In The Art of War, Sun Tzu lays out five “essentials for victory.” The first is “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” During the NHL season, coaches and players don’t have the luxury of this choice.
Perhaps that was the trouble with Minnesota’s early-season slump. The Wild have been a few strokes short of treading water for the better part of the last month-and-a-half. The goalies couldn’t buy a save, and the defense was so bad it almost made the goaltending look justified. The team’s scorers weren’t scoring; injuries to Jared Spurgeon and Matt Boldy only worsened things. Dean Evason recently revealed that Kirill Kaprizov was “a little banged up” to the point he needed to miss practice.
It appears that some time away from the game did the team well. Not only did the Wild finish the road trip with two points, but they seem to have picked up their play overseas.
The team’s play had frustrated fans and the players going into the Ottawa Senators game, and goals against was the central culprit. The goaltenders couldn’t save anything, and the skaters couldn’t keep their opponents from attempting high-danger shots.
That all changed on Saturday in Stockholm. The Wild took the Senators to overtime in a low-scoring affair. They only gave up one goal in regulation, and their underlying numbers were stupendous. At even strength, MoneyPuck.com credited the Wild with only 1.04 expected goals (xG) against. That metric incorporates shot volume and the location of shots to estimate the number of goals Minnesota’s opponent would score against an average goaltender. Five-on-five play is generally the best predictor of long-term success in the NHL, so the return of Minnesota’s defense was very encouraging.
Overall, Minnesota lost the xG battle because they took too many penalties. The Wild were shorthanded four times in this game, but Filip Gustavsson was perfect on the PK. The solid team defense in front of him undoubtedly reduced fatigue, making his productive night more manageable. If Gustavsson can return to the level of play he showed at the end of last season, it’s incredibly encouraging for the rest of Minnesota’s season.
A resurgence of Minnesota’s top line accompanied Gustavsson’s return. Even though Ottawa had the benefit of last change, the Kaprizov-Marco Rossi-Mats Zuccarello line was great at both ends of the ice. Perhaps Hockey Wilderness’s Brevan Bane was right when he said Kaprizov could use a lighter workload.
Rossi’s excellent goal highlighted their game, which incorporated all three members of the top line.
Kaprizov carried the puck into the zone, then showed off those edges that have seemingly been missing all season. He finds Zuccarello around the end boards on what could be a set play or simply one of those passes that’s a product of hours of extra practice. Rossi tips in the goal, with extra room since Ottawa spends an extra man covering Kaprizov at the half-boards.
The top line showcased its offense, but they also sheltered the goaltender. When that line was on the ice, they blocked 7 of Ottawa’s 16 five-on-five shot attempts. If they can replicate that, it’s a great recipe to block a shot and quickly counterattack with the best line on the team.
However, Ottawa caved in Minnesota's middle-six forward group of Marcus Johansson-Joel Eriksson Ek-Matt Boldy and Marcus Foligno-Vinni Lettieri-Patrick Maroon. Perhaps that’s why Evason shook this unit up. Frederick Gaudreau slotted between Boldy and Johansson, moving Eriksson Ek to the third line and Patrick Maroon to the fourth line.
Beefing up the bottom six’s checking ability may have also been a response to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ high-flying “big four” forwards: Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner. Minnesota had the last-change advantage in this game, which gave Evason a guarantee that he’d always have a fresh line to neutralize his opponent’s dominant top two lines.
Regardless of Evason’s reasoning, the result was another excellent game. The Wild held the Leafs to only 2.52 xG. MoneyPuck estimates that Minnesota out-chanced them with 3.12 xG. At five-on-five, Minnesota controlled 66% of the game's expected goals (xG%).
The Wild looked so good for two reasons: great effort from the players and an excellent game plan. All four forward lines had a positive share of the game’s expected goals at five-on-five. If Evason can continue to manufacture favorable matchups, the Wild should be one of the league’s best on home ice.
Last season, Toronto ranked fifth in the NHL at five-on-five xG per hour and fourth in five-on-five xG%. To take a team that’s so loaded with talent to overtime is impressive. To do it on the second half of a back-to-back with solid underlying numbers is as meaningful as moral victories come.
The Ottawa game was a great demonstration of the team’s return to form on defense, but it was nothing compared to the Maple Leafs game. The Wild hung with one of the best teams in the NHL for 60 minutes. Some would call Toronto a regular-season team, but this was a regular-season game. Playing them close is highly encouraging.
While the team didn’t come away with any wins during the Global Series in Sweden, they got two points for losing twice after regulation. Would the trip feel like a failure if they played this well but won once and lost the other game in regulation? Certainly not.
Minnesota gets another long rest period to adjust from Sweden’s time zone. If they can compound the benefits they got from last week’s time off, it would mark the season's turning point for a club that has underperformed compared to expectations. The Wild now have a chance to storm back into the league against opponents who haven’t had the benefit of a mid-season bye week. Minnesota can take advantage of Sun Tzu’s fourth essential: “He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.”
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