Last year, "depth" became a rallying cry in the State of Hockey when TNT broadcaster Anson Carter took aim at the Minnesota Wild in a regular season intermission session. "I don't like their depth," said the 674-game veteran.
Carter took heat for his take, but he had to feel validated after the Wild dropped their first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. Kirill Kaprizov scored seven goals in those six games, and Joel Eriksson Ek added three more. But the rest of the team combined for only six tallies.
Until the trade deadline, this year's Wild squad looked like their depth was non-existent. The 2021-22 version had six 20-goal scorers, and four more players who got to the double-digits. This year's squad saw just four get to 20 goals, and eight skaters hit the 10-goal milestone.
So Bill Guerin set out to address his depth affordably at the trade deadline. In came Marcus Johansson, Oskar Sundqvist, and John Klingberg to help out in the regular season. Gustav Nyquist arrived as a lottery ticket, should he return from injury by the playoffs. Brock Faber came in, and fulfilled any hopes Minnesota had that he could step in from college right away.
Game 1 of this year's playoff series against the Dallas Stars was largely the Filip Gustavsson Show, with the goalie saving Minnesota with a heroic 51-save effort. Game 2 saw the Wild implode in front of Marc-Andre Fleury.
But Game 3? We finally saw the team the Wild were hoping to get: One that could match last year's depth. It was a complete effort where the entire lineup contributed to the win.
The headline might be that the top line, and Mats Zuccarello in particular, got their swagger back. Zuccarello notched two goals, and Natural Stat Trick had the forward down for five scoring chances on the night. Furthermore, he was as aggressive as we'd seen of him for a long time in terms of getting to pucks. He had that dog in him on Friday night.
As did Ryan Hartman, who had two assists to go with his empty-net goal. After scoring five very quiet assists last postseason, he's now up to four points in two games, including an overtime winner. Just as significant as his three points were last night, he drew a penalty without taking any himself, avoiding putting Dallas' lethal power play on the ice.
But it wasn't just the Kaprizov line that showed up. The depth on the team rose to the occasion when Minnesota's gamble to start Joel Eriksson Ek in Game 3 backfired after 19 seconds. Eriksson Ek is a consistent playoff performer, a heart-and-soul player, and easily their best center.
When he left early with a re-aggravated injury, it didn't only mean they had 11 forwards. It meant they were down one of their most important players, with no recourse, in the most important game of the year.
Didn't matter. Matt Boldy and Johansson went right back to picking up the slack without Eriksson Ek in the middle. At the start of the second period, Boldy stole a puck on the boards and found a cutting Johansson, who danced through Dallas' defensemen to make it 2-0.
Boldy created more chances throughout the night. But none was as important as a power forward move to the net that drew a penalty, which put Minnesota on the power play with a chance to extend their lead to 3-1. The top power play didn't convert on the opportunity, but then something you don't see often in Minnesota happened.
The second power play unit, with newcomer Nyquist at the point, found paydirt. That group had spent the season being abysmal to the point Dean Evason went out of his way to avoid putting them on the ice. But Nyquist's point shot found Foligno at the front of the net, and the gritty veteran deflected the puck in for his first power play goal of the year.
On defense, Klingberg and Faber worked remarkably well as a defensive pair. Their two cross-ice passes set up Zuccarello for the opening goal, but they brought more than scoring. Natural Stat Trick has them breaking even in scoring chances at 5-on-5, which is a breath of fresh air after seeing the third-pair struggle for much of the year.
The series is far from over, and we saw last year how a 2-1 lead can disappear. Still, we're seeing Minnesota's depth show up in a way that we simply didn't last year. Through three games, eight different players have a goal. That matches last year's Wild after six playoff games.
And when it comes to players who aren't tickling twine, they're also contributing. Nyquist has been a revelation with four assists in three games. Boldy has no goals, but two assists. Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba, and Klingberg each have a pair of assists, with the latter getting them in just one game.
Eriksson Ek's premature departure could've sucked the emotional lift from the Wild, leading them to cave. Instead, they played a disciplined game where everyone made up for the loss of their beloved center to snag another win. They held Dallas to just two power plays, killed both off, and protected the net again as Gustavsson stopped 23 of 24 shots without seeming to break a sweat.
This was the team Minnesota was hoping they'd get when they made their moves at the deadline. The Wild might not have won the series, and they can't afford to rest on their laurels. But if nothing else, Game 3 was proof of concept that this team can make noise this postseason.
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