Nobody Scores In Minnesota
1:16 PM EST on March 9, 2023
I blogged last month about how much the Minnesota Wild sucked at scoring goals at 5-on-5, outside of their mint winger Kirill Kaprizov. Then mired in an unpleasant losing stretch that dropped them to the fringes of the playoff picture, the Wild lacked all manner of finishing touch and couldn't conjure a sidekick to help out Kirill while he did his best to keep them in games. It was a dismal moment that made last year's regular-season success feel like a sandcastle, washed away by the financial difficulties this team faces in trying to build a contender while still paying two departed players $7 million each.
Eleven games later, the forwards still fail to inspire. In just the time since we last touched base with the Wild, they're dead last in the NHL in scoring, averaging just 2.09 goals per game. They've had a couple of nights when multi-goal Kaprizov efforts have been the entirety of their offense. They're finishing on just 6.52 percent of their 5-on-5 shots on goal, which is basically tied with the Panthers for league-worst. And even their underlying shot numbers, which looked OK at last inspection, have taken a dip. In the bad times the Wild were still creating 52.72 percent of their games' overall attempts at 5-on-5, and in the last 11 that's dropped down to 48.94.
Here's another fun fact about the Minnesota Wild: They haven't lost a game in regulation since I last blogged them.
I know, right! They're 9-0-2, despite not even scoring three goals in seven of those outings, and they're real contenders for the No. 1 overall seed in a parity-mad Western Conference. On Wednesday, one night dropping a goalless game in a shootout against Calgary, they bounced right back and took two points off a Winnipeg Jets squad that has to be wondering what the hell just happened.
In this 4-2 victory cushioned by an empty-netter, most of what the Wild offense did was cash the checks Winnipeg wrote them. They went the first nine minutes without even recording a shot on goal, but still, they struck first with some actually pretty smooth back-to-front passing that gave Marcus Foligno a chance in some space. The next one was just funny, though. A turnover in the Jets' zone bounced off the foot of a stickless defenseman, and then Frederick Gaudreau jedi-mind-tricked Connor Hellebuyck into backing the puck into his own net.
Another Hellebuyck gift produced a morale-killing third goal less than two minutes later, and that was all the Wild needed. Even though they were outshot 48-23, Minnesota squeaked out the win the same way they have this whole hot streak—with fantastic goaltending. That's how they got themselves into such good position in the first half of the season, and now the power's back on. Filip Gustavsson, who they traded Cam Talbot to Ottawa for last offseason, is only improving on what's been a breakout year, with just one goal allowed across his last three starts. And 38-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury, though he's taken a clear backseat to Gus, has shown that he can still make magic. Wednesday night's start, his fourth win in a row, was a beaut. Fleury looked agile, athletic, and confident, to the point where you might believe that his goaltending skill will never leave his body. This was probably the signature save of his 46 stops, with the game 3-2 midway through the third.
Scoring 2.09 goals per game is awful stuff. But if you're allowing—get this—1.18 in return, it's a winning formula. It's old-time hockey, if by old-time you mean, like, the 1928-29 Canadiens. It's worth giving credit to the Wild defenders, specifically Jared Spurgeon, for blocking a ton of shots and generally limiting the truly dangerous opportunities that can wreck a save percentage. The penalty killing has been superb, too, and provides evidence that grinding out close wins and lucking into weird points aren't quite synonymous. They're doing some things right.
But it's still true that the Wild sorely lack the offensive firepower to put sustained pressure on the opposition, and even the power play hasn't had a spark of late. Kaprizov is otherworldly, of course, and there are guys you can point to and say "maybe him" (Ryan Hartman could be getting his mojo back). But this franchise's mess of a salary cap situation, which already forced them to dump current Kings top assist man Kevin Fiala in the summer, still hinders them. That Kaprizov had to leave Wednesday's game with a third-period injury that has unclear implications is a heart-in-mouth moment, as he is truly irreplaceable in this lineup.
I'm kind of starting to love it, though. The embarrassment of their Pride Night fiasco notwithstanding, this is honest-to-god the most endearing version of the Minnesota Wild that I can remember. They've been the B-students of the NHL for a decade now, making mostly short and pointless journeys into the first round as they play respectable but ultimately underwhelming hockey. This is a much funnier bunch—a team that plays mediocre but ultimately successful hockey. An optimist might say that the Wild are getting critical experience in close games, steeling their nerves for that long-awaited deep playoff run. A pessimist will say that, long term, this is a risky way to play, and they'll get flattened by the scoring prowess of a McDavid, Rantanen, or Robertson over the course of a seven-game series. Either way, the Wild have an identity beyond "underachiever and ashamed of it." I'm excited to see how far this wonderfully dumb new approach can take them.
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