JOHANNESHOV, Sweden — Filip Gustavsson had a huge cheering section of about 30 family and friends that made the one-hour flight from his hometown in Northern Sweden to see him play Saturday afternoon.
His mother got to see him play live for the first time in a few years, since his AHL Belleville days. His grandmother was there. Some saw him for the first time … ever.
“Everybody who could make it is here,” said Gustavsson’s mother, Anna-Lena. “Everyone else is watching it back home on TV.”
What they saw was Gustavsson looking much more like himself, not the goalie who had won just one of his past seven starts. Like the Swede, the entire Wild team played much better, smarter, more structured. Their worst-in-the-league penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4.
But what has been frustrating is they also got the same result — a fourth straight loss, this one in a 2-1 shootout defeat to the struggling Senators. The moral victories and improved play can only take you so far when the Wild are already seven points out of third place in the Central Division.
Players are feeling the pressure. The coaching staff has to be feeling the heat as evidenced by coach Dean Evason talking in a serious, soft tone and taking little solace in the fact the Wild looked much more like themselves.
“It’s always a damper when you don’t get the full points,” Gustavsson, who made 30 saves and another two in the shootout before Josh Norris’ eventual winner, said.
“That’s just the way it’s going right now,” Mats Zuccarello said.
“We want to win,” rookie Marco Rossi said.
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Where would the Wild be without Rossi and Brock Faber? The two youngsters have been arguably the team’s two best players, and that’s not just a compliment to them, but an indictment of their highest-paid stars like Matt Boldy, who has one goal this season and had two shots Saturday, and Kirill Kaprizov, who had one shot on goal and one other attempted.
In the past 10 games, Boldy and Kaprizov don’t have a single five-on-five goal.
Rossi’s tally, like four other of his goals this season, came from the high-danger area directly in front of the goalmouth. With his parents in the crowd as well as a large contingent of friends from Austria, including some holding a large “Marco Rossi” banner right behind where he scored, Rossi showed many of the things that have made him successful this season. He also gave the Wild the game’s first goal for just the third time in 13 games with a nifty redirection of Faber’s blast from the point.
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You have to hand it to Rossi. Despite his diminutive stature, he gets to the net and parks himself there routinely.
“It’s important for our hockey club that he’s playing like he is,” Evason said. “Arguably the best player on our hockey club this season. He’s been consistent. The goal he scored tonight, the willingness to get to the net and stay at the net and compete for his position, … he’s doing a lot of really, really good things.”
On the end of the spectrum continues to be Kaprizov, who played another nondescript game on the top line. He hasn’t gotten to the net nearly as much as in past years and on this night, managed just the one shot. Kaprizov was also a non-factor on the Wild’s 0-for-4 power play and couldn’t score in the shootout.
In the third period of a 1-1 game, it was Kaprizov who committed one of those “silly” turnovers at the offensive blue line Evason keeps bemoaning to require Gustavsson to cover up with two saves in a row. This has been a season-long trend for Kaprizov.
Asked how the Wild get him going, Evason in an exasperated tone said, “I don’t know.”
“Same as we’ve talked about our starts, we’ve tried different things,” the coach continued. “But again, he is such a (gamer), a willing guy, competitor. It’s driving him as nuts as it is you and everybody else. He wants to help his hockey club, but the bottom line is he’s gotta get back to just getting forward and working and competing.
“If he’s doing that, … we hope one of these games hopefully he has one of those breakout games that we’ve seen before that jumpstarts not only him but the hockey club as well.”
The Wild, playing without Ryan Hartman (illness) Saturday, could have the veteran center back Sunday. Freddy Gaudreau, who has been out a month with an upper-body injury, could come off LTIR and play, too.
Minnesota will have to most likely play the best game of its season to beat the Leafs (9-5-2), who have won three in a row and thumped the Wild, 7-4, in the second game of the season. Zuccarello said a couple weeks ago that the group had to keep trusting and believing in each other, but he knows you can only say “it’s early” in the season for so long.
“Obviously we worry about the points, we want to get as many points as we can,” Zuccarello said. “But right now we’re in a stretch where you’ve got to go step by step. This is a good step in the right direction. We’ve been down. But today was really good. Hope we can keep it going.”
Goaltending can make or break teams. They can also make a coach look a lot better. But it’s been a struggle in net for the Wild this season, with Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury combining for the fifth-worst even-strength goaltending, at least according to MoneyPuck’s save percentage above expectation. Gustavsson helped carry Minnesota to the playoffs last year with his breakout season, putting him in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.
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Gustavsson has admitted he’s been “average” — allowing 4.71 goals per game in his previous seven starts; he entered the game ranked 46th with two wins, 55th with a 4.64 GAA and 52nd with an .872 save percentage — and that’s why the Wild will need more performances like Saturday if they want to get out of this funk. Evason indicated they might go back to Gustavsson in Sunday’s 2 p.m. local time matinee against the high-powered Leafs.
“I feel like the big difference is the whole team has been struggling, and it’s affected (him),” said Gustavsson’s long-time Swedish goalie coach Linda Blomquist. “It seems like he’s a little stressed out. He’s been stuck in traffic, whereas last season I felt like he could see through everything. He’s chasing the situation a little bit instead of last year being real disciplined. (Saturday) was back to his basics. Good position, good rebound control. When you play on a team where you feel like the defense is stressed out, you get stressed out. It’s impossible not to.”
Gustavsson said his legs “felt like spaghetti” early on but he got better as the game wore on. “I just tried to do my part,” he said. Gustavsson noticed a much better performance in front of him.
That was really evident on a much more patient, conservative penalty kill where the Wild avoided being too aggressive and getting victimized by running around.
“A lot of trust in each other,” Gustavsson said. “This is what I remember from last year, when we would play (well). I think we’re better when we have these low-scoring games, than chasing and scoring a lot of goals. This is us. We have to keep trying like this.”
This is one tense organization right now. Both teams actually resembled teams that have lost a lot of games this season, and know changes could be coming and were doing their best to hang on to earn a point after Erik Brannstrom’s early third-period goal tied the score.
Even overtime was completely uneventful with neither team even having a shot in the first 3 minutes, 50 seconds.
The Wild certainly played like they were trying not to lose rather than trying to win. That’s how fragile they are right now, how much they’re gripping the stick.
We’ll find out on Sunday if Saturday was a start. They’ve lost 10 of 13 and need to quickly piece their game back together again. Perhaps it’ll help that one of Evason’s most trusted soldiers, Freddy Gaudreau, is expected to play for the first time in 11 games.
But the NHL surely did Minnesota no favors by scheduling them a date with the high-powered Maple Leafs just 18 hours after Saturday’s final horn.
“It’s not fun when you don’t get two points, for sure,” defenseman Jonas Brodin said. “But if we come back (Sunday) and win the game, we get three points and that’s a good road trip for us.”
(Top photo: Andre Ringuette / NHLI via Getty Images)