‘Sick’ in Game 6
Wild’s season reaches nauseating conclusion
Ryan Hartman went from being a double-overtime hero to feeling “sick to my stomach” over the course of yet an all-too-routine first-round exit for the Minnesota Wild in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His teammate Marcus Foligno used the phrase “broken record” to describe the exit. Mats Zuccarello said “it stings every year.”
“This city deserves better than what we gave them,” Hartman said quietly as he sat in the Wild’s dressing room at Xcel Energy Center following the Wild’s 4-1 loss in game 6 that ended Minnesota’s season and sent rival Dallas to the next round.
For the home fans who remained in the building following the traditional post-series handshakes between the Stars and Wild that night – though they were far outnumbered by empty green seats at that point – their cheers and applause seemingly willed the Wild players back to center ice for one final salute to the State of Hockey faithful.
“The fans, they’ve shown up for us all year, and we failed them,” Hartman said. “There’s opportunities throughout this series where we could have not necessarily put the nail in the coffin, but we could have separated ourselves a little bit more, and we failed to capitalize on opportunities throughout the series.”
Unfortunately for the Wild, not capitalizing on opportunities is the all-too-familiar refrain for a team that hasn’t stepped on the ice for a second-round playoff game since getting swept away by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. The Wild’s last second-round playoff game victory came nearly nine years ago, with a 4-2 win in game four at home against the Blackhawks; the Wild lost the series in six games.
The similarities to last year’s first-round playoff exit for the Wild are clear. A two-games-to-one series lead before the divisional foe (St. Louis last year, Dallas this year) rattled off three consecutive victories to advance to the second round. A Minnesota penalty kill surrendering goals was something one could count one like they could of snow falling in April in Minnesota. The Wild allowed eight goals on the penalty kill last year to St. Louis and 9-for-22 this year to Dallas.
The Wild’s penalty kill actually went 2-for-2 in game six against the Stars, but that’s little consolation when the Wild still ended up on the losing end of the scoresheet. It was often touted in this series how much better the Wild were during 5-on-5 play.
In game one, both Stars goals were scored almost immediately on two power-play opportunities, for example. But unfortunately for the Wild, special teams was once again magnified in a negative light in the playoffs.
“Were they (Dallas) the best 5-on-5? I’m not so sure,” said Wild coach Dean Evason said after game six. “Our group was real good in that area. We had to be better on the power play. Obviously, our penalty kill wasn’t great. But if we could have scored on our power play and made them pay for some penalties like they made us, it might be a different series.”
Could have. Might be. Yet wasn’t meant to be.
With four losses in the six games, credit to Dallas where credit is due, of course. Its best players came through when needed, they seized offensive chances and crushed special teams, not to mention a winning series from Lakeville native Jake Oettinger in net.
But so much of the poor results for the Wild were self-inflicted wounds. Or in one case, a much-discussed goaltender change.
After the Wild fought through its longest playoff game in team history to get the double-overtime game-one win in Dallas, they responded in game two with the most lopsided contest in a 7-3 loss. Fans questioned the decision to stick with the tandem system in net and start veteran Marc-Andre Fleury after Filip Gustavsson’s amazing 51-save performance in game one.
Seemingly proving all the naysayers correct, Fleury had a rough night in goal. But his teammates in front of him certainly didn’t make his job any easier. The sloppy defense hung him out to dry, the penalty kill units were on the ice six times helping to allow three more goals. The Wild actually got within a goal after Marcus Johansson and Freddy Gaudreau goals 11 seconds apart. But the goals Fleury would like to have back came after, and the game ended with a 7-3 defeat.
In front of a rocking Xcel Energy Center for game three in a tied series, the Wild played their most complete game of the series. Zuccarello scored a pair of goals, briefly giving fans hope that his recent slide in his offensive play was in the rearview mirror (spoiler: it wasn’t). Foligno – who will be known in this series as either a player who got screwed on poor penalty calls or as a goon who was tossed from a game, depending on which fanbase you align with – was all over the ice playing a solid game and scored a power-play goal.
The Wild grabbed the series lead again with the possibility of taking a 3-1 lead in the next game. Something they’ve never done.
Game four turned out to be a preview of some of what was still to come in the series. The low-scoring affair started out with an odd-man rush for the Wild seconds into the game, but they couldn’t connect for a goal. Put that on repeat a few more times throughout the game as Oettinger turned in his best performance of the series.
This was the game that got away for the Wild, allowing two pesky goals on the penalty kill as the Stars evened the series 2-2 with a 3-2 victory. The Wild played well enough to win but just didn’t – all together now – capitalize on their chances. Meanwhile, the Stars were opportunistic.
In a pivotal game five, someone was going to take a 3-2 series lead. But in order to lead, a team first has to score. The Wild did not, taking a 4-0 loss back home for a must-win game six. With Kirill Kaprizov scoring only the team’s first goal of the series way back in game one, and Matt Boldy still scoreless, Evason said he had “no doubt” these players would show up for game six.
But Kaprizov, though visible and not without chances in the series, only had that lone goal to show for this playoff series. His performance was the opposite of thrilling. It’s a role reversal from last season when he scored seven goals and an assist in the series against the Blues.
Boldy, a forward who signed a seven-year, $49 million deal during the season and went through a stretch in March with multiple hat tricks where nearly every shot he took was a goal, recorded only two assists in the series. In 12 career playoff games this season and last, he has one goal and two assists to show for it.
Those are the two most glaring examples of where the Wild’s offense was lacking.
But the Wild still had a chance to force a game seven. They buzzed around the rink early in game six, and Hartman found himself at the goalmouth with a grade-A chance to take a 1-0 lead. Somehow in the scramble, the puck stayed out of the net. Seconds later, the Stars Roope Hintz went down and popped a goal for his fifth of the series on the first Dallas shot on goal.
“I put the puck from my backhand to my forehand and I mean, I’ve watched it 100 times in slow motion between periods and a rolling puck as soon as I go to push it into the net it bounces over my blade and their defenseman whacks it off their goalie’s foot and then it goes and hits the post,” Hartman said. “And they [expletive] score right after.”
Wyatt Johnston made it 2-0 in the second period on a bang-bang play getting a puck in the slot. And there isn’t more of a series dagger than the goal Mason Marchment scored with less then a second left on the clock in the second period, making it 3-0 on a breakaway after the Wild had another scoring chance.
In the third period, as the math was done to see just how long the shutout streak was for Oettinger, Gaudreau at least gave the fans something to cheer about (a twist from booing both the team’s penalty kill and power play) when he scored at the 12:53 mark to get within 3-1 before a late empty netter from Dallas had fans flooding the exit doors.
Reflecting on yet another failure to advance to the next round was still fresh for Wild players Friday night.
“It’s so frustrating,” said captain Jared Spurgeon. “We had spots in the series where we could have won games and put them away and we didn’t do that. That’s something we’ve got to focus on next year and years out. That when we get those opportunities, we do finish them. It’s just frustrating every year when it ends like this.”