Problems were exposed all over the ice, from lapses that kept the Wild hemmed in its own zone to a continued lack of execution at the other end. Already trapped in a goal-scoring funk, it had stretches of six, seven and 13 minutes without a shot.
But none of these glitches emerged as the most pressing issue for the Wild in a demoralizing 4-1 takedown by the Dallas Stars on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center.
More alarming was the startling passiveness to a high-stakes game, with the team chasing the playoff pace in the Western Conference. And the players know it’s incumbent on them to address that concern as their five-game homestand continues with a back-to-back, starting Saturday against the New York Rangers.
“I can’t make someone work,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “That comes from within. You can pressure them. If this was January, it’s a different story. You can sit them. We don’t have that option right now. It’s up to them.”
Intangibles such as urgency, heart and togetherness were put on blast after the Wild drooped during its latest make-or-break test. That extended the losing streak to three, exacerbated its current rut at home to 1-6-3 and left it three points behind the Arizona Coyotes for the second and final wild card berth.
And these traits were still under the microscope Friday, even though the group reconvened for practice optimistic and not panicked. Boudreau met with most players to express a message that emphasized self-preparation.
“Compete level’s gotta go up,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Work harder, work smarter, score first and build off that momentum that we create ourselves.”
The Wild has wasted its playoff cushion. Even a recent eight-game point streak couldn’t save that from happening. That this team’s desperation is flickering isn’t unusual for this season. But it’s unique for a franchise that has advanced to the playoffs each of the past six years, partly by being clutch in crunch time. Rather than taking that experience for granted, and expecting it to swoop in and save them, players believe it reinforces the standard they’re pursuing.
“It doesn’t get stale,” Suter said. “You have to find a way to do it, and we’ve been able to do that in the past. ”
Doing so would seem to require the group to move past the growing pains that have surfaced after roster turnover leading up to the NHL trade deadline last month. The honeymoon phase appears to have passed, and the challenges of building chemistry in mid-March are glaring. This is perhaps most apparent on a power play that’s scored just once in its past 19 chances. Center Victor Rask has no shots in two games since returning from injury, and winger Kevin Fiala has scored only twice (in the same game). Even the team’s top scorer, Zach Parise, has struggled during the transition, stuck in a nine-game goal drought. Parise took a maintenance day Friday and did not practice.
“The leaders in this room, us older guys that have been here, you gotta be able to pull everyone together and get that cohesive unit every night,” winger Jason Zucker said.
Not only would more rhythm offensively ease the burden on the defense, but it could also cure the dry spells for shots. And putting more pucks on net seems vital for a lineup that has scored just once in the last 142 minutes, 5 seconds of action.
“We’ve got a lot more to give,” Boudreau said. “A lot of people do.”
Achieving this progress at home looks daunting considering the team’s grisly track record, but it’s necessary.
With Boudreau targeting 90 points, the Wild needs to bank 16 from its last 11 games, six of which are in St. Paul.
“If we get to that,” Boudreau said, “we will have gone down fighting, or we will have made it.”
Both outcomes would be an improvement from the Wild’s current plight, but neither seems possible if the team remains lackadaisical.
“[Saturday] night is the biggest game of the year for us,” Suter said.