The first game after Christmas is usually a nightmare for the Wild.
Whether players overdose on ham and egg nog or get worn-out opening up presents and schmoozing with family, the Wild, for whatever reason, historically returns from the holiday break sloppy and sluggish.
After not practicing for three days, coach Mike Yeo expected a “sketchy” start between the Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins, saying beforehand, “Whoever can turn their brain on the quickest is going to have a leg up on the opposition.”
The Wild never got the memo. Its engine and its brain never got revved up during an ugly 3-1 loss in front of the largest crowd of the season — 19,234 — at Xcel Energy Center.
“Unfortunately it’s almost become a little predictable these games after Christmas,” said Yeo afterward, with steam pretty much coming out of his ears.
Wild forward Zach Parise called it “probably the easiest game” the Penguins will play all season. Facing a goaltender playing his third NHL game and a struggling team that recently fired its coach, the Wild was being outshot 22-6 more than halfway through the game.
“We couldn’t make a play, couldn’t make a pass,” Yeo said.
“Just couldn’t execute, couldn’t come out of our end, couldn’t come through the neutral zone,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
“We just played slow,” Parise said. “Puck movement … really was not good all tonight. We spent a lot of time in our own zone. There were a lot of turnovers. We had the puck a lot, but we just gave it back to them pretty much the whole game.”
Yeo described it as players wanting to slap the puck and “give somebody else our garbage instead of settling it down, moving our feet and making a tape-to-tape play.”
Fans voiced their anxiety early and their displeasure late. In the first game back after the Christmas break, the Wild fell to 1-7-1 in its past nine, losing its fifth in a row. It has been outscored 40-22 and outshot by 77 in those games.
“Everybody’s going to talk about the break, but they had a break, too,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “It’s not acceptable for any of us to play sloppy.”
Dubnyk had every right to complain about the shoddy play in front of him during the first intermission, but nothing changed in the second period.
“We got worse,” Suter said.
Sidney Crosby, off to the worst start of his career, had a goal and an assist, Kris Letang had two assists, Eric Fehr and Patric Hornqvist scored goals and Matt Murray won his second NHL game with 25 saves.
Despite being so outplayed, the Wild only trailed 1-0 late in the second. But Kevin Porter beat Suter to wipe out an icing, then Justin Fontaine was beaten to the net by Eric Fehr for a 2-0 lead with 1:50 to go. Jason Zucker made it 2-1 only 45 seconds later, but 15 seconds after that, Jared Spurgeon took his third minor penalty in four games.
With 33.4 seconds left in the period, Patric Hornqvist and the East’s worst power play made it 3-1.
Since a 6-0-3 point streak, the Wild has lost three of its past four games and is 1-2 on a homestand that ends Monday against Detroit.
“We just have to pick up our game,” Yeo said. “The last four or five games, we have another level that we have to get to. And a lot of individuals through that time have to bring a little bit more.
“This is a time of year where do you fall asleep and lose ground or do you make a push and gain ground?”