After 2-2 start, Wild ‘need to take another step forward’

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After a 7-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, Wild goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was asked about what the team’s 2-2-0 record through four games might indicate.

“Better than last season,” he noted. “Gotta go with that.”

It’s true, the Wild started the 2022-23 campaign by losing their first three games, and four of five overall. But no one in the Wild’s dressing room, training room or offices at Xcel Energy Center late Thursday was happy with being .500.

“We’ve just been even, which is our record, 2-2,” head coach Dean Evason after a late-morning practice Friday at TRIA Rink. “We need to take another step forward.”

That can start on Saturday at the X, where the Wild play host to Columbus in a 7 p.m. puck drop. To that end, the coaching staff has altered two lines, sending Pat Maroon to the second line with center Joel Eriksson Ek and wing Marcus Johansson, and Sammy Walker into Maroon’s former spot on the fourth line with Connor Dewar and Brandon Duhaime.

“We need to generate a little bit more,” Evason said before catching himself. “Well, we generate; we need to score more.”

The truth is the Wild need a little more from everyone, from the goaltenders to the top line.

Still, the blue line’s struggles without captain Jared Spurgeon, out since suffering an upper-body injury in a preseason game, have been conspicuous. Even in a season-opening shutout of defending Eastern Conference champion Florida, Filip Gustavsson had to stop 41 shots.

After praising Dakota Mermis’ play in Thursday’s game, Evason added, “The rest of the guys should be playing like NHL players.”

Rookie Brock Faber, pulse-3, is the only Wild defenseman with a plus-rating, and Jake Middleton — Spurgeon’s season-opening partner — is a minus-6. It’s also impossible not to note that the Wild have started the season with three blue liners — Calen Addison, Alex Goligoski and Jon Merrill — who, combined, were healthy scratches for all but two of the team’s six playoff games last April.

Still, as Evason noted Friday, it’s never just on the defense. The sloppy forward play led to at least two goals last weekend in Toronto, and despite leading the Wild in scoring with six points apiece, Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello are each minus-5.

“I talk about scoring goals, but we have to tighten up defensively, too,” Evason said. “We’ve given up too many goals, for sure. So, we’ve gotta do some things in all areas.”

Spurgeon has started skating but doesn’t appear close to returning. His absence doesn’t just break up one pair; it trickles down to the rest of the blue line — and the club at large.

“Jared Spurgeon is one of the best defensemen in the world,” Evason said. “Not only that, he’s the captain of our hockey club. It would be silly to say we don’t miss Jared Spurgeon.”

Matt Boldy, whose spot on the second line Walker filled on Thursday, started skating Friday for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury at Toronto. He also doesn’t appear to be close.

“They’re all on the ice just to skate, they’re not shooting and that kind of stuff with that upper body,” Evason said. “It’s just an opportunity to keep their legs going so that when they’re physically ready to play, they’ve got their legs under them.”

“It’s good, obviously, that they’re on the ice. They’re progressing,” the coach added, but their statuses remain week to week. Goligoski, who suffered a lower-body injury during a practice Monday in Montreal, is on the long-term injured list and will miss at least nine more games.

Phantom goal

Evason said the team has flushed the Kings’ weird third goal, which was reviewed to see if Pierre-Luc Dubois kicked it through Fleury’s legs on Thursday night.

Local replay never actually caught a stick hitting the puck, although it did appear to change its trajectory, indicating it was struck by something, and the NHL office in Toronto ruled the goal — ruled good by on-ice officials — could not be overturned.

The goal was the first of two in the final minute of the first period and changed the tone of the game, but Evason noted the Wild caught a break when their second goal was allowed after being reviewed for possible offsides.

“It happened. It went in the net,” Evason said. “We had an offside that went our way, right? So, the breaks — if you want to go that way — are even, so you can’t whine about it.”

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