Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek and nine losses in the final 11 games.
The Wild knows it must become mentally tougher to avoid the frustrating streaks and annual midseason meltdowns that continue to suffocate this team. Coyle said the intensity and battle the Wild showed in the third period was “us,” but that occurs too inconsistently and seemingly when there’s no other choice.
“It was up and down for all of us,” Dubnyk said. “Every season’s different, and there just seemed to be long high stretches and long low stretches. We spoke to each other about that as a group about trying to avoid these low points. That’s going to have to be something for us to focus on next year.”
Added Torchetti: “We can’t be happy walking away, that’s for sure. We should be playing, and it makes it tough for the summer.”