The Minnesota Wild have been one of the biggest surprises in the National Hockey League (NHL) this season, running out to a 12-5-2 record in their first 19 games—good for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division, where just nine points separates six of the seven teams in the standings. But sometime in the next week, the State of Hockey will have the NHL’s best hockey team.
Last season, the Minnesota Wild had a brutal start to the season simply due to scheduling. They played five of their first six games on the road, but worse yet, they didn’t play for five days between their second and third game—both of which were on the road. There were six days off between their fourth and fifth game, too. Despite limping out to a 2-2-2 start, the Wild managed to make the playoffs and lose in the first round, as usual.
This season the Wild started on the road at Colorado in a rivalry matchup, but played four of their next five games at home. They again spent five days off between their second and third game, and the results were the same: a 2-2-2 start. But playing three of their next four at Xcel Energy Center helped the Wild to a five-game winning streak, including wins over Tampa Bay and Colorado.
Now the Wild get a week of teams they should beat, and they kicked it off by kicking the crap out of a Canucks (10-9-2) squad finishing a grueling, six-game road trip. Next up for the Wild is a visit from a Buffalo Sabres team (10-6-2) coming off a game against the unruly Jets (they lead the league in penalty minutes per game) in Winnipeg the previous night. Then the Wild visit the lowly Blackhawks (7-8-4) before returning to St. Paul to host lowly Ottawa (8-8-3).
Meanwhile, the Western Conference leading Nashville Predators (13-5-1) just dropped a one-goal game to the surging Coyotes (9-8-1), but more importantly, will be without two of their best players for quite some time. Nashville lost its second-leading goal scorer in Viktor Arvidsson for six to eight weeks, and P.K. Subban was placed on injured reserve as well. They host the sinking Kings (5-11-1) desperate for a win, followed by a visit from the East’s best Tampa Bay Lightning (13-5-1).
The Lightning, meanwhile, are at Philadelphia (9-9-1) on Saturday before visiting Nashville on Monday. They host Florida (7-6-3) on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday, but will likely be without top goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is out indefinitely with injury.
It takes some luck to score goals, stop goals and win hockey games. The Minnesota Wild have been relatively lucky when it comes to goal scoring, and they are going to need that luck to continue. They’re a team that scores ugly goals. They rely on deflections like this one Eric Staal scored against the Blues for his 400th goal. They rely on redirects like this one by Nino Neiderreiter scored against the Canucks on Thursday night. Basically, unless the opposing goalie is standing on his head, the Wild are going to win games if they get a lot of shots on goal, because their defense doesn’t allow a lot of clean shots on goal, and their goalie hasn’t allowed much to get past him.
Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been lucky. He’s simply been pretty good at stopping goals (.926 save percentage is 13th overall), and he’s been pretty good for a long time (tied for 15th overall in goals allowed per game since 2014-15 season). But the Wild haven’t had to go without their goalie like the Lightning will. Dubnyk’s 18 games played this season is eighth amongst goalies, and since the 2014-15 season, he’s eighth overall in games started by goalies. The Wild have been extremely luck in this regard.
The Wild beat the Canucks without 34-year-old Zach Parise on Thursday, who took ill prior to game time. He’s expected back for the Wild’s next game against the Sabres. But to give you a sense of just how lucky the Wild have been health-wise, take a look at the injury report for the entire season. Not one of the eight reports has been to place a player on injured reserve. Two reports were simply to activate players coming off IR.
With the Wild entering a three-game homestand over American Thanksgiving where they’re 6-1-2, it’s not inconceivable for them to be the NHL’s best hockey team in the near future. A three-game tour of Canada in the first week of December as part of a five-game stretch against strictly Canadian teams will test their resolve and let us truly know what to expect from the Wild. The best test of that stretch will come against the second-best team in the East, Toronto (13-6-0) on Dec. 1.
With the points the Wild have already amassed (27) and the way in which they’ve earned them (12 points won on the road) puts Minnesota in an enviable position. They don’t have to be great on the road given their success at home, so down the stretch they can lean on their home crowd to collect enough points to make the playoffs. Whether the Wild are hosting an opening round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will depend on their health, and specifically, the health of Parise, whose PDO of 105.3 (his team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage with him on the ice) leads the team. Translation: with Parise on the ice, the Wild are at their best on both ends.
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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