WINNIPEG – There were gaffes with steep repercussions, a turnover that ended up on the stick of the most dangerous shooter on the ice and a breakdown that culminated in a point shot that turned from harmless to harsh once deflected.
Those sequences flipped a third-period lead for the Wild into a deflating 3-2 loss Wednesday to the Jets in Game 1 of their best-of-seven, first-round series, but the rest of the effort from a retooled blue line revealed a workable formula for taming a potent Winnipeg offense.
And while improvement is certainly required to cut back on costly errors, proof now exists that the Wild’s defense can contain the Jets — a reality that wasn’t guaranteed when Ryan Suter was sidelined with a right ankle fracture.
But what was harder to detect Wednesday was an attack from the Wild that suggested it had enough execution to deliver, a shortcoming that shifts the spotlight to the offensive zone for Game 2 Friday.
“We definitely have more to give,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “On top of that, we’re not just looking to survive here. We’re a very good hockey team, and we can do that same thing while adding more going the other way.”
Before winger Patrik Laine tied it 2-2 with his unstoppable-looking wind-up and then defenseman Joe Morrow completed Winnipeg’s comeback with a shot that clipped Wild winger Charlie Coyle’s stick before rolling five-hole on Dubnyk, the Wild’s defense was steady.
The middle of the ice wasn’t exposed, positioning was sound enough that few of the Jets’ looks were from quality areas, and turnovers were limited.
“They’re going to get their possession and their shots and their chances, and I think the most important thing is to make sure everyone’s under control,” Dubnyk said. “When I feel like things are under control back there, it makes my job a lot easier, and I certainly felt that way with how the guys were playing in front of me. That’s good to see from a young group that hasn’t been in this situation before.”
Jared Spurgeon was back in the mix, his first action since he suffered a right hamstring tear March 13, but it was the first playoff game for Nick Seeler and Carson Soucy — experience expected to make them better now that it’s been logged.
“I was just out of position on some plays that I made the wrong read,” Soucy said. “That could be due to nerves or not thinking fast enough. But I still think I can come away and have a better game [Friday].”
What could also set the blue line up for more success is less time defending.
The Wild put only 20 shots on net and another 27 were blocked or missed the net, while the Jets challenged Dubnyk 40 times and had another 42 impeded or go wide. Only four of those shots by the Wild belonged to the first line of center Eric Staal and wingers Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter. And the team had just one shot the rest of the game after winger Zach Parise’s goal 3 minutes, 58 seconds into the third put the Wild up 2-1.
“I think our line was a bit hesitant,” Zucker said. “I think we sat back a little bit more than we usually do. I don’t think we were very aggressive. It started with me. I don’t think on the forecheck I was very good.”
And the forecheck is key for the line because it’s how the unit can get defenses scrambling, disorder that generates more room to operate in the offensive zone.
“Maybe we were guilty too much feeling out at times instead of just being a little bit more aggressive,” Staal said. “When Zucks is skating and Nino is skating and we’re assertive on the forecheck and using our legs, we can create open ice and create chances and I don’t think we did enough of that.”
Perhaps that conservative approach stemmed from the hype of a series opener or the curiosity about how this team would acquit itself without Suter, possibilities Staal acknowledged.
But players should feel more prepared and less nervous after getting through the first test, and the defense certainly showed it can slow down the Jets.
Now it’s up to the offense to flash its potential.
“Your most offensive line has got to be as good as their best offensive line,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “There’s room for improvement.”