The Wild Are Getting Lucky At The Perfect Time
1:46 PM EDT on March 30, 2023
When we last checked in with the Minnesota Wild, three weeks ago, they had taken on a bizarre but endearing identity. They didn't have any legit scorers besides their one superstar Kirill Kaprizov, but even without almost any offensive prowess to speak of, they were riding some incredible goaltending through a lengthy hot streak. Almost immediately after I hit publish, however, they got hit with some terrible news: Kaprizov sustained an injury that would keep him out for up to a month.
The Wild didn't need much offense to outpace the one or two goals they were allowing each game, but they needed someone to put the puck in the net at least occasionally. They ranked 26th in the NHL in goals per game at the time of that injury. After Kaprizov, seventh in the league with 39 goals, their next best scorer was Joel Eriksson Ek, who was tied for 62nd. How on earth would they manage?
Well, since their first game without Kaprizov on Mar. 11, these guys are 7-1-2, and everything that can go right on the ice is going right for the first-place team in the Central. It happened again on Wednesday night, as the Wild entered a playoff-like atmosphere in Colorado and stood tall against a defending champion playing its best stretch of hockey all year. By capitalizing on a few different times when the Avalanche failed to hold onto the puck, the Wild scored three and added an empty-netter late to secure a very solid 4-2 victory.
The recent success starts with the goaltending, which is emphatically top-notch. The veteran Marc-Andre Fleury and the spring chicken Filip Gustavsson have been splitting time equally, and they've both been good, but it's Gustavsson specifically who's broken out into something special. He didn't look like much as a 23-year-old playing 18 games with Ottawa last year, but the trade that sent him to Minnesota in exchange for Cam Talbot has been a huge Wild win. In 33 starts this season, the Swede has a towering save percentage of .933, and on the nights like Wednesday, when he's vacuuming upwards of 40 shots, he just looks so comfortable in his equipment, like he was born with a glove on one hand and a blocker on the other. He just has this amazing awareness of his own body that allows him to position himself in a puck-blocking position at a microsecond's notice. The way he smothered this deflection off the post, while maybe not his most breathtaking save of the Avs game, is exemplary of a goalie whose mind and reflexes are as finely tuned as a late-period ABBA arrangement.
While there is some inherent tension to an upstart kid outplaying an established winner at the same position near the end of his career, the competition between Fleury and Gustavsson at least seems to be sticking in silly, low-stakes territory.
But the Wild have had good goaltending. This is old news! What's actually been even more fantastic for them this month is that the non-Kaprizov scoring has finally arrived, primarily in the form of Matt Boldy. The 21-year-old left winger was a very intriguing rookie last season, with a high ceiling and a ton of stick skill that saw him put together a few really striking performances.
For the majority of this year, it felt like Boldy hit the wall of fatigue young players often encounter when trying to adjust to the grind of the NHL. But since the Kaprizov injury, he's been reborn, with 11 goals in the last 10 games, including a pair of hat tricks. His shot keeps finding the tiny pockets that goalies leave unprotected, and more and more it feels like he's thinking about scoring even in his own zone, like a dog staring out the back door getting ready to run around the yard. In this overtime win against the Devils last week, Boldy squeezed the last cells of energy out of his reserves to go coast-to-coast for an exhilarating buzzer beater.
Ryan Hartman, and Frédérick Gaudreau, and even the enforcer Ryan Reaves have all showed an improved scoring touch since Kirill went down, but Boldy has been a game changer. The Wild have long wished for him to be this kind of scoring spark, but after months of being a pass-first guy, it feels like the Kaprizov injury has pushed him into a top-scoring role that he didn't necessarily ask for, but fits into very well.
“Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that (passing) skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said after Boldy scored three in a win over the Kraken on Monday. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”
Something that's worth noticing, however, if you don't mind a bit of gloom, is the lopsided shot differential that's been present in a lot of these Wild wins. They were -15 against the Avs, -16 against the Kraken, and -19 against the Devils, to name a few. As exciting as these wins have been, the overall flavor profile of the Wild remains pretty similar. They don't create a ton of chances at 5-on-5, ranking in the bottom third there. Their defense, though relatively stingy about allowing the most dangerous threats, has given up more 5-on-5 total shots per 60 than anyone but the Ducks and Jackets since that injury to Kirill. But despite lacking a traditionally potent formula for success, things are going right for the Wild, because finally, after so much time spent looking like they were trying to put the puck through a keyhole, the Wild are converting on a ton of their chances. At 5-on-5 in this same time frame, 13.36 percent of their shots are finding the net, which is better than anyone but the Blues and a monumental improvement on their colder stretches.
The chalk take when you see numbers like the Wild's is that they've gotten lucky by playing weaker-than-average goalies while relying on better-than-average shot-stopping to get by. It feels true, and that doesn't bode all that well for their future. In the playoffs, goalies run on prayer as much as they do talent, and keeping the puck on the attacking half of the ice is a much more viable way to control a game than hoping one of your masked men stays in a groove. The Wild are constant losers in the first round, and in a Western Conference where every series projects to be an even matchup, simply saying "I hope Filip Gustavsson, who's never been in the playoffs before, makes 35 saves a night" doesn't inspire confidence.
But for as pessimistic as I've always been about the financially strapped Wild, their inability to build a strong cast around Kaprizov, and their usual underachievement, this might be time to look on the bright side. Saying a team is "lucky" has a negative connotation, like they're not as talented as their numbers say and are due for a fall. But luck, as we conceive it in hockey, is a better tool for contextualizing what's already happened than it is for literally predicting how a team will fare in the postseason. It makes sense to brace yourself for a regression, but here are some facts about the Wild: They're in first place; they have one-and-a-half stud goalies; their best-looking prospect is starting to reach his full potential; fortune is smiling on them on the ice; and the astounding player at the center of their franchise should hopefully be back in time for the most important games. It might be OK!
Correction (2:09 p.m. ET): An old version of this blog had the wrong college for Matt Boldy.