It really should not have been surprising. The Wild have plagued themselves with slow starts to games many times before; why should Sunday’s Game 3 have been any different?
After losing the first two games of this Western Conference quarterfinal playoff series, the Wild needed a boost right away on Easter Sunday. Coming out of the locker room with a fast-skating, goal-scoring binge theoretically was the key to turning the momentum back in their favor. Instead, they laid an egg in the first period on their way to an eventual 3-1 loss to the Blues.
Yes indeed, the Wild find themselves down 3-0 in the best-of-seven series to the St. Louis Blues in what on paper should be a bit of a mismatch. It pushes the Wild to the brink of elimination in Wednesday’s Game 4 in St. Louis.
Actually, that’s the true must-win game. I grow weary of games getting dubbed “must-win” when it’s technically not true. The sentiment is understandable, but it just gets overused. For example, Game 2 in St. Paul was not a must-win game. Going down 2-0 is far from ideal, but it’s not an insurmountable deficit.
Anyway, the Wild once again got behind, just 3:25 into the game, and had to play catch-up to try and win. Once again, it didn’t work. A poor start didn’t help and set the tone. How many times did fans hear during regular-season games that the Wild didn’t get off to a good start? If there are ever games to make sure you show up, it’s in the playoffs. When there’s a two-game hole dug up, that intensity should be a no-brainer.
A poor start didn’t help and set the tone.
Instead, the mentality of the team must have been shaken. They didn’t play like a team looking to turn momentum back to their side. Then it was back to pressing a little tighter while trying to get the puck past the still-solid St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen. The Wild got down, tied it but the Blues finally connected on the power play for the game-winner and added an empty-netter.
One of the interesting things is the narrative of who to blame for the way things have gone for the Wild. Some are adamant it’s Devan Dubnyk for surrendering soft goals. That argument is perhaps heightened with the low-scoring games in this series; a soft goal or two in the midst of 5-3 or 4-2 contests likely wouldn’t draw as much attention.
Then there’s the other side of the blame coin, pointing the fingers at the lack of offensive production for the Wild. Three goals, just one five-on-five, in three games for the second-best team in the West this year that set a franchise record in goals scored in the 2016-17 campaign. That’s a real head-scratcher.
The answer is both. Dubnyk needs to stop some of those softies that just can get through for a team that wants postseason success. This was especially true for the first Blues goal Sunday, when Colton Parayko shot the puck into the net on the glove side. It was a shot early in the game when, as is the cliché, the first goal is huge.
On the replays, it looked like Ryan Suter got his stick in front of the shot and maybe elevated the puck in the process. I thought that was perhaps a reaching excuse to let Dubnyk off the hook and shift some of the accountability over to Suter, who has had a bit of a rough series and spent some time in the penalty box. But if Dubnyk stops that shot, as he should, maybe the next couple chances for the Wild go in and they grab the 1-0 lead. Who knows.
The offense disappearing act might have a little more to do with the issues plaguing the Wild. The lone goal Sunday came from Charlie Coyle on a strong shift for him as he crashed the net and got his stick on a shot toward the goal. Maybe he was getting rewarded for his snake-bit Game 1. Coyle’s game came in the middle of the second period Sunday, when the Wild finally started playing their game and generated scoring chances.
The team needs to find ways to finish off plays.
The only other goal scorer in the series is Zach Parise, and the Wild have yet to hold the lead in a game. But where are the other players who could step up? The NHL playoffs are about finding the goal-scoring heroes, whether it’s the leaders on a team or the guy who has two goals all season. Mikael Granlund, the Wild’s leading scorer with 69 points during the regular season, seemed to find his game with a breakout year. Prior to this season, he’s found the spotlight with solid playoff performances. The most memorable thing from him this series is when he was in the slot with speed and passed the puck over to the side instead of firing a shot and crashing the net.
There’s no need to go through the whole lineup and single out efforts. The team needs to find ways to finish off plays. Simple as it sounds, it’s also nothing new. All the chances and shots on goal advantage don’t mean anything when you compare it to what does matter: Goals and victories.
Stats aren’t always my cup of tea as the be-all, end-all, even though they’re a pretty prominent part of sports in the playoffs. The percentages were already bad enough for teams that got down 0-2 and came back to win the series. Only four teams have come back from being down 0-3 to win the series.
It’s obviously an uphill battle. Some would argue a battle that’s already lost. Momentum can be a funny thing during the playoffs though. Bruce Boudreau said after Sunday’s game that his players need to treat Wednesday’s game like a Game 7. At this point, avoiding a sweep to former Wild coach Mike Yeo would probably be something to shoot for.