The Minnesota Wild are going on a little bit of a streak, keeping the top spot in the Central Division for as long as they can hold on to it. The latest successful match came in the form of a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Here’s 4 Things from that game:
1 — The Wild earned a complete win over the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
Even without Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, the Lightning coming into your building poses a significant challenge. There’s still so many players that earned the right to lift the Cup multiple times and can simply will their way to victories, even if their opponent controls more of the game.
Well, the Wild were able to both win the game and simply control the majority of it. At 5-on-5, Minnesota had 54 percent of the shot attempts and 62.87 of the expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s just a feel-good performance over a team that has been poised as the champion for several years. One game doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things—could have just been an off night for some of their stars or the greater realization that their depth was soaked up by the consequences of the league’s hard cap ceiling this summer—but it is certainly a little bit sweeter than kicking in the doors of a lesser opponent.
They just looked good.
2 — Shut things down when they needed it most.
While it was important and necessary that they controlled the game throughout, it was really the third period where the Wild unleashed the hellish defense that they are known for. It didn’t matter who had the puck or what player was even on the ice, Minnesota limited the Lightning to just four shot attempts through the 13 minutes and 30 seconds that the teams were playing at evens. And only three of those actually forced Talbot to make a save.
The most impressive thing about it, is that they weren’t even holding on to a lead at that point and playing ultra-defensive hockey; waiting it out for a tie and hoping for those sweet extra overtime points. It was 2-2 at that point and for the first half of that final frame, it was all them. Piling on the attempts until Ryan Hartman notched that beautiful 12th goal of his season.
It might just look like a little green dot after a bunch of lines, but that steep hill leading up to it is representative of complete control over a team that just wasn’t ready.
3 — Ryan Hartman is just doing so damn much when others aren’t getting the bounces.
I feel like I should mention Hartman’s name in every single sentence about the Wild’s early season success. He has been everywhere. It doesn’t even matter who he’s playing with, whether it’s being thrusted on to the top line with Kaprizov and Zuccarello, or down in the bottom-six when Dean Evason was trying out some new things; Hartman can score.
And it’s not just grimey, gritty, sandpaper-y, nasty goals either. There is certainly skill involved with most of his goals. He’s earning it.
Just last night, after Kaprizov did his usual work along the upper boards, Hartman was able to take the somewhat inaccurate cross-goal pass, and fire it while spinning around in one complete motion to get the puck past Vasilevskiy. He does especially benefit on this goal, from having such an aware playmaker like Kirill; that was able to see him clearly there, wait out Hedman, who tries to block the pass by going down but at the same time giving a lot of space for Hartman to make his shot, and Kaprizov just makes the pass on his backhand.
Hartman isn’t going to score on over 17 percent of his shots for the entire year, but with every goal, you believe more in his skill to just keep on doing what he is doing. His process is what matters here, and he’s shown enough of it to be a truly above-average player on this team.
4 — With every game, Evason’s notion that “anybody can play with anybody” becomes more true.
In the same vein as the praise of Ryan Hartman, there is a massive realization that what Evason focused on, and has said multiple times—that lines don’t really matter because these Wild players are playing with other Wild players, building a system that reaches beyond individual talent—is coming into fruition. Hell, a guy that has been a healthy scratch for 10 of the Wild’s 21 games this season in Victor Rask, was just thrown into the third-line center spot and he ended up scoring a pivotal goal against the Lightning.
Ryan Hartman couldn’t find stability anywhere and now he’s their top center; Rem Pitlick was picked up on waivers and now has nine points in 12 games to show for it; Dmytri Kulikov, Jon Merrill, and Alex Goligoski joined this team in transition and is suddenly a very sturdy blue line—there are just piles of examples that you can point to and players that just wouldn’t be able to find a home anywhere else but in the Wild organization. There is this seamless transition from player to player, where you don’t even really notice who is on the ice at times (except for Kaprizov) and the team just forms into this one giant homogenous blob of controlled hockey.
It will be interesting to see if they can keep it up, but right now the system works exactly the way it should.