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Wheeler’s game winner downs Wild 4-3

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NHL: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

When the team says the right thing all week long about playing tighter and tougher defensively, especially in the third periods of games, performances like what the Wild had in a 4-3 loss at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets just feels like lip service. Patrik Laine, the young Finnish stud, scored two power play goals, while Blake Wheeler sealed the game for the Jets in the third period. Minnesota, on the other hand, had issues with boxing out and defending their lead.

The first period began with Landon Ferraro going down with what the Wild reported as a hip flexor injury. It appeared to have happened during his first shift, and while he tried playing through it a couple times, he eventually would leave the game. Mikko Koivu would get called for cross checking Nikolaj Ehlers. On the ensuing power play, it would be Laine teeing one up from the left offensive faceoff circle, a la Alex Ovechkin, for the game’s first goal. The puck squirted through a plethora of skates and sticks in the passing lane, but was unscathed as it ended up on Laine’s tape.

There’s just not much one can do to stop a Laine one-timer and one power play goal given up is forgivable. But 1:42 later, Matt Dumba left Ehlers alone in front of the net (and I mean alone). Tobias Enstrom immediately centered the puck and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk had zero chance. It was quickly 2-0 Jets.

Near the end of the first period, Chris Stewart’s brand of physical play would continue to pay dividends. He would absolutely hammer Josh Morrissey behind the Jets net, and as the rest of the Wild forecheck forced a turnover, Stewart would get the puck and backhand the puck past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

In the second period, Minnesota’s play wasn’t really much better. They got hemmed into their zone for good stretches. At the end of one of such stretches, Zucker turned north and ended up feeding Koivu for the game-tying goal.

Dustin Byfuglien is a good player. He possess such good skill and that size is coveted by every NHL GM. But Byfuglien, much like the rest of the Jets under Paul Maurice, have been held back by being incredibly undisciplined. Byfuglien is good for at least one bad penalty per game. He obliged when he held Jason Zucker, giving the Wild their first power play of the game. Mike Reilly would gather a failed clearing attempt at the right point. Without many passing options, his wrist shot would find its way through traffic over the shoulder of Hellebuyck to give the Wild a 3-2 lead. The goal was originally credited to Marcus Foligno for what would have been his first as a member of the Wild, but that will have to wait.

The lead didn’t last long when Laine got the benefit of a deflection off of Koivu’s stick for his second of the night.

The Wild had amounted damn near squat when it came to shots on goal during the third period. Both Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin were getting beat consistently. On one play, Blake Wheeler drove hard to the net with Brodin acting as the turn-style. The puck would lie in the crease and it appeared that Mark Scheifele scored to give the Jets a lead. Bruce Boudreau challenged the play on the basis of goaltender interference and won. Wheeler’s skate, as he passed through the crease, dragged Dubnyk and spun him sideways.

With the goal taken off the board, and new life for the Wild, the Jets only scored again. Eric Staal had issues handling the puck through the neutral zone and coughed it up just outside the Wild zone. Kyle Connor made a nice play at the Wild line to beat Brodin and passed the puck to Wheeler as Wheeler was burning Dumba. Just like that, the Jets were back on top with a 4-3 lead.

Minnesota could not get past Hellebuyck in the final minutes and with the goalie pulled. Minnesota fell 4-3 and it was yet another loss in which the Wild either had a lead, or were tied into the third period. The season is just four games old for the Wild, but these trends, even with all the injuries mounting up, just aren’t good. Regardless of talent, one thing any team should be able to do is defend. Defense does require some talent, but it’s mostly effort, positioning, and being smart with the puck. None of that appears to be happening inside the Wild blue line right now.

The Wild will head out to “Rodeo Capitol of the World” and take on the Flames. With another injury to yet another forward, the Wild will either have to activate Mikael Granlund, who made the trip, or play with 7 defensemen. Gustav Olofsson was a healthy scratch in Winnipeg, so he’ll likely draw in if the Wild can’t dress enough forwards.

Lip-service does no one good. Either the Wild plays defense, or it doesn’t. There is no try.