ST. LOUIS — This time was supposed to be different.
After the best regular season in franchise history, the Wild entered the playoffs a week and a half ago expecting a deep run. Some considered them a dark horse to win the Stanley Cup.
Equipped with a superstar in Kirill Kaprizov, a game-breaker in Kevin Fiala, scoring depth in the lineup, a talented blue line and a dynamic duo of Marc-André Fleury and Cam Talbot between the pipes, the sky was the limit for this version of the Wild.
Yet, like so many teams before them, the Wild once again pulled out in the first round, this time losing 4-2 in a series to rival St. Louis Blues. To make matters worse, the Wild led the series 2-1 at the start of this week and were lucky to take full control with the Blues struggling with full-back injuries.
Instead, the Wild lost back-to-back games, ending their season with a 5-1 loss to the Blues in Game 6 Thursday night at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
For a group proud of their resilience throughout the season, the Wild crumbled in the face of adversity when it mattered most. After saying all the right things in the days leading up to the must-see game, the Wild did all the wrong things during a peculiar 20-minute streak that turned out to be their demise.
“Obviously we are disappointed,” said Mats Zuccarello. “There was a belief that we were going to come back to Minnesota for Game 7. Our goal was to move forward.”
Now the Wild will return home with absolutely nothing to show for a once promising season.
On the brink of elimination, the Wild traded their goalies, starting from Talbot for Fleury. This provided a major boost early in the game.
After a solid 10-minute opener, the Wild seemed to be in control. Until a rush for Blues defenseman Nick Leddy, who grew up about 30 minutes from the Xcel Energy Center and was once a Wild draft pick.
With the puck on his stick late in the first period, Leddy slowly but surely maneuvered his way into the offensive zone, and every Wild player on the ice watched. Seconds later, Leddy led the Blues 1-0 with a seemingly harmless shot that somehow beat Talbot clean.
“It has to be a stop from this far,” Talbot said. “We had a good first half and that comes in and gives them some momentum. They don’t need help to score goals, so the first goal must stay out of the net.
It spoiled another otherwise good effort from the Wild in the first period, even though they went 0 for 2 on the power play in the frame.
With a chance to tie the game in the second period, the Wild got another powerplay chance. They didn’t even shoot it.
Fittingly, the Blues got a power play later in the second period, and they quickly cashed in to make it 2-0. The goal came courtesy of Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly, who proved to be a threat throughout the series, tormenting the Wild on both sides of the ice.
It might as well have been the ball game. From then on, the Wild looked like a shell of themselves.
“Things that haven’t bothered us all season have bothered us and we didn’t handle the situation here tonight as well as we expected,” Evason said. “Normally (when we allow a goal) we’re like, ‘OK. No worries. Was good. Hang in there. For some reason we got really tight and went from there.
Minutes after O’Reilly’s goal, Blues center Tyler Bozak made it 3-0, using his big body to clear the bins past Talbot. Not to be outdone, Blues superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko made it 4-0 late in the second period.
That put the game out of reach, and although Matt Dumba found the back of the net in the third period to close the gap to 4-1, it was as close as the Wild got.
“There’s no giving up in our group,” Talbot said. “There was never a moment in the season when I thought we gave up or gave up in a game. You can’t say enough about the guys in our room and how special they are and at how special it was of a band. I think that’s what stings the most.
As the final minutes ticked away, however, the Wild fired Talbot in search of an impossible comeback. It simply allowed Blues defender Colton Parayko to pile up an empty net to make it 5-1.
In the end, this season turned out to be just like the others. No different at all.
“We played a tough series and had a lot of positivity around this team this season and we thought we could do something special,” said Marcus Foligno. “It sure is disappointing.”