ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild were back on their home ice, with a prime opportunity to take another step toward the playoffs.
Despite long stretches of dominance, they remain stuck due to a plucky performance by the noncompliant Calgary Flames.
Joey MacDonald made 34 saves, Mark Cundari scored a goal in his first NHL game and the Flames beat the Wild 4-1 on Sunday night.
“We certainly don’t seem to like doing things the easy way,” said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, whose team lost for the fifth straight time at home.
Mikael Backlund, Mike Cammalleri and Jiri Hudler also scored for the Flames, who are long out of the post-season hunt but have won six of their last eight games.
“It’s not about spoiling. It’s just about playing hard and winning,” MacDonald said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys here trying to prove a point for next year.”
Zach Parise got his team-high 17th goal for the Wild, who will likely need to win two of their three remaining games to make the playoffs without help from others. They’re in seventh place in the Western Conference with 51 points, while Columbus, Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix remain in a tight pack still alive behind them.
“We put ourselves in a tough spot, but we’re still in the driver’s seat. It makes it more difficult now, but we’ve just got to dig deeper,” centre Kyle Brodziak said.
The Wild, who are 0-6 in April against the six teams ahead of them in the West, entered this final stretch with the supposed fortune of facing teams in the bottom four spots in the conference in three of four games, counting this one.
“We played OK, had some good stretches, but we can’t lose that game,” centre Matt Cullen said.
The Wild lost despite outshooting the Flames 35-24, including 25-12 over the first two periods. Parise had nine shots on net himself.
“We’ve got to put ’em in. That’s all there is to it,” Parise said.
Rookie right wing Ben Hanowski played his first NHL game in his home state, after being traded to Calgary from Pittsburgh in the Jarome Iginla swap last month and signing with the Flames last week following a four-year career at St. Cloud State. Hanowski’s former college teammates watched the game from a suite.
Trading Iginla and veteran defenceman Jay Boumeester signalled the official start of a renovation project for the Flames, who haven’t won a playoff series since they reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2004 and last reached the post-season in 2009.
But a young team with nothing to lose and a lot to prove can be just as dangerous of an April opponent as one fighting for a spot in the playoffs. The Flames won five of their previous seven games coming in.
“Whoever we put in the lineup, they play with pride,” coach Bob Hartley said. “Yes, some people might say we have zero pressure and the guys are loose, but at the same time they deserve credit.”
McDonald has won four of his last five starts, allowing a total of nine goals. The only loss came at home against the Wild last Monday by a 4-3 decision, a game that Minnesota had to hang on to win after the Flames scored twice late in the third period. Hanowski had a goal in that game, his NHL debut.
If the 36-year-old Miikka Kiprusoff doesn’t come back next season, MacDonald, who was signed off waivers in February after spending the previous two seasons with Detroit, will give Calgary a candidate to consider for the net. He was beaten only by Parise after a slick-passing, extra-effort score by Minnesota’s first line down low.
Cundari, who came to the Flames in the trade with St. Louis that sent Boumeester to the Blues, scored on a power play in the first period. Backlund’s goal came in the middle of the game. Cammalleri added another man-advantage goal, and Hudler tacked on an empty-netter for good measure in the final minute.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who are getting opportunities, and we’re trying to develop a winning culture, a hard-working culture and that identity for next year,” right wing Lee Stempniak said.
For the Wild, this felt like their previous home game, April 13 against Columbus, when they outshot the Blue Jackets 41-22 but lost 3-2 in a shootout. They controlled the pace of play for most of the evening, but Calgary refused to quit. Clayton Stoner tried to fire up the home crowd by fighting with Cory Sarich in the second period, but Backlund scored to put the Flames back in front and quiet the building less than 3 minutes later.
The Wild play at home Tuesday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings, who began the weekend in fourth place. They host Edmonton Friday and wrap up the regular season Saturday at Colorado.
So how do they keep calm and carry on?
“If we’re going to sit here and pretend that other teams aren’t feeling the same thing, then you’re kidding yourself. That’s part of the challenge. You should actually relish that,” Yeo said.
NOTES: The Wild fell to 11-4-2 against Northwest teams this season, ending an eight-game intra-division winning streak. … St. Paul native and recently retired NFL player Matt Birk, who spent 10 seasons with Minnesota and four with Baltimore, was at the game to make the traditional “Let’s Play Hockey” call to introduce the puck drop.
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