Russo: Between blown leads and losing to teams above them, Wild haven’t been good enough

ST. PAUL, Minn. — What a wasted opportunity.

When the NHL schedule was released last summer, I remember looking at the Minnesota Wild’s final stretch of the season and thinking how well it set up for a final playoff push.

Yes, they end the season with five of their final six games on the road, but any team would take a six-game homestand at this time of year, especially one that includes an upcoming four-day break that theoretically would have allowed currently out-of-the-lineup Joel Eriksson Ek and Jonas Brodin and banged-up guys like Marcus Foligno, Jake Middleton and, probably, Freddy Gaudreau heal.

How valuable would such a schedule have been the past couple of years for a Wild team that was bruised and battered heading into the playoffs?

Unfortunately, this ideal schedule will likely go for naught because the Wild the past couple of games have continued their season-long trend of not winning big games when they absolutely have to and, to be blunt, continue to fall on their face most times they play a team north of them in the standings.

Have a chance to inch closer to a playoff spot heading into the All-Star break? Blow third-period leads to Nashville and Anaheim and soon after their return from their Caribbean vacations — Buffalo.

Have a chance to climb back within a hair of a playoff spot in their “biggest game of the year?” Get absolutely pumped in Nashville.

Have a chance to put some stress on eighth-place Vegas after an eight-game point streak? Get routed in Los Angeles by six goals and then return home to open this critical six-game homestand only to blow their latest third-period lead before falling in overtime to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday afternoon, 5-4.


Wild crumble in third period, lose in overtime: Key takeaways vs. Blues

Yeah, yeah, yeah, they got a point.

As Brock Faber, who forced overtime with a late tying goal, said after this latest disappointing finish in a game that the Wild had ample opportunity to extend a 3-2 lead supplied by Marco Rossi’s two goals to 4-2 but couldn’t, “I mean, a point’s a point. But we’re at that time of the season where (we need two) points.”

As Marcus Johansson said more succinctly, “We needed two points and we only got one, and that’s frustrating. It’s tough to see the positive right now. We came out with the lead in the third and we lose the game. We’re putting everything out there every night, and this was a tough one.”

The Wild, who did work their collective butts off Saturday, are four points behind the Golden Knights. But Vegas plays three times before the Wild next play Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks. There’s a good chance the standings look a heckuva lot daunting by the time the Wild next suit up at Xcel Energy Center.

Plus, the Golden Knights are on pace for 96 points. The Wild can max out this season at 99 points if they win their remaining 11 games.

Think this team that has disappointed way too often this season will go 10-1 or 11-0?

What’s more, the Wild have done wonders in helping the heating-up Blues back into the playoff race by going 0-1-2 against them in the past three weeks. That’s two points in three meetings for the Wild and six in three meetings for the Blues, who are two points back of Vegas with two more games played than the Golden Knights.

The Wild have simply not been good enough this season, winning eight games out of 25 (8-14-3) against the nine teams north of them in the Western Conference standings. Much of the reason, of course, is the endless list of key injuries at the worst times starting with captain Jared Spurgeon’s lost season, a lack of depth due to the $14.7 million in dead cap money, a horrific penalty kill, too many underachieving forwards and unreliable goaltending.

Still, despite all of that, when the Wild look back at this season, they’re going to regret a half-dozen home games since New Year’s Eve.

Since Dec. 31, the Wild have coughed up six third-period leads all on home ice. They’ve gone 0-3-3 in those games for nine lost points in the standings. Considering they’re only four back of a playoff spot, it’s pretty amazing that the Wild would have recovered from winning five games in 19 under Dean Evason if they just took care of business at home in those six contests.

The Wild just make too many mistakes and have too many brain cramps during the most critical times in games.

Mats Zuccarello, who somehow trying to convince us all the Wild played well in their 6-0 loss at the Kings on Wednesday, is a veteran who should know better. But he was turnover-happy in the first period and had two golden chances to give the Wild a 4-2 lead after Rossi’s second goal.

First, he misfired right into Jordan Binnington on a Grade A chance with part of the net gaping. Second, he fired over the top of the net on a breakaway. Soon after, Jordan Kyrou tied the score at 3-3, then blew by Zuccarello in the neural zone en route to his third goal and a 4-3 lead.

