Last year’s 43rd game against the Buffalo Sabres sparked the Wild’s second-half turnaround and surge into the playoffs. In 82 games since Devan Dubnyk’s Jan. 15, 2015 debut, the Wild was 50-21-11 for 111 points, one point fewer than Washington and the Rangers for most in the NHL in that span.
The Wild better hope Tuesday’s 43rd game against the Sabres doesn’t trigger the opposite.
Facing the team with the second-fewest points in the NHL, the Wild spotted the Sabres a three-goal first-period lead and could not complete the uphill climb before falling 3-2 in just the latest disappointing home loss.
“The first period, the game was lost there right away,” center Erik Haula said. “That’s three games in a row now at home, and it’s unacceptable. It’s quite embarrassing.”
It was the Wild’s third consecutive home loss against a struggling Eastern Conference opponent. The Wild is 2-4-1 in its past seven home games and hosts Central Division rival Winnipeg on Friday before hitting the road for four consecutive games starting with division rival Nashville.
“It’s a humbling league. A couple games ago we were feeling pretty good about ourselves, and obviously not so much today,” said coach Mike Yeo, referring to the Wild’s victory in Dallas on Saturday. “We’re all a little bit frustrated right now, we’re all a little ticked off, and that’s probably a good thing.
“But at the same time, we have to find a way to clear our heads [during a day off Wednesday.] We’ve got a couple games that we can’t carry this stuff into, and if you can’t get up for those kind of rivalry games, then obviously there’s something wrong.”
The Wild was done in by Linus Ullmark, who made 28 saves. Of course, he faced almost no work in the third period.
Ryan Suter’s second-period shorthanded goal pulled the Wild within two, but Minnesota couldn’t get another despite outshooting the Sabres 14-5 in the period and holding them without a shot for nine minutes.
That Wild push didn’t continue in the third. The Sabres sat back in the neutral zone, got pucks deep and the Wild managed two shots in the first 17 minutes. Ex-Sabre Thomas Vanek scored with 52 seconds left, but it was too little, too late.
All period, the Wild overpassed, eschewed point-blank shots (Jonas Brodin, without a point in 17 games, was the most egregious) and didn’t get shots off odd-man rushes.
“We don’t want to play off the shot right now,” Yeo said. “We’ve got shot opportunities, and we’re looking for a better play. This has been going on for a while. I can’t count how many 2-on-1s we’ve had that we don’t get shots on goal, let alone scoring chances.
“This is something we’re going to have to change. We’ve got skill, but we have to create with our work ethic. … If you’re not willing to create off the shot, then you’re not going to get much.”
The Sabres had scored a league-low 17 first-period goals. The Wild had given up three in the past 11 first periods. Still, Jamie McGinn opened the scoring, then Rasmus Ristolainen and Brian Gionta scored 20 seconds apart late in the first.
“We came out like garbage,” Jarret Stoll said. “We took the first period off,” added Suter.
Looking for a jolt, Yeo shuffled the lines in the second. Mikael Granlund moved from second-line center to first-line right wing and Jason Zucker, a minus-2 in the opening 20, was demoted to the fourth line.
“What was our fourth line tonight? Maybe that was a promotion, I don’t know,” Yeo said, sarcastically.