The shame of the Wild not securing that second point in Saturday’s shootout loss to Detroit was the awesomeness of Thomas Vanek’s “around the world” shootout goal becoming an afterthought.
The former Buffalo Sabres veteran guesstimates that half his 23 career shootout goals were with that move, when he circles the puck with his blade 360 degrees to goad the goaltender into dropping his glove. Usually that gives him a foot and a half to lob the puck skyward. This time, he changed his angle and sliced the puck under the crossbar with precision.
“I was a little juiced up coming in,” Vanek said. “I haven’t shot in a shootout this year, so I figured the goalie probably forgot I had that move.”
Vanek’s goal gave the Wild a shootout lead, but the Red Wings scored next and ended up winning in the eighth round.
“You lose a shootout, everyone’s disappointed, you win a shootout and it’s a great night,” Vanek said, somewhat sarcastically. “But, it wasn’t a good night for us. We played like garbage the first 40 minutes. At that point, we didn’t even deserve a point. We played hard in the third, but we just need to regroup and be better because we’re in for more of the same.”
The Wild again will be facing a desperate opponent during Monday’s regular-season home finale. The Winnipeg Jets, who quickly have become arguably the Wild’s biggest rival, are outside the playoff bubble, tied with the Los Angeles Kings with 92 points but on the short end of the tiebreaker (four fewer regulation/overtime wins).
For the Wild, the formula is simple: If the Wild wins in regulation, it clinches a playoff spot because even if the Wild went 0-3 on its upcoming three-game road trip and the Jets finished the season 3-0, the Jets have seven fewer regulation/overtime victories.
If the Wild beats the Jets in overtime, the Kings would have to lose in regulation at Vancouver for the Wild to clinch. If the Wild loses in regulation, the Jets (and maybe the Kings) would be two points behind and the Wild’s collective collar would tighten as it embarks on a three-game trip to Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis.
Matt Cooke might return from a sports hernia in Chicago. It sounds as if Jason Zucker, who ramped up the contact Sunday, could return in Nashville. But all focus Monday will be on the Jets.
“We know what’s at stake for them, we know what’s at stake for ourselves,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We know it’s going to be an intense game.”
The Wild has the most points in the NHL since Jan. 15, has won a franchise-record 10 consecutive road games and recently won five games in a row overall, including victories over St. Louis, Calgary and Los Angeles.
But it seems as if the recent four-day break ceased momentum. Yeo tried to guard against a dropped desperation level that naturally would come with the hiatus and a seven-point cushion. Yeo said Sunday it feels as if the Wild lost that “fear” that came with teams right on its heels.
Well, the standings have squeezed tighter.
“We just need to get back to our game and controlling the game,” Vanek said. “After those four days off, I don’t know, I don’t think we lost anything, but we wanted to win so bad to clinch a spot that sometimes when you think too much it goes backwards.”
Mikko Koivu threw the Wild a curveball by not playing Saturday because of a scratched cornea. Yeo expects Koivu to play Monday, but if not, the Wild will have a Plan B, he said.
Regardless, forward Erik Haula, who got demoted against the Red Wings and ultimately benched, will be given a chance to respond. Sunday morning, Yeo met with Haula.
Other than the penalty kill, the second-year forward has had a disappointing season following an impressive postseason last year. Yeo has been trying to prod Haula all season.
“I know that Haula can play better,” Yeo said. “I just want to get him to the level that he was playing at two weeks ago. I know it’s there. I know he’s capable of it and I know we can get him back there.
“It would be easy to take him out of the lineup. But sometimes you have to make decisions based on the bigger picture. Sometimes those decisions, you have to think a little bit deeper.”
Haula began Saturday’s game in Koivu’s spot. He eventually landed on the fourth line after taking a penalty that led to a goal.
Haula said it’s all about competing and extra effort with him, so the big, aggressive, physical Jets should provide a good chance for Haula to show Yeo something.
“The penalty I took [Saturday], that was probably my worst shift of the game,” Haula said. “I feel like I get that extra drive when the playoffs start. I’ve always been like that. Not to say that this year’s going to be like last year because last year was obviously top of the line, but I want to definitely be a big piece when we get there and be in the lineup.”