With the Wild down two goals heading into the third period, coach Bruce Boudreau reminded the team what needed to change.
“Boys, your best players have got to be your best players or we’re never going to win,” he said.
But the Wild’s leaders didn’t take over the rest of the way, setting the tone for a sleepy 4-1 loss to the Oilers Thursday at Xcel Energy Center.
“I was trying to find something other than [Joel Eriksson] Ek and [Luke] Kunin and [Kyle] Rau,” Boudreau said. “Those were the only guys to me that were playing.”
The Wild had ample opportunities to seize control of the game, uncorking 65 shot attempts and outshooting the Oilers 30-15 in the final two periods. But its execution was sorely lacking, especially from the go-to scorers who were delivering just before the Wild paused for an eight-day break – a drop-off that Boudreau pointed out after the game by calling some “a shell of the players” he’s worked with the past two-and-a-half seasons and mentioning how he can’t hang on winger Mikael Granlund’s back to remind him to shoot the puck. Granlund has just two goals in his last 37 games.
“We gotta be better, and we gotta score goals,” winger Jason Zucker said. “That’s what it comes down to. We gotta be aggressive. We gotta score goals. We gotta start getting a little bit more swagger, a little more confidence as forwards and our top guys. That includes myself. We gotta make sure we score goals and win games because we’re not going to win many games scoring one goal. It’s not going to happen.”
What also isn’t helping anyone is early deficits, a trend that continues to hammer the Wild.
“It really takes the wind out of your sail when it's five minutes into the period and it's a goal that goes in,” winger Marcus Foligno said. “But at the end of the day, you have to be tough in this league and you gotta be able to battle through adversity. One goal with a lot of time left shouldn't put you in that kind of slump hang your shoulders and say, 'Here we go again.' We gotta be able to battle through it, and we gotta be a little more tougher mentally."
Arguably the best player on the ice for the Wild was center Joel Eriksson Ek, who made quite the statement in his return to the lineup.
Tasked with helping ease the loss of captain Mikko Koivu, who’ll be out for the rest of the season after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee, Eriksson Ek was a noticeable presence on the ice all night – tying for the game lead in shots with five in addition to scoring the team’s lone goal in the third period.
“I'm going to do my best to help the team score goals and help create lots of chances,” he said.
His line with Zucker and winger Luke Kunin also blanked on a number of looks, but it was one of the Wild’s better trios – especially since it went head-to-head against Oilers captain Connor McDavid.
“Obviously, the goal was nice,” said Zucker, who became the 13th player in Wild history to reach 200 points when he assisted on Eriksson Ek’s goal. “But besides that, I thought we tried pushing the pace a little bit. We tried being aggressive on them. A lot of lines tried doing it. I don’t want to say we had a ton of success aside from the goal. But that’s the first time I’ve ever played with those two guys, so I think we’re going to gain a little bit of chemistry and go from there.”
The Wild’s attempt at a rally took a hit not long after Eriksson Ek’s goal when Zucker took an interference penalty after he checked defenseman Kris Russell into Edmonton’s net, a call Zucker felt was a tough one for the official to make.
“That play happens 100 times a game and if he doesn’t hit the net, they don’t call anything,” Zucker said. “In my opinion, if I cross-check him or push him into the net, that’s a different story. But obviously, I’m probably a bit biased in it. But for me I’m trying to get my shoulder in front of him and get body position to get that puck.”