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Kings 2, Wild 1: Wild fall short to familiar foe

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Despite another goal from team leader Joel Eriksson Ek, Wild struggle early and can’t convert late against Kings

Los Angeles Kings v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Facing a familiar team for the third time in seven games, the Minnesota Wild couldn’t repeat the late comeback magic they enjoyed in the season-opening series, falling 2-1 to the Los Angeles Kings at the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night.

Joel Eriksson Ek scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season and Kaapo Kahkonen stopped 19 of 21 shots, but fell short thanks to another lackluster performance early, and a too-little-to-late performance late, as the Kings’ Carl Grunstrom scored the game winner midway through the third that, despite a flurry of late chances, the Wild couldn’t equalize.

Neither team looked particularily strong through the first half of the opening stanza with both teams managing a combined total of five shots (Kings 3, Wild 2). But the ice shifted when Carson Soucy caught Lias Anderson’s face with a high stick, drawing blood and earning a four-minute stint in the penalty box. But despite six shots and a handful of chances, the Wild penalty kill managed to stifle the Kings and Kaapo Kahkonen cleaned up the rest. The Wild’s second-year netminder was strong from the drop of the puck and stopped everything thrown at him.

But if you thought the Wild came out slow to start the game, you hadn’t seen anything yet. Unable to sustain any pressure, the Kings got on the board just after the four-minute mark of the second period, when Kurtis MacDermid was able to set up a table and have a nice casual meal waiting for a cross-ice pass from Andreas Athanasiou, which he flipped past Kahkonen’s shoulder for the game’s first goal, despite a “technically backchecking” Victor Rask.

Minnesota finally got some of their best chances on a Drew Doughty penalty, but despite some nice pass plays and a crossbar hit by Kevin Fiala, the Wild yet again couldn’t covert with the man advantage. The Wild were able to use the momentum to maintain pressure, but outside of a Marcus Foligno crossbar, nothing doing.

Minnesota caught a break late in the period when Kirill Kaprizov caught a high stick from Trevor Moore, but while the Wild made the most of it with five shots and a ton of chances, neither Jared Spurgeon nor Zach Parise nor Fiala or Kaprizov could find the net behind Petersen, and the Wild would have to try for yet another comeback win in the third period.

Minnesota wouldn’t wait long to get things going in the final frame. Just after the Wild’s power play elapsed, Jordan Greenway had a beauty of a chance deflect of a defenseman’s skate, but it was the Wild’s leading scorer Joel Eriksson Ek who finally jammed a puck past Petersen. The play was challenged by the Kings, but the goal stood.

The Wild’s momentum was short lived, however, as four minutes later Carl Grunstrom found the Wild flat footed (especially Marcus Johansson), and sniped Kahkonen to give the Kings back the lead.

The rest of the third period featured some back-and-forth offensive action and a surprisingly long offensive shift of Kaprizov-Rask-Fiala, but most of the Wild chances whistled wide. When they did find the net, Petersen made every clutch save. And despite a flurry of chances with the extra attacker and the Wild net empty, the Kings were able to hold on for the 2-1 victory.

In the end, the scoresheet will show the Wild outshot the Kings 33-21, but like the final score, the tally could have been so much better had the Wild not passed so poorly, flubbed so many shots and missed so many nets, especially in the first period. And another 0-fer night on the power play (2-for-30 on the season) has got to turn around if the Wild are going to stop from sliding down the standings.

Their next chance will come on Thursday night against (who else?) the Los Angeles Kings. Puck drops at 7 p.m.

Burning Answers

1. Can the second line continue to exist?

Certainly not in a positive way. Marcus Johansson was noticibly bad, not only on the Kings GWG, but in the offensive zone as well. Head coach Dean Evason threw all kinds of line combos together in the third to try to spark the team, including Kaprizov-Bonino-Fiala for a shift, and then an extended experiment of Kaprizov-Rask-Fiala.

Rask did set up Fiala for a nice one-timer late in the third period, but it’s clear to anyone watching that the depth is absolutely going to destroy this team eventually in both the offensive and defensive zones.

Meanwhile, you’ve got a third line that scored (again) and accounts for 32% of the Wild’s points through seven games. Even if you don’t want to break up Greenway, Eriksson Ek and Foligno, whatver dice you roll to get lines out of Johansson, Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, Kevin Fiala, Zach Parise and Kirill Kaprizov is clearly not working.

2. Has Fiala hit his stride?

Unfortunately not. Fiala did lead all players in shots (6) and TOI (22+ minutes), and went two-for-two on faceoffs, so he didn’t have a bad night. But he did also miss some great opportunites to score, and along with all of the Wild, did not play up to his potential. But unlike the first time playing the Kings where you watched him and thought, “the effort is there, he’s just getting unlucky, the goals are going to come,” I didn’t get that sense from Fiala tonight. He struggled just as much as the rest of the team not named Eriksson Ek.

3. Will there be another comeback?

Well, there was one brief comeback thanks to Eriksson Ek absolutely willing a goal past and through Petersen, but when the Wild needed one to force overtime, it was not to be.

This team has got to find a way to get up and stay up on their opponent. And with Colorado looming on the schedule to finish up January, the rematch on Thursday with the Kings presents a perfect opportunity to try on the mantle of an extended lead and see how that feels.