Wild’s lack of discipline and maturity will be season’s demise, not OT goalie pull


Sure, we can all second-guess John Hynes’ bold, desperate decision to pull the goalie for the second time in three weeks in overtime.

But the reason why the Minnesota Wild will almost surely miss the playoffs for the second time since 2012 isn’t because they threw Saturday’s point in the standings into the trash.

What has forced them into these risky, extremely rare decisions of late is the Wild’s season-long inability to get separation goals in the third period. For a team that was fifth in the league in scoring two years ago, they have had zero depth scoring all season long. Compound all this with a lack of detail and maturity in their game to defend leads, and this is why the Wild haven’t been able to close out games over and over again.

Since New Year’s Eve, the Wild have coughed up seven one- or two-goal third-period leads for 11 lost points in the standings. The latest was Saturday when the Wild destroyed a hard-fought, well-played game against the Vegas Golden Knights by becoming too overaggressive in the offensive zone, didn’t, in Hynes’ eyes, “eat” a puck deep in the offensive zone and promptly gave up a two-on-one for an overtime forcing goal.

Then, just like they did March 10 when they surprised Nashville by pulling the goalie and getting a Matt Boldy winner, this time Logan Thompson denied Mats Zuccarello’s shot before Jonathan Marchessault buried a 126-foot empty-netter to effectively kill the Wild’s season with a 2-1 defeat.

Instead of being seven points behind the Los Angeles Kings (before their game in Calgary on Saturday night) had they lost in overtime or a shootout or six back had they won in overtime or a shootout, the Wild lost their point in the standings and returned to eight back with nine games left.

But in Hynes’ mind, one point means jack squat in the dire position the Wild’s in. The unenviable math shows the Wild basically have to win out and they need help, so desperate times call for desperate measures and unlike three weeks ago this time backfired.

“We’re in positions to extend the lead and unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that,” Hynes said. “As it comes through when teams press, there’s some details and discipline in our game that need to be better when you know a team’s going to come from behind — just positioning and reads and puck situations.

“That’s another step of growth for our team is when the game is in the balance with a one-goal lead in those situations, just the importance of the discipline and details.”

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GO DEEPER

Wild’s OT goalie pull backfires, Foligno done for season: Key takeaways vs. Golden Knights

Case in point was the Golden Knights’ tying goal in the third period. With just over six minutes left, the Wild up one, they had the puck deep in Vegas’ zone. Instead of keeping the puck down low, Ryan Hartman did a blind rim around the boards. The other two forwards were on his side of the ice. That led to defenseman Jake Middleton making an aggressive pinch in. The Golden Knights ended up with a two-on-one the other way, as Marco Rossi couldn’t get back in time to cover for Middleton.

“I got a pass on the rim-out the first time — I thought it was that again,” Middleton said. “I thought there was a forward behind me. Hindsight being 20-20, I don’t know if I want to go there. That obviously sucks. You’re trying to play aggressive, right? You don’t want to give a team like the Golden Knights time to get the puck and come on the rush and unfortunately, a poor decision was made and it ended up in the back of our net.”

It’d be easy to just blame Middleton on that one for being over-aggressive. Hynes sure didn’t. He felt the Wild needed to eat the puck down low where Hartman had two linemates to support. The decision by Hartman to rim the puck forced a series of scenarios that were avoidable.

“We end up rimming the puck, then our ‘D’ has to pinch, our (forward) covers, but the awareness wasn’t as good as it needed to be,” Hynes said. “So it’s not just on one or two guys. It’s the mindset and understanding — time, score, where you’re at in the game, what the decisions are. When you have the puck low in the offensive zone, let’s keep it there.

“That’s the discipline and details that has to be the next step for our team moving forward, those types of situations.”

If you take a look at the seven blown third-period leads at home by the Wild since New Year’s Eve, you’ll find some common themes. Against Winnipeg on Dec. 31, Minnesota had a one-goal lead four minutes into the third. Middleton took a tripping penalty a minute later and the Jets scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game. Then on the winner, Hartman took a delayed penalty and all heck broke loose for a Dominic Toninato winner.

