The Minnesota Wild just finished a disastrous stretch in the schedule. After a six-game winning streak, they only have three wins in their last nine games. While they’re still in the throes of their brutally compact schedule, Minnesota's recent troubles were capped with a dreadful trip to Canada.
The first concerns popped up nearly three weeks ago when the Wild made their first jaunt to Winnipeg. They were riding high on a six-game winning streak and playing well, but they ended up with a goose egg in the goal column.
At first, it seemed like just a flukey loss. One that the Wild can toss away and regroup before taking care of business the next time out. After two big wins on home ice against the Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings, it looked promising. But the Wild lost again in Winnipeg after vowing to have a better game than the last one. It was a 6-3 dud. Minnesota continued with a roller coaster output offensively with a 7-3 win in Edmonton and an inexcusable 4-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
Goaltending and issues on defense sans Matt Dumba, who's currently on Injured Reserve, reared their ugly heads. Deservedly so as the Wild had given up too many Grade-A chances, and Cam Talbot also allowed goals that he should have stopped. But here’s the issue: Minnesota's offense has doomed them the most.
But wait, how does the Wild giving up four-plus goals five times in the last nine games have anything to do with their offense? Yes, Minnesota scored three or fewer goals seven times during that time. But the biggest culprit for losing was that they couldn’t mount a decent, consistent forecheck.
Minnesota’s offense has been a big reason why they’ve won a lot of games this season. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s more than just scoring. The Wild won games without Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin in the lineup because they spent so little time in their own zone. It made life for the Jon Merrills and Jordie Benns of the team much more manageable. Consistently keeping the bulk of the play 140 feet away from their own end for chunks of time in the game allowed the Wild not only to keep scoring. They could also shelter and hide many of the deficiencies on defense.
That was until the Canadian road trip. Minnesota disappeared too often in each of those games.
For instance, the Wild had stretches of five, then eight, then over nine minutes of game time between shots on goal in the Feb. 8 game against the Jets. In the second game in Winnipeg, Minnesota had only two shots on goal from the 12:05 mark of the 2nd period until intermission. Mark Scheifele scored his hat trick by then, and the Jets had put the game out of reach. The Wild went shotless in the last 11:02 of the first period against the Florida Panthers. Minnesota pulled their disappearing act again in the first 10:18 of the 3rd period, where the Green ‘n’ Wheats managed one measly shot.
In these games, there are many more examples of the Wild not being able to mount a shot on goal for minutes, not seconds. Yes, the Wild have found themselves pinned in their own end more often than perhaps can be counted for the season up to this point, but their playing style has contributed to the losses.
They’ve made themselves easy to defend. The Wild have been attempting to score more off the rush. Rush attempts create more high-danger scoring chances. But when shots miss the net or passes go awry, they fail to keep the puck from going back the other way.
Missing a scoring chance is one thing. But being one-and-done in the offensive zone is much worse. Good teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, or Florida don’t need help defending the Wild. But for teams like Ottawa, it allows them to hang around long enough to allow for a bad goal against to decide the game.
It bears out in the stats too. For most of the season, the Wild have been a 2.44 xGF/60 team. However, since Feb. 8, Minnesota's expected goals per hour has slipped to 2.12. That’s 25th in the league in that time. Or about as bad as the Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, and Arizona Coyotes.
Conversely, Minnesota has been the same as their season average defensively (2.21 xGA/60 for the season, 2.2 xGA/60 since Feb. 8). Dean Evason admitted that he didn’t like the team’s defensive game. “You can’t cheat the game,” Evason said in response to the Ottawa loss pregame in Toronto. “We made an adjustment in practice.” While Minnesota was better and played a tighter defensive game in Toronto that night, they only managed one goal. All it took was two tallies by Auston Matthews to sink them.
Mike Yeo used to tighten up defensively when his teams went through their annual swoon. It makes sense – keep the other team from scoring, and it gives your team a chance to win. The problem is that your players get even fewer chances to score by locking down defensively. Minnesota played an otherwise even game with Toronto. But when the one mistake happened, it cost them the game. The Wild badly needed a goal. If they had found ways to score earlier in the game, that might have been a win instead.
Instead, the Wild need to get back on a simple game. Get the puck deep into the zone, with possession, then go to work on opposing goalies. They need to stop forcing passes that aren’t there and become difficult to defend again. Evason needs to fix the Wild’s offense rather than fall into Yeosian habits. Wins will follow when they consistently can play 140 feet from their own net once again.
Stats and play-by-play courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com