Wild open homestand badly critical with mild loss for Penguins

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It’s become a thing in Minnesota for fans to wrap the bottom bowl glass in the wild with all sorts of handmade signs before every game.

On Saturday night, they might want to go with Hallmark’s “Get Well Soon” cards for the #1 goalie. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury.

The average, mediocre, mild-mannered in every way Wild has enough problems in the buildup and the game as a whole that they can’t afford to get too much of the kind of goaltending they received from backup Filip Gustavsson Thursday night in a 6-4 loss to what had been a falling Pittsburgh Penguins team.

With Fleury on injured reserve, this is an opportunity for 24-year-old Gustavsson to step in and provide a backbone to a frail and twisted-looking squad that continues to sputter at an alarming rate for nearly a quarter of the season.

But Gustavsson’s MO has long been a goalkeeper who can make the incredible save but moments or minutes later gives up the backbreaking tender. And that’s exactly what he did in his first start for Fleury against the Penguins.

Throw him an escape from Josh Archibald or Jake Guentzel?

No problem.

But a 45-foot wrist shot from Brock McGinn three minutes after Joel Eriksson Ek scored his first career short-handed goal to cut the deficit to 4-3?

Big problem.

That goal to put the Penguins up by two with just over five minutes left cemented Minnesota’s last bland loss on home ice, this time against an opponent who had lost nine of their previous 11.

It was a bad way to open a critical seven-game home one day after Eriksson Ek looked a dead journalist in the eye and said in a serious tone: “This is an important home.”

After Brandon Duhaime and Eriksson Ek scored 12 seconds apart in the second period to evaporate Pittsburgh’s 2-0 lead, the Wild’s penalty and goaltending collapsed en route to the Wild’s sixth loss in eight home games (2-5-1) this season and third consecutive loss overall (0-2-1).

Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby, who had two goals and two assists and 19 match wins, hit power-play goals to put the Penguins up by two goals again, and Woodbury, Minn. native and resident Guentzel at Lake Elmo, he lit up the Wild with a goal, two assists and six shots 15 minutes from home.

“We want to win,” said Eriksson Ek after his two-goal attempt and four shots (six more attempted). “We want to compete and win hockey games. And right now we’re not. If people were happy here, I’d be more worried than now.

Eriksson Ek was speaking after the Wild held a brief players-only meeting during which leaders implored teammates to unearth the identity of a hard-working and controlled team that can score low-scoring wins. This is a team that has traded 85-point Kevin Fiala, lost #1 center Ryan Hartman (34 goals a year ago) long term to injury and has played virtually all season without Jordan Greenway, even though his last attempt to return to training is around the corner.

However, the sloppy, careless, undisciplined, and unstructured play we see nearly every night is remarkable when you consider that this mediocre 7-8-2 team amassed a franchise-record 113 points last season and scored the fifth-most of goals in the NHL.

“We have to understand that we are a very different team right now than we were last year,” said veteran Marcus Foligno. “We have a lot of new kids in the lineup, and we have to find our identity and play the full 60 minutes, and that’s how we have to win games. We have to win matches 2-1. It will be ugly. We don’t have the firepower we thought we had.

“And especially when two guys who pull a lot of weight this year maybe don’t have it, we need guys who step up. I just feel that we have to find our identity to become (a team) that wins tight games.

The “two guys” Foligno was referring to are clearly Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello, who are pressing and turning records at a brisk pace right now. Zuccarello’s play took a turn for the worse in two weeks, and it was his turnover and feeble attempt at body control that led to McGinn’s goal that had yet to be stopped.

“I have to have them,” said Gustavsson, who gave up two goals on the first three shots he faced during a four-shooting first period. “They are coming off the players’ skates and I am reacting late to them. When you play in the NHL, you have to have them and give the team a chance to win the game.”

Just as Gustavsson had played in three appearances on Thursday, when he is screened, he appears to be having trouble picking up pucks. We saw this in his last home game as a starter, when he gave up two quick goals to surrender 2-0, the second a shot Nico Sturm slyly placed between the legs of defender Jon Merrill.

Even McGinn’s goal, not long after Eriksson Ek scored the Wild’s fourth short-handed goal of the year, surpassed Merrill.

“We’re just tired of losing,” Merrill said. “It’s not something we want to feel comfortable with. I don’t know what it is right now.

Foligno said: “It’s quite frustrating right now. The goals are going home and we are not the strongest when it comes to recovering than we thought.

The reality is that Foligno is right that this is a very different looking team than last season.

Regardless of Fiala’s defeat, Hartman’s injury has devastated a lineup that now sees Freddy Gaudreau play between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Gaudreau is a good player, but he’s not a front-line centre. Matt Boldy, who misses Fiala more than anyone, is on a poor streak and hasn’t scored in seven games. Marco Rossi (one assist in 16 games) had another tough game and may need a trip down I-35 to repair what needs to be broken Iowa trust. The growing pains he experiences some nights must make it distressing.

Mason Shaw took two missed penalties on Thursday, including one when the referees incorrectly put Connor Dewar in the box. His careless baseball hit that hit Sidney Crosby in the helmet knocked out two men Wild and led to Letang’s sniper for a 3-2 lead to bring down a full arena three quarters with 1:40 left in the second after Duhaime and Eriksson Ek put the Wild back into play.

Sam Steel and Tyson Jost haven’t added much of anything, and Calen Addison is still trying to grow his defensive game since earning a job after Dmitry Kulikov was traded to Anaheim.

“Every year is a new year,” Merrill said. “I think you never know what you have until you go out and start competing. I think we have some new faces this year that we are still working on. As Moose said, (we’re) just trying to find our identity and be consistent with it.

Now, the good news is that the Wild seems cautiously optimistic about Fleury, believing there’s a chance he could return once he comes off injured reserve before Wednesday’s game against Winnipeg. And Fleury was not only in the locker room after the game trying to lift Gustavsson’s spirits, but he also seemed in high spirits talking to Crosby in the corridor after the game.

The Wilds declined to give an official schedule, although manager Dean Evason noted that they hope he will return “sometimes”.

“Playing in the NHL isn’t easy,” Gustavsson said. “It will not be easy. We have to work much harder than we are doing right now and find a way to win. It’s more fun to win. Everyone hates to lose. We have to stop doing this.”

But the bad news is that this potential family decider only gets tougher with a true Stanley Cup contender, the Carolina Hurricanes, next door at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night.

The Wilds have a lot of work to do.

After the last home game, Evason acknowledged that the Wilds aren’t good enough (that is, not skilled enough) to play high-stakes, east-west, pretty hockey. But with a light breeze appearing to have knocked the Wild forwards off the puck on Thursday night, they certainly don’t even look gutsy or big enough to play a tight game.

No wonder Foligno says the Wilds are “in the middle” when it comes to their identity.

“There are several components of our game that go sideways,” Evason said. “So, we have to keep grinding. We have to keep connecting. We thought we did a lot of good things with regards to getting to the net and opportunities. We just have to keep up with it.

“Hopefully they’re pissed, not frustrated. … Frustration won’t help us. Being angry and hungry, that will help us.

The AthleticJoe Smith contributed to this story.

(Photo by Filip Gustavsson as the puck clears him for a Sidney Crosby goal: Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press)

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