The Flyers game on Jan. 12, Minnesota had a two-goal lead in the third when Hartman and Matt Boldy scored within the first five minutes. But there was a critical breakdown on the Philadelphia goal to make it 3-2. Alex Goligoski got caught up near the blue line, and Hartman didn’t track Tyson Foerster, who got behind him to finish off the two-on-one.

The Predators, one team the Wild have been chasing, scored three in a row in the third to beat Minnesota on Jan. 25, one of those crushing losses before the All-Star break. The tying goal by Alexandre Carrier came when no one kept an eye on him as he went unabated down the middle of the ice. It appeared Zuccarello lost him in the neutral zone.

Jordan Kyrou scored back-to-back goals to erase a 3-2 Wild lead in the third period on March 23, a 5-4 Minnesota OT loss. The go-ahead goal came when Zuccarello didn’t execute a play defensively at mid-ice, with Kyrou going right around him and scoring on a two-on-one rush.

 

These losses aren’t all on one person, or for one specific reason. But there has been a clear lack of execution and focus on the important details of the game at key times this season. The Wild don’t have the margin for error, or the offensive firepower, to outscore their mistakes.

Plus, they too often haven’t gotten the big save at the big time.

“I thought we played more aggressive than we have in those recent games where we had given up leads in the third period,” Middleton said. “That kind of led to our demise in this game as well. But I think it was different characteristically from the other losses we had previously had in the third.”

After Amadio tied the score, one did wonder if Hynes would consider pulling Gustavsson in the 1-1 game late in regulation. After all, the Wild were chasing two teams – Vegas and L.A., so maybe it would be more prudent to attempt to get the winner late in the third and at least keep the Golden Knights from getting one or two points.

Hynes said it was considered but it didn’t play out in the Wild’s favor. Plus, a four-on-three is a much more ideal situation to score in than a six-on-five … despite the Wild’s NHL record 19 six-on-five goals two years ago.

The Wild got through three rotations and ended up with the ideal four players on the ice —  Zuccarello, Boldy, Kirill Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Against the Predators, Zuccarello hit Boldy for a blistering one-time game-winner. This time, Zuccarello took a shot that Thompson turned away for William Karlsson to find his original Golden Knights’ linemate.

“Lo and behold, it lands on Jonathan ‘Money’ Marchessault’s stick and he makes no mistake and now he’s going to be asking to be on the penalty kill every day,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy joked.

Three weeks ago, when Hynes was being lauded leaguewide for his guts, he made it clear the next day that he was well away had Boldy not scored, it would be a very different narrative.

Well, the Wild were much more desperate now with what some models showed was a 2 percent chance to make the playoffs, so he pulled the trigger again.

“I would put those guys back on the ice again,” he said. “We have an excellent power play. I think those four guys on the ice against three players gives you the best chance to win the hockey game.

“The puck bounces in another direction, it’s in the net. … You put that puck on Mats Zuccarello’s stick five times, I bet you you score on four.”

The big difference this time against Vegas versus the Predators game is the element of surprise. Cassidy reminded his players between the third period and overtime that the Wild were desperate for points and could pull their goalie again.

Still, despite the heads up, Marchessault, normally a non-penalty killer, never envisioned he’d score his 40th goal on his seventh shot of the game “on PK in four-on-three in overtime.”

As glum as the Wild locker room was after the game, nobody was second-guessing Hynes’ decision. Remember, this is a team that loved the gusto earlier this month.

“It was all or nothing,” Gustavsson said.

Added Middleton, “It worked for us the first time. It didn’t work for us this time. But we put ourselves in a position where something like that needs to be done. Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on top this time.”

But the only reason why there was another “this time” is the Wild have lacked maturity in their game all season. That’s disconcerting for a veteran-laden, experienced team that will largely be rolled back next season.

(Photo: Bailey Hillesheim / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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