NASHVILLE – After a four-win March during which Bruce Boudreau's face turned 50 different shades of red and his blood pressure often spiked, the Wild coach hoped a couple of hard-fought overtime losses and a victory over Ottawa was the signal of an April turnaround.
But after a couple of steps forward, the complacent-looking Wild took a step back Saturday afternoon in a 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators in what theoretically could have been a first-round playoff preview.
"Well, the first 10 minutes we were good," Boudreau said with hints of sarcasm. "I think after that, we lost battles, we didn't do the things [that would draw penalties]. … We've got to come to play. We can't be satisfied with a 5-1 victory once a week here."
The loss by the Wild clinched the Central Division title and home-ice advantage for the Chicago Blackhawks through the Western Conference playoffs. According to sportsclubstats.com, the Wild has a 77 percent chance of playing the St. Louis Blues in the first round, a 23 percent chance of playing the Predators. Almost surely wanting to avoid a first-period meeting with the Blackhawks, the Predators looked as if they were the hungrier team.
The Wild was late to pucks in its own end and was ultimately doomed by two sleepy shifts that turned a tight-checking game into a Predators stranglehold late in the second period.
"I thought our goalie was really good today," Boudreau said. "I think he saved our bacon in the second period."
That goalie was Alex Stalock, who after facing Ottawa on Thursday, got another start so Devan Dubnyk, who practiced the past three days, could get a fourth consecutive day off to rest for Sunday's game against the Colorado Avalanche.
Stalock, who made 33 saves, robbed Calle Jarnkrok twice, including 43 seconds into the game with a highlight-reel slide to his left to stymie a sure goal. In the second, he committed larceny on Kevin Fiala and Colton Sissons.
But with the Joel Eriksson Ek-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund line and defense partners Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon running around 55 seconds into a shift, Boudreau called timeout after an icing.
"They outworked us. In the second period, you could tell that they were the hungrier team," Boudreau said. "That's why I called the timeout," saying that he hoped to escape the period scoreless so he could try to say something during the intermission to "light a fire under them."
Koivu, quarreling with the linesmen all game before and after draws, lost one clean to Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg masterfully deflected P.K. Subban's shot past Stalock.
Ten seconds later, it was 2-0 on Fiala's goal after a breakdown in coverage by defensemen Jonas Brodin and Christian Folin.
"Nino [Niederreiter] was trying to kick it back to Brods, but Brods — I don't know what he was thinking getting right into the play," Boudreau said of Brodin mysteriously crossing the blue line to join Niederreiter's board battle. "Folin should have come across and at least taken [Fiala] out instead of letting him get to the middle of the ice."
Still, Stalock, blamed himself.
"It's a save I've got to make at that time of the game," he said. "It's something you talk about when you're young, not giving up consecutive goals, so for it to be that quick. … It was really a 1-one-1 play with me and a player, and I lost the battle."
The Wild, which once upon a time won 12 consecutive games this season and went 30-6-2 during a three-month run, hasn't won two in a row since Feb. 27-28. Several forwards weren't skating effectively, and Boudreau scrambled his lines to start the second and third periods.
The team also was without Jason Zucker, who has a lower body injury, although Zach Parise returned from an eye injury.
The Wild suffered its fifth shutout. Pekka Rinne finished with 31 saves for his 43rd career shutout and fourth against the Wild.
Boudreau is hopeful for a solid effort from Dubnyk on Sunday against Colorado.
"We can't take anybody lightly," Boudreau said of the 30th-place Avalanche, which beat St. Louis on Thursday. "We have four games left. We've got to play them all hard and then hopefully we can be consistent come two weeks from now."