Wild needs to play less selfishly to pull out of rut, Evason says

·4 min read

Only a handful of NHL teams are better positioned in the standings right now than the Wild.

Aside from leading the Central Division, Minnesota sits atop the Western Conference in a three-way tie with Vegas and Anaheim, who have played two more games each. All three have 40 points.

But the Wild held onto those spots despite, not because of, how the team has played lately.

"You go from such a high after winning eight [in a row]," goalie Cam Talbot said. "It's just, yeah, I can't pinpoint one thing."

After that impressive eight-game win streak — assembled exclusively while the team wasn't at full strength — the Wild limped into the NHL's holiday break on a four-game swoon.

That rut hasn't sabotaged what the Wild accomplished through the previous 26 games.

Still, the slide reinforces that winning can be just as contagious as losing.

"We just have to understand we have to shake the bad habits, and a win's going to be coming soon," alternate captain Marcus Foligno said. "The pause is probably nice right now."

As soon as the Wild's best run of the season ended, its worst started.

In the middle of a long road trip, and on the heels of a nail-bitter at San Jose that sealed an eighth consecutive victory, the Wild finally was outmatched Dec. 11 in Los Angeles.

A third-period goal by the Kings that broke a tie officially led to the demise, a 2-1 decision, but the Wild looked off its game — a disconnect that was revealed in a slow start and parade of penalties.

Circumstances didn't favor the Wild in the next loss, with the team on a back-to-back at the end of a trip squaring off against a rival in Vegas that was idle while the Wild played the previous night. The power play let the team down in that 6-4 setback, blanking on five opportunities including a lengthy 5-on-3.

Since then, the missteps have piled up.

Back at home, the Wild had the game on Dec. 14 against Carolina called off when Hurricanes players tested positive for COVID-19. The team rested up but then delivered a dud vs. struggling Buffalo, picking up a point in a 3-2 shootout loss thanks to 38 saves from Talbot.

Another game, a Dec. 18 matinee with Florida, was postponed and the Wild spent more time practicing. But the team still couldn't stop the spiral.

In its last game before the break on Monday in Dallas, the Wild had a messy performance in a 7-4 letdown to the Stars.

What coach Dean Evason felt needed to be cleaned up was what he called "selfishness" with players extending their shifts, especially late in the third period as the Wild tried to rally. That caused fatigue and impeded the Wild's ability to make plays.

"The disappointing part is that we didn't trust each other," Evason said.

Getting back on the same page and rediscovering the cohesiveness that defined that eight-game tear, as well as the string of early-season wins from comebacks, could be the difference between the Wild maintaining its perch at the top or facing an eviction.

Health may also be a factor.

Although the team had success during the win streak while dealing with key absences on its blue line, the Wild went into the break with captain Jared Spurgeon, winger Jordan Greenway and center Joel Eriksson Ek injured.

Eriksson Ek was the latest to get sidelined, suffering what could be a long-term upper-body injury in the loss to the Stars.

"He does it all for us," Talbot said. "He brings it every single night, and you can put him out there at any point in the game and he's going to give you everything he's got. He's been one of our best players all year at both ends of the ice. There's no replacing a guy like him, just like there's no replacing Spurgy.

"So it's going to be a by-committee kind of thing, next guy up. We have the depth to do it, but obviously those are tough injuries."

With the NHL not resuming action until Monday, the team has time to heal. Regardless of whether that's enough to restore the Wild, the challenge remains the same.

"Just need to sharpen up," Foligno said. "I think it's just maybe the mind-set. I don't think it's work ethic. I think we're doing things right out there. Just gotta play desperate."

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