‘Frustrating,’ streak-snapping Wild loss: Special teams prove costly


CALGARY — As Alex Goligoski got ready to head to the bus Wednesday night, he tried to explain what had just happened at the Saddledome.

The Wild were very much in control of this game early on — holding a 2-0 first-period advantage, doing whatever they wanted to against the Flames. They out-chanced Calgary at five-on-five, with each line having positive possession numbers. And they even nearly pulled another Houdini after blowing a lead but gave up a goal on the shift after Jon Merrill’s tying tally with just under five minutes to go.

So they left the building empty-handed after a 5-3 loss, their season-high four-game winning streak snapped.

“It was a low-chance game, I think,” Goligoski said. “There was a lot of hard defending in the defensive zone. We got the one to tie it up and the next shift it’s in the back of our net. I don’t know. It wasn’t like we were out there getting dominated or anything. They came up with another goal and special teams was a huge factor.”

This was a game that was there for the taking for the Wild, which is what made it so frustrating. It’s the kind of game that strong teams, playoff-caliber teams, finish — not flounder. But Minnesota took four straight penalties from midway through the first until early in the second. The Flames scored only one power-play goal in that stretch, but they were given momentum, just enough to pull off the comeback.

You could make an argument on a few of the calls — specifically the goalie interference penalty by Jordan Greenway late in the first that led to the Flames’ first goal. But all that mattered was that special teams sucked the life out of them, including a power play that went 0-for-4.

“That may have been the best start we’ve had,” coach Dean Evason said. “(The Flames) weren’t in the hockey game. We were engaged. We were rolling our lines. Could we debate every penalty — especially Greenway’s? Absolutely. But to bitch and whine about it doesn’t do anything. …

“It’s frustrating because we have all the momentum going and everything is going our way, and the game changes on four straight penalties.”

The Wild entered this game rolling, having won four in a row and six of their last seven. Were they smooth victories? Of course not. That included back-to-back shootout wins Saturday and Sunday, when they blew a four-goal lead before pulling it out in Dallas. But they were feeling very good about themselves after an ‘Amazing Race’ themed team-building event in the mountains Monday.

Apparently they added “coughing up a two-goal lead” as the final stage of that challenge.

Kirill Kaprizov started it off 90 seconds in with a goal on a redirection; his stick snapped on a slap shot by Matt Dumba that was clocked at 100 mph by Bally’s. In doing so, Kaprizov set club records for longest points streak (13 games) and goal streak (seven). The broken stick isn’t any reason to be superstitious as Kaprizov noted he changes sticks before every game. And these accolades weren’t what he was thinking about Wednesday night.

“To be honest, I don’t really think about it,” Kaprizov said of the records. “Ultimately it’s a credit to my teammates that I’ve played with. If it wasn’t for them, none of this would be possible. So thank you to them. At the end of the day, we want to win. This is a team game and a win is more important than personal records.”

About a minute later, Mason Shaw — one of the many native Albertans on this team — extended Minnesota’s lead by finishing a nifty two-on-one and feed from best buddy Connor Dewar.

The Flames had nothing going, not even sniffing a shot the first seven minutes.

“We were skating, we were on our toes,” Merrill said. “We were ready to go from the puck drop.”

But, as the Wild have sometimes done, they hurt themselves with self-inflicted mistakes.  It started with another penalty by Merrill, whose uneven play recently could make him the odd man out when Jonas Brodin returns (as early as Friday). Then came a tripping penalty on Mats Zuccarello. And, in the period’s final minute, came a goalie-interference penalty on Greenway, who appeared to take issue with the call.

The Flames finally made the Wild pay on the opening shift of the second period, when Nazim Kadri’s redirection from the slot made it 2-1. Less than a minute later, Blake Coleman tied the score as he was left open backdoor following some poor defensive zone coverage.

Matt Dumba took a delay of game penalty and the Flames cashed in to take the lead on a Tyler Tofolli power-play goal. The Flames were able to flip the script pretty quickly.

“I’m not sure exactly what they did or how they did it, but they ultimately won,” Kaprizov said. “We have to focus on our game, play our game, and if we do, we can win.”

The Wild’s special teams improvement has been a bright spot in the start of the season, but the power play failed them Wednesday night, including coming up empty on three straight opportunities in the second. The first was awful — they couldn’t even enter the zone thanks to insufficient support and too many soft plays. On the third, after a second Zuccarello turnover, their man advantage was cut short on another penalty by Joel Eriksson Ek.

Evason said he was happy with how his team played overall — they out-chanced Calgary 20-13 at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick, including 9-7 in high-danger chances. The staff certainly didn’t seem upset, canceling Thursday’s practice in Edmonton.

“I thought we were great,” Evason said. “We had plenty of opportunities. We played really well defensively. We just gave them — even if they didn’t score two power-play goals, we gave them momentum. We have to be accountable to stay out of the box, but it’s the same as a lot of times when one team gets up, then the momentum gets shifted because something else happens outside of their plans.”

Perhaps Evason might have played his fourth line more had there not been so much special teams, as Dewar, Shaw and Ryan Reaves were really good together. But after the early two goals, the offense dried up until Merrill’s tying goal with just over four minutes to go. Merrill’s shot appeared heading wide before it deflected off Chris Tanev.

That’s when the game-changing shift occurred. Evason put out the Matt Boldy, Freddy Gaudreau and Nic Petan line against the Flames’ Coleman-led identity line. It took just 12 seconds, but there were a few mistakes made by the Wild. Merrill started with a pinch up to mid-ice after the faceoff. Gaudreau got knocked off the puck too easily behind his net. And Petan lost his man, Rasmus Andersson, coming off the wall. Andersson cruised into the slot and put it through Marc-Andre Fleury.

“We’ve got to be ready, stay calm,” Fleury said. “But I’ve got to make a few saves to help the guys out.”

The Wild will have to be much more disciplined Friday against the Oilers, led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They’ll be facing a team more than capable of storming back from deficits and flipping the momentum, like the Stars did Sunday and the Flames did Wednesday.

But Goligoski doesn’t see this as a worrisome trend.

“It’s the same thing as in Dallas,” Goligoski said. “It wasn’t like they were peppering us for a long period of time. There were a couple of breakdowns and a couple bounces that went in the back of our net. (Wednesday) they scored two power-play goals and then they scored right after we tied it — a defensive zone breakdown. I don’t think we were playing any different. It’s just kind of the way it’s gone.”

(Photo of Flames goaltender Dan Vladar making a save against the Wild during the third period Wednesday: Sergei Belski / USA Today)


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