Underperforming Wild trying to pick up the defensive pace

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Kurtis MacDermid, right, fights Minnesota Wild right wing Chris Stewart during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher sounded like the concerned parent of a needing-to-be-punished teenager recently when he was assessing for reporters his team’s performance nearing the one-third mark of the season.

”Incredibly disappointing,” Fletcher said.

After a franchise-best 49 victories in head coach Bruce Boudreau’s first year to post the fifth-best record in the NHL, the Wild were stunned in the first round of the playoffs with a five-game loss to the rival St. Louis Blues. Perhaps the sudden ouster created some sort of hangover effect, because the Wild have been at or near the bottom of the Central Division all season. They started a critical three-game West Coast trip with a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night.

”The focus has got to change, and if it doesn’t, then this is what we are,” Fletcher said last week, after the Wild had given up 13 goals over two consecutive losses to the Blues and the Winnipeg Jets.

What has happened far too often is a stray from the defensive principles and structure that Boudreau was able to get the Wild to follow a year ago. His teams have been high scoring, including last season, but the commitment to protecting their own zone has come first. The depth on the blue line for the Wild is not what it’s been in the past, either.

”That’s how we have to win games, two goals or less,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.

With a 13-11-3 record after losing to the Kings, the Wild are on pace for 87 points, which would have been seven points below the 2016-17 postseason cut. Goalie Devan Dubnyk posted three consecutive shutouts over three November games, but the Wild went on to allow 30 goals over their next seven contests.

”You want to score. It’s a lot more fun playing offense than it is playing defense in any sport,” Boudreau said. ”But defense wins.”

The Wild aren’t the only team that has underachieved, of course. For every surprise success in Tampa Bay and Winnipeg, there’s an unexpected letdown in Anaheim, Edmonton and Montreal.

What ought to help the Wild, the Ducks, the Oilers and the Canadiens try to make up for their rough starts is that there are so many teams bunched together in the middle of the standings that the traditional Thanksgiving Day threshold for making the playoffs might not carry its usual clout.

ZUCKER’S SECOND HOME

One of the bright spots for the Wild has been the play of left wing Jason Zucker, who leads the team with 13 goals, a pace that would obliterate his career high of 22 goals set last season.

A year ago, Zucker was widely considered the player most likely to be lost by the Wild in the expansion draft, but he was ultimately deemed too valuable to be left unprotected, and center Erik Haula was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights instead. The other reason for such speculation, of course, was that Las Vegas is where Zucker learned to play the sport. He’s the only Nevada-raised player currently in the NHL.

Last week, the Golden Knights visited Minnesota , the first time Zucker faced his hometown’s new team, and he said that day the prospect of such an unexpected matchup when the 25-year-old Zucker first entered the league felt ”a little weird” to him.

”I definitely never thought this day would come, but it’s definitely exciting knowing that they do and that they’re doing well,” Zucker said.

HANG ON TO YOUR HAT

In the 415 games that were played this season through Monday night, a total of 29 hat tricks have recorded, including one by Zucker on Nov. 9 against the Montreal Canadiens . That’s tied the third-most in the NHL over the 415-game mark in the last 20 years, behind the 2010-11 (33) and 2005-06 (30) seasons. Last year at that point, there were only 19 hat tricks.

FOURTEEN AT HOME FOR FORSBERG

Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg is the only player in the NHL to record at least one point in each home game this season. When Boston pulled within 4-3 early in the third period Monday night, Forsberg answered with a breakaway goal 34 seconds later to help the Predators fend off the Bruins.

”You’re up 4-1, you don’t want to give up two quick goals,” Nashville captain Roman Josi said. ”When he got that puck on the breakaway in a dangerous spot, you know he scores.”

That was Forsberg’s 14th point at home, where Nashville is tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the best record in the league at 11-2-1. The defending Western Conference champion Predators have won three straight games and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Winnipeg Jets visit the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, featuring two of the league’s top five highest-scoring teams and a pair of squads that have been near or at the top of their respective conference for much of the season.

LEADERS

Through Tuesday’s games: Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 20; Assists: Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg), 29; Points: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 40; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 18; Goals-against average: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 2.11; Save percentage: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), .932.

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