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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