The Minnesota Wild opened their 2022-23 season on Thursday. It was not an auspicious debut.
So bad were the Wild that what was once, briefly, an enthusiastic crowd of 18,612 towel-waving fans began filing out of Xcel Energy Center well before the final horn sounded on a 7-3 loss to the New York Rangers.
The best you can say after this one is that it was just the first of 81 regular-season games, and Wild players did – at least the few who talked to reporters afterward.
“It’s Game 1,” winger Matt Boldy said. “I don’t think it’s panic button (time), for sure.”
But let’s not just let this slide past as an anomaly. For one thing, we don’t yet know that it was. For another, encouraging your fans to leave the arena early is no way to begin a season. It’s one thing to lose your home opener; it happens. But it’s another entirely to get, in Boldy’s words, “blown out of the rink.”
Minnesota’s offense appeared to be in fine form early, peppering Igor Shesterkin with pucks on the way to a 15-8 advantage in shots on goal through one period. They were down, 3-0.
Marc-Andre Fleury, the veteran goaltender the Wild are betting to play big this season, looked lost for most of the game, often because he was surrounded by white jerseys. While Minnesota controlled the puck early, the Rangers controlled the play, charging past the Wild defense for scoring chances on passes, rebounds and rushes.
Asked to assess the Wild’s defensive zone play, center Ryan Hartman said, “Awful.”
Succinct and accurate.
Fleury declined to blame his teammates, of course, and coach Dean Evason came to his goaltender’s defense, saying, “He wasn’t fighting it. Our entire team was fighting it.” But Fleury didn’t bail out the defense, either.
“It doesn’t matter what play comes at me,” he said. “There were some tough ones, obviously, but to me, I still feel like I should have made more saves and give my team a chance.”
Boldy scored twice, the first cutting the Wild’s deficit to 5-2 five minutes into the third period, but before the PA announcer could even officially announce the goal, Rangers winger Kappo Kakko was scoring on the other end, slipping the puck behind Fleury for a 6-2 lead.
That’s when the first Wild fans started trudging to the exits. They began departing en masse when, after another Boldy goal cut it to 6-3 about a minute later, New York’s Chris Kreider scored again to make it 7-3.
“(The Wild) have got a lot of weapons on that team that can score in a hurry,” said Kreider, whose top line with Kakko and center Mika Zibanejad combined for three goals and five points. “Luckily we were able to get a couple ourselves and get us right back into it.”
As a result, the Wild were really never in it. Never. Early in the second period, Minnesota had almost four solid minutes of power-play time, including 1:22 with a two-man advantage, and scored zero goals. Even 5-on-3, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take the play to the Rangers. They just passed to one another in a circle as if possession were the goal.
They started a couple of fights after falling behind 7-3, in frustration or hoping to spark a comeback. If it was the latter, it was entirely too late. Evason even pulled Fleury for a spell with more than four minutes left. That didn’t work, either.
It was that kind of game. That kind of home opener.
“We had opportunities to score and get off to a lead and we failed to do that,” Hartman said. “And then failed to continue to play.”
Not a great way to start a season.