The Minnesota Wild have already weathered multiple storms in their 2017-18 National Hockey League season, and NHL teams should be afraid -- very afraid -- because the Wild are finally healthy.
Minnesota opened the season playing a schedule that didn’t allow players to get their legs under them. Playing once every four or five days to start the season not only stunted the Wild’s collective rhythm on both sides of the puck, but likely contributed to injuries.
Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Marcus Foligno all sustained injuries on Oct. 12 in Chicago. Minnesota came into its third game of the season on four days of rest, so it wasn’t as if the Wild were in rhythm or comfortable on their skates or in their schemes. The Blackhawks didn’t seem to be either, as the Wild found a way to get five goals past Corey Crawford for their first win of the year. But Minnesota lost Foligno for a game, Niederreiter for six and Coyle for 16. The Wild went on to win eight of those 16 games and earned a point in another -- weathering the storm.
Minnesota managed to survive another storm when its workhorse goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, was shut down for six games with a lower body injury sustained on Dec. 12. But backup netminder Alex Stalock preserved the Wild win over Calgary that day, making 17 saves and allowing just one goal. Stalock played well enough for the Wild to win half of their games in Dubnyk’s absence -- again, weathering the storm.
The Wild managed to remain in the Western Conference playoff picture despite losing Jared Spurgeon for nine games and Niederreiter for another five -- a testament to the improved depth of this season’s club. Both Ryan Murphy and Joel Eriksson Ek showed improvement upon last season’s performances to fill the big skates left by Spurgeon and Niederreiter.
Ek’s relative Corsi and relative Fenwick were -12 and -11.3 last season. He’s posted a relative Corsi of -1.3 and relative Fenwick of .6 thus far this season. He still struggles in the faceoff circle, but that seems to be the case for many of the Wild players. The new faceoff rule changes saw Wild players booted from the circles regularly for the first few months of the season, but it’s occurring less and less. Minnesota is 15th in the league with a 50.4 faceoff win percentage but were sixth last season, winning 51.9 percent of faceoffs. Those faceoff numbers should improve as the season progresses, though.
Murphy was and remains an under-the-radar free agent signing. While he’s played just nine games with the NHL club, he’s lifted his 2016-17 relative Corsi from -5.3 to 3.3 and his relative Fenwick from -6 to 5.8. So far, his roughly 18 minutes of ice time per game has been much better than fellow defenseman Marco Scandella’s 18-minute average ice time last season. Scandella’s 2016-17 relative Corsi and relative Fenwick were -1.1 and -2.1, respectively.
And finally, Matt Dumba is starting to look like a keeper. Dumba’s strong slapshot is finding the net more often, and he’s been especially effective in overtime. Dumba’s just four goals shy of his total from last year because he’s taking more shots in the 2:24 of increased ice time he’s averaging this season.
Dumba’s shooting percentage is 10.6 this season -- 2.2 points higher than last year and a career high for Dumba. “Put the puck on net and good things will happen” is how the hockey cliché goes, and it’s especially true for powerful slapshots like Dumba’s. A 100-mile-an-hour puck is hard for goalies to see let alone catch, so most of Dumba’s shots are going to result in fat rebounds. That’s likely why he’s tied for third on the team with fellow defenseman Ryan Suter in point shares at 3.9. And while he still leads the team with 23 giveaways on the season, his relative Corsi is up to .3 after posting a -1.4 last year, and his relative Fenwick is also up from -2.7 to -.9.
On Thursday, in the Wild’s 41st game of the 2017-18 season, head coach Bruce Boudreau had his entire roster available for the first time all season. With half the season in the books, the Wild are finally healthy and managed to stay in contention for a playoff spot. They currently hold the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and trail Dallas by two points in the standings, but have played one less game and already beat the Stars at home this season. So the Wild’s ability to weather the storm of injuries that has held the team back in the first half of the season takes a lot of pressure off Zach Parise.
Boudreau knew he’d be without Parise to start the season but could only speculate as to how long it would take him to recover from back surgery and what kind of player he’d be post-surgery. But Parise might be one of the hardest working skaters you’ll see. He’s not the fastest, the biggest or the strongest, and his shot isn’t elite, so he skates with a chip on his shoulder. When he’s healthy (and even when he’s not), he looks like the hardest working player on the ice every second he’s out there. Tuesday was the first time I’ve seen him take it easy, and understandably so.
Parise skated on 20 shifts totalling 13:35 in ice time and put three shots on goal against the Florida Panthers in front of his home crowd. Despite Parise pacing himself, he wasn’t a liability on the ice. His 7.3 relative Corsi was sixth on the team, and his 72.7 offensive zone start percentage was second to only Chris Stewart’s 77.8 percent, for what it’s worth, which isn’t much given the sample size. He looked like a capable, third-line forward on Tuesday without exerting maximum effort, but he showed signs of his old self on Thursday.
Parise got into the scoring barrage against Buffalo after kicking a loose puck to his stick behind the Sabres’ net. He faked right, stopped on a dime and accelerated left to create separation from a defender. Then the best part of Parise’s game -- the part injuries and age can’t take from him -- displayed why the NHL should be very afraid of the Wild.
Parise knew his defender followed him behind the net, leaving the back side wide open for Coyle. Parise pushed a backhanded, wrap-around right through the blue paint and onto Coyle’s stick, who buried it in the wide open net to give Parise his first point of the season and the Wild a 6-0 lead just before the end of the second period.
The Wild still trailed the Sabres in shots on goal despite dominating puck possession and zone time, but the quality of their chances far exceeded that of the Sabres. Minnesota picked apart the league’s third-worst defense as measured by goals allowed like a playoff team should, and they didn’t let Buffalo back in the game like the last time the two played..
