The Minnesota Wild have a history of struggling out of the Holiday break. A 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center followed that pattern.
The Wild are now 1-7-1 in their last nine games coming out of the Holiday break. The difference between this year’s team and the most recent losses, which includes an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets a year ago, is that they entered those games in the midst of a free fall that eventually turned around in early or mid-January. This year they went into the break with a 6-2-2 record in the month of December and should have been feeling much better about their game.
However, the Wild provided the Penguins with very little resistance and caused Zach Parise to re-hash something he, and other members of the team, said about 11 and a half months ago. They felt the Wild were soft and easy to play against following their 7-2 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh that finished off a string of six straight losses and span of just seven wins in 23 games.
“We played slow, puck movement hasn’t been. It really was not good at all tonight,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “We spent a lot of time in our own zone. There was a lot of turnovers. We had the puck a lot. We just gave it back to them pretty much the whole game. Probably the easiest game they are going to play all year.”
In the other locker room, the Penguins were happy with their performance and ability to play their game.
“It didn’t really feel like an easy game,” Penguins forward Eric Fehr said. “I thought we really forced them to make challenging plays. I don’t think we gave them easy plays most of the night. That’s the way our system is supposed to be. We’re supposed to force them to try to make the tougher play and chance plays. Tonight it worked and we were able to win the game.”
The Penguins (17-14-3) dominated the first period, but didn’t score. However, they completely took the game over in the second and never trailed.
Sidney Crosby got the scoring started with a one-time shot from the top of the circles at the 4:23 mark of the middle frame. It came moments after Ryan Suter swung and missed while trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone to send Crosby on a rush. After Devan Dubnyk stopped his shot, the Wild’s defense got caught in no man’s land as Crosby moved into open ice and got himself into shooting position for a pass from David Perron.
The Penguins extended their lead to 2-0 with one minute and 50 seconds left in the second period. While it appeared the Wild thought an icing was coming, Dubnyk failed to play a puck that slid just wide of his goal and the remaining Wild players were slow to back check. Penguins forward Kevin Porter was the only player close to the puck. He retrieved the puck at the bottom of the circles and turned before sending a pass to Fehr streaking toward the goal. Justin Fontaine was unable to keep Fehr from getting a piece of the pass. The re-direction went over Dubnyk’s right shoulder into the net.
The Wild (18-10-6) were able to get one past Matthew Murray late in the second period to get within a goal 45 seconds later. Jason Zucker sped past the Penguins defense and received a pass from Thomas Vanek at the left face-off dot. He fired a wrist shot past the glove of the rookie goaltender making his third career NHL appearance.
However, it took the Penguins just 31 seconds to re-claim the two-goal lead, which to seemingly put the game away. After a highly questionable penalty was called on Jared Spurgeon just seconds after the Wild scored, Patric Hornqvist knocked a loose puck on the goal line into the net to give the Penguins a two-goal lead heading into the second intermission.
“That was big for us,” Fehr said. “You go to the locker room with a one-goal game, it could be a different feeling. We bounced back right away and get that good feeling back going into the (intermission). Those kinds of swings are big.”
The Penguins have now become a team the Wild cannot beat. The Wild have lost five of the last six meetings between the two teams by a combined score of 27-11 dating back to the 2011-12 season. The only Wild win was shutout victory in April of 2014.
No. 3 – Matt Cullen. The Penguins forward recorded an assist.
No. 2 – Eric Fehr. The Penguins forward scored a goal.
No. 1 – Sidney Crosby. The Penguins forward had a goal and an assist.