Then in overtime, Zuccarello loafed up the ice before Brandon Saad flew by Matt Boldy for the winning goal.

Boldy is a youngster, but for a guy who has won a couple of big games in overtime the past two seasons, he continues to make inexplicable decisions way too often in overtime. Last week in St. Louis, he played a three-minute overtime shift when he had multiple chances to make a line change. On Saturday against the Blues, Boldy could have forced an offensive-zone faceoff had he stopped at the goalmouth when Jordan Binnington was playing a sliding puck. When Boldy did a fly-by, Binnington astutely decided not to freeze it and handed the puck off for Justin Faulk. Moments later, Saad was celebrating the big victory, the Blues’ sixth in the past seven games, by leaving Zuccarello and Boldy in his dust.

“We could have played a couple situations (better),” coach John Hynes said. “Even on the rush coming in, the coverage wasn’t what it needed to be.”

Another reason why an offensive faceoff would have been ideal is the Wild were only a few more seconds from Faber coming out of the box for a coincidental minor he got with Jake Neighbours at the regulation buzzer.

From Faber’s angle, Kirill Kaprizov was in a chokehold and basically all 10 skaters on the ice got into a melee after the third period ended. The refs, like they often do in these cases, chose two guys — unfortunately for the Wild, Faber and Neighbours — to escort to the box.

This created a doomed feeling heading into overtime because this is a Wild team playing without Spurgeon and Brodin and short of puck-moving, offensive-minded defensemen.

Faber would have undoubtedly opened overtime with Kaprizov and Rossi. Instead, he had to sit helpless in the box as the Hynes sent out, first, Declan Chisholm, then Middleton.

“It’s unfortunate that they only took us two,” Faber said. “Would have liked to have been out there for sure. It was me in the scrum. Scrums happen. It’s a professional sport. You’d think that, I don’t know, that they wouldn’t take us, especially in a pivotal time in the season for both teams, a pivotal time in the game. But, you know, looking back, I should have stayed out of it and have our guys be outnumbered, maybe, … I don’t know.”

Hey, it was hardly Faber’s fault. It was just an unfortunate circumstance. And let’s be honest: The Wild wouldn’t have been in overtime anyway had it not been for Faber burying Middleton’s rebound with 5:09 left in the third — 4:50 after Kyrou’s go-ahead goal. And this would have all been a non-factor had Binnington not twice robbed Rossi of hat tricks on tremendous chances, once in overtime.

Faber had two points to give him 40 on the season. Rossi, who had two solid seasons in Iowa but didn’t hit the 20-goal mark there, became only the second rookie in Wild history to hit the 20-goal plateau with his two tallies — one on a breakaway after Kaprizov’s head-man pass, the other off a tic-tac-toe with Kaprizov and Zuccarello.

“I knew (Zuccarello) was going to be a pass. He never shoots that,” Rossi said.

The Wild have gotten 86 points from rookies this season — two fewer than Chicago heading into the Blackhawks’ game Saturday night in San Jose.

That alone should reassure Wild fans that things could be on the up in future seasons, especially once prospects like Marat Khusnutdinov further develop and we get our eyeballs on Danila Yurov, Liam Ohgren, Hunter Haight, Rasmus Kumpulainen, who signed his entry-level contract last week, and Riley Heidt, who signed his entry-level contract Saturday.

“To have younger players in your lineup and play important roles and not only just play but be real productive players for you is certainly good for them as individuals and their confidence levels as players,” Hynes said. “But also for your team moving forward, that’s certainly something that has to happen, particularly in the salary cap era where you have to be able to have young guys come into your lineup on entry-level contracts.

“And if those guys can be impact players like Rossi and Faber have been, it certainly is going to help your team in the now, as they have this year, but also in the future.”

Rossi wasn’t celebrating his 20 goals: “If we would have won the game it would be different.”

Unfortunately for the Wild, whether they believe so or not, their playoff hopes are starting to look like a pipedream and we’re going to soon start focusing a lot on the future.

To the players’ credit, they’re not about to think that way.

“There’s no give in this group,” Faber said. “We’re not gonna give up until Game 82. Just moving forward, … it’s just frustrating. Would have liked two points.”

(Photo: Matt Krohn / USA Today)

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