The Wild were up 3-1 after one period in Buffalo on Nov. 22 but let the Sabres make a game of it despite scoring twice more in the second period. It was 5-3 entering the third, and the Wild ended up playing the final 16 minutes with just a one-goal lead. Coach Boudreau has been hoping to see his team play a full 60 minutes, and the Wild are finally doing so and should be able to continue doing so now that everyone's healthy.
The Wild have an immediate opportunity to improve their playoff chances with a nationally televised game at Chicago on Wednesday, followed by a home game against the Winnipeg Jets, the second seed in the Western Conference as of this writing. After hosting Vancouver the following day, the NHL’s best visit Xcel Energy Center on Jan. 20, as Minnesota will seek revenge against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Wild were minutes away from earning a point in Tampa Bay with backup goalie Stalock in net before falling in regulation.
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After needing a shootout to beat the Central’s worst team, Colorado, at home just over a week ago, and allowing 13 goals over their next two games, the Minnesota Wild got their two biggest wins of their wild season over two of the Western Conference’s best teams.
The Wild squad on Saturday was better than the team that was eliminated by the Blues in the playoffs last season, despite Zach Parise’s absence -- and the Wild dominated almost every aspect of that series with the Blues except where it counted most. The Wild defense is considerably different than it was last year despite the return of Nate Prosser a few days ago.
The addition of Marcus Foligno to a squad that delivered so few hits last season has resulted in more takeaways closer to their opponents’ goal. The Wild were second to last in hits per game last season and have raised their average per game by more than three so far this year. Foligno had six hits on Saturday -- two more than any other player.
The Wild were also good defensively in the neutral zone on Saturday, and it resulted in six takeaways to St. Louis’s zero. The Blues’ struggles to carry the puck into the offensive zone forced them to alter their offensive zone entry strategy. The Blues resorted to dumping pucks in and chasing more often than they’d like, but that’s what happens when you can’t retain possession of the puck through the neutral zone.
The Wild’s first goal on Saturday was the result of a neutral zone turnover by the Blues. A seemingly unnoticeable step-up by Miko Koivu into Blues center Vladimir Sobotka at the Blues’ blue line forced a turnover to Matt Dumba at center as the Blues attempted a change. What resulted was a carry-in by Ryan Suter, who left a dropback pass to Jason Zucker. Suter then skated into his forecheck ever so innocently and was rewarded with a fat rebound off the slapshot of Zucker, which he bounced off goalie Jake Allen into the net. The ease of carrying the puck into the Blues’ zone rather than requiring the Wild a long dump-in resulted in a dropback pass and quick shot, which turned into assists for Zucker and Dumba.
In overtime, Anthony LaPanta pointed out that Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau changed his overtime strategy, starting the overtime period with two defensemen on the ice. You can always add a forward if you win the faceoff, so it’s perfectly logical. Since the Wild lost the overtime-opening faceoff, they got to defend the first Blues’ possession with two defensemen, and it paid off in an unexpected way.
The Blues got two shots on their first overtime possession, only one of which got through to Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. But having the offensive-minded defenseman Dumba on the ice sure seemed to be the difference in the game.
Dumba knew he had a chance to create an immediate scoring opportunity off the rebound of the Blues’ shot. He carried in quickly, made a pass to the charging Charlie Coyle, and buried Coyle’s pass back after Vladimir Tarasenko made a defensive mistake in failing to get inside position on Dumba. It made the 42-25 Blues lead in shots on goal and 35-21 faceoff advantage irrelevant, as did Dubnyk’s 41 saves. And the recently acquired Nate Prosser had a takeaway, a hit, three blocked shots and a shot on goal.
The Wild’s forecheck and neutral zone defense against the surprising Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday was again key to a 4-2 win. The Wild led 9-6 in hits and overcame eight giveaways with a 29-23 edge in the faceoff circle, but three of the Wild’s four goals were the result of takeaways or Vegas giveaways.
Zucker forced a turnover behind the Vegas net that resulted in a shot on goal and an offensive zone faceoff, which the Wild won. A perfect pass from Mike Reilly led to a wide open shooting lane for Mikael Granlund, who bounced it off the post and in for the Wild’s first goal three minutes before the end of the second period.
At 2-2 with eight minutes to play, Eric Staal didn’t allow the Knights’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare an easy clear up the boards, Dumba pinched to hold the zone, and Staal moved to the net to bury the deflection of Dumba’s slapshot.
The Wild’s empty net goal was also scored off a neutral zone turnover by the Knights. Staal intercepted a blue line entry pass and sent it slowly down the ice into the empty net.
The two wins put Minnesota seven points back of the Blues and Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference with the always tough California road trip upcoming. So instead of looking up at 10 teams in the Western Conference, the Wild are looking up at eight teams and are just a point out of the Wild Card.
After playing roughly once every five days to open the season, the Wild are entering the toughest stretch of their schedule. They entered the Vegas game having played three games in four days and will host Calgary (14-11-1), Toronto (17-10-1) and Edmonton (11-14-2) and visit Chicago (12-9-5) over the course of six days.
The Wild can do without Parise for a while, but they can’t do without Jared Spurgeon for too long. Spurgeon is out two weeks nursing a groin strain and could come back either Dec. 14 against Toronto or Dec. 16 against Edmonton. Most importantly, Spurgeon should be close to fully healthy when the Wild visit Chicago for a big, division game. The two are tied with 29 points this season.
With Parise skating in consecutive days on Thursday for the first time since having surgery to address nerve pain caused by a herniated disc in his back, the Wild are in much better position to welcome him back when he’s fully healthy. They won’t need Parise to be Parise right away, but in the playoffs, they will need his nose for the net if they’re to advance.
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