In the third period Wednesday night against Colorado, the Minnesota Wild were clinging onto a 4-2 lead headed into the third period. Minnesota had endured tough times in Denver over the past season and change, losing the previous three games at Pepsi Center by a combined score of 18-4.
A big problem for the Wild in their games against the Avs over the past season and a half -- particularly in Denver -- has been their inability to shut down the Avs' top line of Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen. The trio had combined for 26 points -- 10 goals/16 assists -- over the previous six games against Minnesota, with 21 of those points coming in the confines of Pepsi Center.
With the Wild up 4-2 headed into the final period, it was all-hands-on-deck expecting a great push back from Colorado -- who was just trailing the Wild by one point in the Central Division/Western Conference playoff picture.
But instead of Colorado making a great comeback and having their way with the Wild, they were shut down by Minnesota's incredible defensive effort in the third and ended up losing the game 5-2 thanks to a power-play goal from Ryan Suter.
How did Minnesota manage to shut down the Colorado attack and secure those all-important two points?
The answer is quite simple: incredibly solid defense.
In the third period, Minnesota was out-attempted 16-11 by Colorado, but only five shots found their way onto the net -- the Wild outshot Colorado 8-5 in the period -- where they were stopped by Devan Dubnyk. Eight of those shots were blocked, and three just missed the net entirely.
Those shots Colorado did manage to get on goal came from less-than-ideal places.
Nothing even close to the high danger area, which is exactly what you need to do against that vaunted Colorado top line -- which was just featured over the weekend in the All-Star Game.
Ian Cole dumps the puck in to get the Avs' top line out on the ice. Luke Kunin is unable to get the puck out of the zone as Landeskog comes in on the attack and disrupts his clearing attempt, but Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek are able to disrupt the attack on the wall and take the puck right back up the ice for a shot on goal where Philipp Grubauer had to cover the puck. That would be the end of the shift for the Colorado trio.
Once again, the Avs are unable to get the puck off the wall and then the Wild are able to get the puck out of the zone but not all the way down as Jason Zucker can't get the puck past Mackinnon in the neutral zone. The Avs charge up the ice on a rush as Minnesota attempts to change with Rantanen trying to toss a puck to MacKinnon driving down the middle but his pass is snuffed out by Jared Spurgeon -- who had a fabulous night on defense.
Again, the Wild are able to take this disrupted rush now up the ice and get another quality shot towards the goal to end the shift for Colorado.
Here is an instance where the Avs are able to win a board battle and Rantanen takes the puck behind the net where he tries to find Tyson Barrie cutting to the net on a one-timer to try and get back in the game. Jonas Brodin is able to block the pass into the corner and snuffs out the top line's best chance of the period.
Landeskog is unable to take the puck in the zone himself as he finds himself quickly surrounded by four Wild players so he is forced to dump the puck in. He gets by three of the Wild defenders as he approaches the end wall and only has Brodin to beat to get the puck but the Wild defenseman knocks his fellow countryman off the puck, leaving MacKinnon to win a board battle with Mikko Koivu -- which he did not -- and the puck goes right back out of the zone.
In addition to keeping them from creating quality chances, the Wild was able to hold Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen to a combined two shots on goal in the third period.
But it wasn't just the top line that the Wild defense was snuffing out rushes on. Below are some other examples in the period of how rushes up the ice were cut down by Minnesota.
Each instance above, you'll find the Wild disrupting the passing lanes with their sticks and/or just getting in the lane altogether. Anytime the Avs would start to put together a competent rush up the ice, this was the result. And as a result of that, it led to the aforementioned five shots on goal in this period.
Defense like this is how the Wild will have to win some games moving forward this season. While their offense still continues to try and find its way this season, they will need this rock-solid defense and great performances from Dubnyk to continue to rack up points.
Doing this defensively against some of the best offenses in hockey surely will go a long way to helping Minnesota secure their seventh consecutive playoff appearance.