Raleigh, N.C. – The finish was unceremonious, a clunky display of frayed passes, uneven scoring chances and brittle defending.
But the 11 games before the Wild sputtered 6-2 to the Hurricanes on Saturday in front of an announced 18,680 at PNC Arena, a loss that extinguished the second-longest point streak in franchise history (8-0-3) and simultaneously wiped out a run of five consecutive victories, could end up being one of the most important segments of the season.
“We haven’t worked this hard and sacrificed as much as we have to let one game just deteriorate everything we’ve built,” defenseman Matt Dumba said.
Still wearing the effects of a 1-6 start that matured into a 4-9 slump, the Wild was anchored to the bottom of the NHL standings when it wrapped up a four-game road trip Nov. 12 in Los Angeles. Three-plus weeks later, it’s just shy of the playoff pace in the Western Conference — a turnaround fueled by steady goaltending, opportunistic scoring and mostly reliable special teams.
Since its point streak started Nov. 14, the Wild’s 5-on-5 save percentage is among the best in the NHL at .940. Before then, it sat 27th at .902.
The Wild scored 40 goals in that span and operated at a 23.1% efficiency on the power play, also among the top outputs in the league.
Not all these strengths, though, showed up in Carolina, where Sebastian Aho flexed his star power by scoring a hat trick en route to a five-point night.
“We know our game, the style we have to play,” Dumba said, “and we kind of just fell into their game.”
Despite grabbing an early lead when Ryan Donato caught up to a puck he initially lost control of and wired it behind goalie Petr Mrazek 2 minutes, 21 seconds into the first period, the Wild never seemed to have a firm footing.
The Hurricanes pulled even at 9 minutes on a shot from the slot by Lucas Wallmark, and the disparity between the teams only widened when the Wild was dinged for two penalties on the same shift.
During the ensuing 5-on-3 advantage, Carolina converted on a redirect by Andrei Svechnikov at 15:02.
“Once they went ahead, and they had energy all night, they were coming at us pretty good,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Aho tallied his first at 4:43 of the second, finishing off a give-and-go with Teuvo Teravainen — who had three assists — after the Hurricanes pounced on a Ryan Suter turnover.
Only 4:25 later, the Wild moved within one on a shot off the rush by winger Mats Zuccarello for his third goal in as many games and second three-game goal streak of the season.
But Aho answered back at 15:15 by directing in a puck on the power play. Carolina ended up 2-for-3 with the man advantage, while the Wild blanked on four looks.
“We just didn’t make any passes,” center Eric Staal said. “We didn’t make it easy on ourselves and you do that, that’s what happens.”
Before Aho completed his hat trick into an empty net with 1:21 to go in the third, Joel Edmundson’s point shot sailed through traffic and past goalie Alex Stalock at 12:24. Aho’s five-point performance tied the record for most points in a game against the Wild.
Stalock posted 34 saves, while Mrazek had 22.
“They were skating. We weren’t. No excuses,” Suter said. “They were better than us. We just didn’t execute when we had plays.”
These lapses nixed an impressive push, one that hauled the Wild back into the competitive ranks of the Western Conference after a woeful beginning looked like it might be the team’s long-term reality.
But the shakiness that used to undermine the Wild eventually disappeared, replaced by a confidence that made the team almost invincible for 11 games.
And if the Wild can rediscover that poise after this hiccup, the legacy of that stretch could trump the strides the team has already made.
“We’re not going to forget how good of a team we are and how good we’ve become,” Dumba said.