Anyone watching the Minnesota Wild's 6-2 loss against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday could be forgiven for thinking they were a team in disarray. Not so much. Even after a tough loss, they have an 8-1-1 record in their past 10 games.
Normally a lone regulation loss in a stretch of quality wins seems like a simple bump in the road. In this case, though, it looms much larger to the State of Hockey. Minnesota fans are preparing to not have their hearts ripped out in the postseason once again. But they got a preview of exactly what might go wrong in this game.
The Wild are almost certain to face either the Predators or fellow Central Division rivals in the St. Louis Blues to open the playoffs. While they've only faced the Blues once this season, it was a tough game as they famously fell 6-4 in the Winter Classic.
Tuesday marked their third consecutive loss to the Predators. Now 0-3 on the season, worry is rightfully creeping in. The nature of Tuesday’s loss made it particularly worrisome.
It was the first meeting between the two longtime division foes since the Wild’s transformation at the trade deadline. The Wild bolstered their goaltending with the addition of Marc-Andre Fleury and added size and grit in front of him. They were supposed to be a different team, one better suited for the grind of the playoffs. Yet they were punched in the mouth by Nashville again, both on the scoreboard and with their fists.
Should these two teams face off in the first round, will their regular season failures be of concern to the Wild? There are only 13 games remaining and plenty of scoreboard watching to come. Perhaps now is the right time to look further into those three games to find out if fans should either calm the nerves or ring the alarm bells.
Here are three key areas the Wild need to focus on should the Predators be waiting for them in the first round.
It’s no secret the Wild’s special teams have been up and down this season. The power play ranks 19th, with the penalty kill somehow being even worse, coming in at 24th. Woof. Sure, the Predators have a good power play, scoring six in three games against the Wild. But part of the reason that power play has been so devastating to the Wild is that they gave Nashville so many chances. Simply put, Minnesota hasn’t stayed out of the penalty box.
On Oct. 24th, when Nashville handed the Wild their first loss of the season, the Wild found themselves down 3-0 after the first period. The Predators raced out to that lead thanks to two goals on Minnesota's four minor penalties. Their lack of discipline put them behind the 8-ball after just 20 minutes, and it was impossible to recover.
On Mar. 13th, Nashville walked into St. Paul and ruined Mikko Koivu's jersey retirement with a 6-2 drubbing. While the Wild did a much better job of staying out of the box for most of the game, a costly slashing penalty by Jared Spurgeon late in the second period put Minnesota on the penalty kill to start the third, down 3-2. Roman Josi immediately scored on the powerplay (because of course he did) and the Wild yet again couldn’t recover.
On Tuesday, the Wild were once again back to their undisciplined ways, this time almost on purpose. It was evident from the start they were eager to show their division foe they could no longer be pushed around after the trade deadline. Three fights in the first period made for an electric start – for Nashville that is. With key penalty killers in the box such as Jacob Middleton, Marcus Foligno, and Nicolas Deslauriers, Nashville capitalized on three minor penalties by the Wild, going a perfect 3-for-3 and jumping out to a commanding 3-1 lead after 20 minutes.
Give the Wild credit for playing well the rest of the game and making every attempt to even the score, but the first period perfectly encapsulates what should be their highest priority should they face the Predators in the first round. They can’t attempt to bully Nashville. Why? Because it plays directly into their hands.
The Predators lead the NHL in fighting majors this season, and by quite a large margin. The Wild’s depth on forward and defense is far superior to Nashville. Trading one for one means taking important players such as Middleton and Foligno off the ice in exchange for… Michael McCarron and Mark Borowiecki??? Combined, those two tough men have 17 points on the season. Foligno alone has 20 goals. In the second period, skilled grinder Brandon Duhaime was off the ice for five minutes along with Nashville defenseman Jeremy Lauzon and all seven of his points this season. These are trades Nashville would make 12 out of 10 times with Minnesota.
If the Wild can place a larger focus on remaining disciplined and staying out of the box, all three games would have looked vastly different. Why? Because outside special teams, the Wild have been dominating Nashville.
Keep Things At 5-on-5
The Wild dominated 5-on-5 play in all three matchups, posting the following CF% at even strength: 58.4, 65.6, and 53.8. The fact the Wild have lost by a combined score of 17-6 with those possession numbers is quite baffling. Yet, it’s more than just the puck possession – the Wild are turning that possession into scoring chances. Tuesday night’s game was perhaps the greatest example of this all season.
In terms of expected goals, Minnesota outclassed Nashville 4.6-2.6, per @HockeyViz. That's easy to see here from the shot chart -- Minnesota completely controlled the shot advantage from the slot.
This year’s Wild team is not the same as the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter era rosters, where large expected goal totals often lead to mediocre results due to a lack of finishing. The 2021-22 Wild are among the league’s best at finishing their chances, meaning the performance put on by Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros on Tuesday would be extremely difficult to repeat over a 7-game series. (Nobody even think about mentioning the name Jake Allen right now).
It’s why staying out of the penalty box is so crucial. The fact power plays decrease in the playoffs should be encouraging news for Wild fans too. If Minnesota keeps their games against Nashville to an even-strength affair, the numbers show they should be just fine.
Stop Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen
For boasting one of the league’s top shutdown lines in Foligno, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek, the Wild have had no answer for the Forsberg-Johansen duo. Together they account for eight of Nashville’s 17 goals over the three games. While Forsberg has been a force no matter which team he plays this season (38-32-70), Johansen in particular has feasted on Minnesota like no other team, scoring five of 20 goals this season against the Wild. Potting 20% of your goals against one team in just three games is borderline comical.
While both have fared well on the power play, where matchups can’t be deployed, they've also been deadly at 5-on-5. The duo scored five of Nashville’s 11 even-strength goals in the series. Yes, Nashville’s second line is also formidable at times with Mikael Granlund and Matt Duchene. However, should they face off in the first round, head coach Dean Evason would be wise to glue the Eriksson Ek line to Forsberg and Johansen's hips.
The Wild face the Predators one more time this season, and it will be interesting to see if Evason makes this adjustment. Furthermore, if the Eriksson Ek line can shut down the two biggest Wild killers. Yet again, this can’t be done if Foligno finds himself in the penalty box fighting a far inferior talent in McCarron or Borowiecki. Noticing a trend here?
The potential of facing a team you are 0-3 against in the first round is not a great feeling. For a fan base that finally has what looks like a true Cup contender, it’s reasonable to maybe panic just a little.
However, the Wild have shown to be the better team in all three games when they play disciplined and don’t turn the first periods in a hockey game into a boxing match. History shows teams typically batten down the hatches in the postseason with tight checking and limited fighting. For that reason, should Minnesota draw Nashville in the first round, their results should be far better.