BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jared Spurgeon’s season was barely 20 minutes old and he already looked like he’d been through a playoff run.
Which, around the Twin Cities, typically lasts a few weeks.
The Minnesota Wild captain, making his season debut, sported a fat lip, courtesy of a high stick.
“Right back into it,” he said. “I think the modeling career is over.”
It was a rare moment of levity in a frustrated and quiet Wild dressing room at the KeyBank Center. Not even Spurgeon could save Minnesota this time. His gutsy effort ended with him hitting the post in the waning seconds of a maddening 3-2 defeat to the Buffalo Sabres. This was one of those losses that keeps you up at night (or eventually out of the playoffs). For the most part, the Wild had no business coming out without a point.
They had a 51-19 advantage in scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, including 23-9 of the high-danger variety. Their penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4, their power play came through with two goals. They won 69 percent of the faceoffs, including a monster 19-for-23 performance by Joel Eriksson Ek. But they missed the net 19 times, leaving their three-game road trip with just two points to show for it. They whiffed on a major opportunity to build off their potential season-changing come-from-behind win over the New York Rangers a week ago. Where is that team?
The only thing consistent about the Wild through 14 games is their inconsistency. They’re finding ways to lose.
“We can be mad and disappointed and angry about it,” coach Dean Evason said. “But we have to stay positive as we possibly can to get out of it. I think our group will do that. We’ve been resilient before. We’ll be resilient again.”
They’ll have to be, as the Dallas Stars — among the best in the Western Conference — will be at Xcel Energy Center on Sunday, followed by the Wild’s trip to Sweden for the Global Series games against the Washington Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps this overseas adventure is coming at a good time for Minnesota (5-7-2). Maybe the players can come together, find their mojo over beers, Swedish meatballs and bond much like the Tampa Bay Lightning did en route to the first of their back-to-back Stanley Cups. This is not to say that a parade down the Mississippi River should be planned. But the Wild are better than what they’ve shown so far.
There’s Kirill Kaprizov, their superstar and highest-paid player. He’s their “engine” and newly-minted alternate captain, but he hasn’t yet been the kind of difference-maker they need this season. There’s a heavy burden there, as the Wild — as has been documented — don’t have the extra $15 million to find other stars to support Kaprizov due to their dead cap hits from the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts. And Kaprizov has had his moments like his power-play goal and setup of Eriksson Ek on a third-period power-play goal to bring them within one. But Kaprizov was also part of a turnover at the blue line that led to Jeff Skinner’s breakaway, go-ahead goal late in the second. Kaprizov then took an interference penalty on the next shift. Kaprizov’s four shots on goal in 13 attempts were fitting for his season, shooting 9 percent when his career average is 15.
Matt Boldy, in the first year of a seven-year $49 million deal hasn’t nearly been as noticeable as he should be, especially for a team starving for finishers. GM Bill Guerin no doubt gave him some tough love in his exit meetings last spring about going to the hard areas and being tougher in postseason play. He’ll have to be more of a night-in, night-out factor for Minnesota to even get there.
And there’s Filip Gustavsson, the “Gus Bus,” who was last year’s feel-good story. His breakout season helped lift the Wild to the playoffs after his heater down the stretch. He earned a three-year extension and a chance to prove he can be their No. 1 goaltender going forward. But top goalies are born out of their consistency. They become the stabilizing and steadying force when things go bad. And while Gustavsson was better than recent starts, making 22 saves against Buffalo, he was admittedly “not good enough,” outdueled by Devon Levi (31 saves).
Gustavsson has just one win in his last seven starts, boasting a 4.64 goals-against average and .872 save percentage. Maybe it’s time to ride future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury for a bit.
“You can’t be average in this league,” Gustavsson said. “I need to be a little better to win games. Got a lot of work to do.”
You are what your record says you are, and the Wild are sixth in the Central Division, behind the Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, who all have at least a game in hand. The standings can look a lot more crooked in the next couple of weeks, as the Wild play just three games through Thanksgiving. Is Minnesota as good as the Stars and the Colorado Avalanche, the top two teams in the division? They don’t look like it. But they should be able to clear a field that includes the Coyotes, Jets and Blues — not just two points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks, who have two games in hand.
“You’ve got to learn to be in these tight games, what we have to do to be successful as a team,” Eriksson Ek said. “We know what kind of team we are. We have to stick with it.”
The Wild looked like they were back to their identity following their emotional, 5-4 win over the Rangers last Saturday. They came together as a group, their captains having been challenged by Evason and his staff the day before. It was one of those victories that could and should catapult teams, but after Minnesota’s first two-game winning streak, they’ve dropped two in a row. One of them came against the Rangers’ third-string goalie Louis Domingue, who played in his first NHL game since April 2022. And another came in a game that they controlled for many stretches.
Gustavsson said this might have been the best game the Wild played defensively in front of him, and they still lost.
“We can’t win one game and then let in seven goals the next game,” Gustavsson said. “If we’re going to have games like this, when it’s close, 3-2, 2-1, we’re going to have to start winning games and we can create our own confidence.”
There are one or two plays per game that have turned the tide for a Wild team that doesn’t seem to have very much margin for error. On Thursday night, it was rookie Brock Faber making an aggressive pinch that turned into the go-ahead, breakaway goal. The former Gophers captain admirably fell on his sword for the mistake, though he’s been the least of Minnesota’s worries. On Friday, it was Jonas Brodin’s soft pass to the blueline to Kaprizov, with two Sabres converging to break it up and start a breakaway for Skinner, who put the Sabres up for good on a breakaway.
“It seems like there’s one play that we don’t need to make at a certain time, or we have a chance that doesn’t go in that changes the game,” Spurgeon said. “As a group, we have to look at the positive. We’re a pretty smart, veteran group. We realize what we need to change and what needs to be done going forward.”
Having Spurgeon back is huge, as it’s been pretty clear how much the Wild have missed him. “He’s one of the best defensemen in the world,” Evason said. Spurgeon plays in all situations like he did Friday, both on the power play and penalty kill. He’s a stabilizer on and off the ice, a calming influence. He’ll make the struggling Jake Middleton better. He’ll be the extension of the coaching staff, as Evason pointed out they’ve asked him for his input over the past few weeks.
“Now, are we looking for him to come back and be a savior right away? Of course not,” Evason said. “Everybody’s got to play the right way. We’ve got to continue to play consistently.”
This is not the Edmonton Oilers, a Stanley Cup contender now in complete disarray and devoid of confidence. There don’t appear to be major changes on the horizon for Minnesota. The Wild are who they are. At their best, they’re that relentless, resilient group that put together back-to-back 100-point seasons despite their dead cap constraints. They’ve shown flashes this season, just not nearly enough. They are a proud group, a hard-working group. They care.
They just don’t have the kind of team that can outscore their mistakes. And, so far, there have been too many. How do they get out of this?
“Belief,” Evason said. “We have to continue to believe that if we do things over and over again as we talked about before, that it’ll flip.”
(Top photo of the Wild’s Jared Spurgeon going after a loose puck against the Sabres: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)