SUNRISE, Fla. — It’s fitting that Kevin Fiala, snakebitten as he has been this season, had the puck on his tape in the final seconds on Saturday night at FLA Live Arena with a chance to send the game into overtime. It’s even more fitting that he failed to convert from long range with veteran goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky tracking the puck to perfection.
“A good play,” Fiala said. “It didn’t work out. What can I do?”
That’s a question Fiala was likely asking himself before he went to sleep hours after the Minnesota Wild came up a goal short in a highly entertaining 5-4 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Though it’s unfair to pin the loss solely on Fiala, the sequence was emblematic of his struggles so far this season. As were his other missed opportunities earlier in the night. If he converts even once it’s a completely different game.
That said, the fact the Wild were within striking distance in the final seconds is a testament to their tenacity. They scored a pair of goals in the final minute with Cam Talbot pulled after looking like they were going to get blown off the ice early in the game.
“I liked our effort in the end,” Fiala said. “We could be better in the start. I think they dominated us in the start. We can’t have that.”
That’s spot on.
More often than not this season, the Wild have been the faster team whenever they’ve set foot on the ice.
It has made for a highly entertaining product that fans across the Twin Cities have gravitated toward over the past couple of months. It’s also made for a highly successful product with the Wild currently sitting atop the Central Division.
That said, the Wild might’ve met their match on this particular night. To say the Panthers looked bigger, faster, and stronger for large chunks of the game would be putting it lightly. It’s absolutely not a fluke that they currently have the most points in the league.
“In my 2½ years, I think that was the fastest pace that I’ve seen,” said Nico Sturm, who noted that the Panthers were also without star center Sasha Barkov. “That’s a good hockey team. But we were right there with them. That was a winnable game.”
Which is the most frustrating part for the Wild. If they would’ve played up to their potential for 60 minutes of regulation, they might have walked away victorious. Instead, they had to latch on to the moral victory of battling back down the stretch.
“We could have made life easier a little bit,” Sturm said. “We wouldn’t have had to crawl back there at the end.”
The biggest discrepancy in play came early on, with the Wild looking overmatched for most of the first period. It finally caught up to them late in the frame as winger Owen Tippett put the Panthers ahead 1-0.
“They came out pretty hard the first 10 minutes there,” Jonas Brodin said. “But I think we came out pretty physical, too. It was a physical game there. Almost like a playoff game.”
While the Wild slowly started to wake up in the second period, the Panthers pushed their lead to 2-0 thanks to a snipe from winger Frank Vatrano.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Wild battled back. They have done it consistently for the past month and a half, and this time around Joel Eriksson Ek played a starring role, hammering home a perfect pass from Mats Zuccarello to cut the deficit to 2-1.
Unfortunately for the Wild, those good feelings were rather short-lived, as the Panthers generated a couple of odd-man rushes before Vatrano struck again late in the second period to restore the lead to 3-1.
“We made some not so intelligent decisions to stand in and pinch,” coach Dean Evason said. “We got caught. It was uncharacteristic. We knew what we were supposed to be doing, and we just didn’t get out in time to alleviate some of those odd-man rushes.”
That paved the way for the third period, where Kirill Kaprizov stepped up big time to make it 3-2. That perked the Wild up for a few minutes before winger Carter Verhaeghe beat Dmitry Kulikov with a power move in front, then roofed a shot on Talbot to make it 4-2 in favor of the Panthers.
Trailing by a pair of goals with 5 minutes, 10 seconds left in regulation, Talbot raced to the bench for an extra attacker. Asked why he decided to pull the goaltender so early, Evason replied, “We want to be as aggressive as we can.”
It paid off as Marcus Foligno scored with 45.1 seconds left to cut the deficit to 4-3. On the ensuing shift, though, center Sam Bennett helped the Panthers put the game away for good with an empty-net goal to make it 5-3. That ensured that Ryan Hartman’s goal in the waning seconds did nothing more than finalize the score at 5-4.
“I think everyone thought we still had a good chance,” Brodin said.
If only Fiala’s shot had found the back of the net.
“It was a fun game,” Evason said. “We just came up a little short.”
Wild captain Jared Spurgeon left with a lower-body injury midway through the first period and did not return. He will not play against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night at Amalie Arena.