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Judd Zulgad

Same Old Song

2023 postseason has Wild playing a familiar tune

"Working the officials" hasn't produced the result Dean Evason is looking for in this series. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

This Wild team was supposed to be different.

Tougher, more playoff-tested, everything that the Wild wasn’t last season when they flopped in a six-game opening-round loss to the Blues.

So what happened?

After an outstanding series against the Blues a year ago, Kirill Kaprizov has been neutralized by the Stars through five games, faring only slightly better than fellow 30+ goal scorer Matt Boldy. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The Wild will enter Game 6 of their first-round series against Dallas looking very much like the team general manager Bill Guerin attempted to retool to avoid a repeat.

Just like a year ago, the Wild won Game 3 by a 5-1 score to take a one-game lead and then dropped the next two. The Blues closed out the Wild in St. Louis in Game 6. The Stars will attempt to do the same on Friday night at Xcel Energy Center.

There are many disturbing similarities in the series’. This includes the Wild giving up nine power-play goals to Dallas in five games, after surrendering eight in six games against St. Louis. That was an area the Wild vowed to improve on.

Winger Kevin Fiala, one of the Wild’s key offensive players in 2021-22, had no goals in six games after scoring 33 in the regular season. Winger Matt Boldy has played the Fiala-role this postseason, failing to score a goal through five games after having 31 in the regular season.

Star winger Kirill Kaprizov, who had seven goals in six games against the Blues, has only one this postseason and disappeared in Game 5. Yes, the Wild are playing without their top center, Joel Eriksson Ek, but many teams have injury issues this time of year. 

The best teams find a way to win. The others hit the golf course in April.

That gets us to the most important part of this discussion. Assuming the Wild doesn’t rally from two games down, the postseason postmortem on this team must include a long look at the common denominator in the two playoff ousters: Coach Dean Evason.

Evason was out coached by the Blues Craig Berube, leaving many to wonder if that again would be a problem. The Wild’s message was that everyone learned from that defeat and would benefit from the lessons. 

That hasn’t been true. The advantage goes to Stars coach Peter DeBoer, whose Vegas Golden Knights, with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, beat Evason’s Wild in seven games in the opening round in 2021.

DeBoer seemed to get under Evason’s skin, and by extension his team’s, after the Stars evened the series in Game 2 with a far-too-easy 7-3 victory. “When you pre-scout them, Minnesota takes penalties,” DeBoer said of the Stars’ power-play success. “They’re the sixth-most penalized team in the league. We’re ready for that.”

Evason countered: “We felt that they had some bigger people go down pretty easy in that hockey game. We’ve talked about this before, and it’s a fine line, because we don’t dive.”

While there have been some questionable calls in the series, Dallas has only been given two more power plays than Minnesota. The Stars are an incredible 9-for-22 and have four power-play goals from Tyler Seguin; the Wild are a feeble 4-for-20.

Dallas captain Jamie Benn (14) and Tyler Seguin (91) celebrate Seguin’s power-play goal in the second period of Game 4 for a 1-0 Stars lead. It was the second of Seguin’s now four power-play goals through five games of the Stanley Cup first-round series which the Stars lead 3-2 over the Wild. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

It was noted throughout the season that Evason’s objection to almost every penalty against his team didn’t set the greatest tone. But he was grumbling again in his postgame press conference on Tuesday after his team completely fell apart following winger Marcus Foligno’s 5-minute kneeing penalty and game misconduct early in the first period. The Stars scored only 8 seconds after Foligno was sent to the dressing room.

Evason needed to calm the Wild, instead they fell apart. 

There have been other odd decisions. Last season, Evason was questioned for not switching from Fleury to Cam Talbot until Game 6, when the Wild found themselves trailing 3-2 in the series. This time, Evason made the right move by starting the more productive Filip Gustavsson in goal in Game 1. Gustavsson stole that game as the Wild escaped with a 3-2 victory in double overtime.

His reward was watching Fleury stop only 24 of 31 shots in Game 2. Evason had decided to stick with his goalie rotation as if this was a regular-season game in January, instead of going with the hot hand. There’s nothing wrong with playing both goalies in the playoffs, but you usually wait until one guy loses a game, or, in this case, doesn’t stop 50-plus shots.

Then there is the issue of Evason’s almost complete refusal to juggle lines during games, unless he’s forced to because of injury. Kaprizov’s goal came late in the first period of Game 1. Meanwhile, his linemate, Mats Zuccarello, has two goals and five points in the five games, but often has been ineffective. 

The chemistry that made Kaprizov and Zuccarello so effective together, hasn’t been present for much of this series. Splitting them up would seem like a good wake-up call for both and yet it hasn’t happened. Why not try Boldy on a line with Kaprizov, or promote Gustav Nyquist to a top six position among the forwards? 

Nyquist had four points in the first three games against Dallas, as the Wild took a 2-1 series lead. There’s more. The Wild acquired two-time Stanley Cup winner Oskar Sundqvist from Detroit at the trade deadline for a fourth-round pick but have played him in only one game against Dallas. He scored a goal.

Sundqvist had three goals and seven points in 15 games with Minnesota after being acquired and unless he’s injured it makes little sense not to work a 6-foot-3, 220-pound playoff veteran into the mix more often. Instead, Evason stuck with third-line center and frequent scratch Sam Steel on Tuesday.

We don’t know if more moves by Evason would have made a difference, but we do know that doing little to nothing this time of year isn’t an acceptable coaching tactic. Things won’t simply work themselves out because they did in November or December.

Lakeville’s Jake Oettinger is just the latest in a long line of goaltenders to stymie the Wild in the postseason. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

As noted in this space at the beginning of the series, Evason’s playoff track record doesn’t provide much confidence. He’s has lost his first three first-round series’ as the Wild’s coach, if you include the 2020 qualifying tournament; he went 1-12 and had four first-round exists in six seasons as coach of the Nashville Predator’s top minor league affiliate in Milwaukee; and only won two first-round series in six seasons in the Western Hockey League. Those two teams didn’t get past the second round.

Maybe Evason can rally the Wild from their no-show performance on Tuesday to a pair of wins in Games 6 and 7, the finale being in Dallas. Maybe Kaprizov and Boldy will find their missing scoring touch and put a few past Dallas’ red hot goalie, Jake Oettinger. It will help if the Wild can establish possession and take away Oettinger’s vision by causing chaos in front. 

That’s done with desire and grit, a word the Wild elected to use as their playoff slogan because it’s so essential to how they win games.

But if the Wild does bow out, looking as poor as they did in Games 2 and 5, this can’t be ignored. This isn’t a 1 vs. 8 matchup. This is a 2-3 matchup between the 108-point Stars and 103-point Wild. Guerin didn’t make deals at the deadline hoping they might help, he made them because he was confident that a tougher team would be built for a playoff run.

Getting run out of the building twice, including once in a pivotal Game 5, was never part of that plan.

(MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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