The Minnesota Wild traveled by train into Ottawa and found a real buzzsaw of a team.
I won’t say that the Wild killed the Ottawa Senators — partially because it could get Hockey Wilderness on a government list but mostly because it was a close game. An early goal from Alex DeBrincat, had me very concerned. Fortunately, the team quickly turned the tide thereafter, stifling the Senators’ potent offense and hemming them into their zone.
Ottawa has performed at a very competent level defensively to this point, though its true strength is on offense. The reason for their defensive success was highlighted by Ryan Carter on the broadcast: a 1-3-1 neutral zone trap which makes it extremely difficult for their opponents to establish zone time by design.
Parking three players at the blue line, one forward forces the play to the outside, and the middle player works together with the outside player to force a dump-in or turnover at the blue line. This has sheltered Ottawa’s weak in-zone defense and allowed their puck-moving defensemen to shine.
Head coach Dean Evason gets credit for the Wild beating this system, which is notoriously frustrating to play against. On controlled breakouts, Minnesota’s F3 (the forward closest to the team’s defensive zone) hung out low, supporting the defender with the puck. When forced outside, this forward would drop the puck back to the strong-side defender, who would in turn whip the puck to his partner on the weakside, skate up, and dump the puck. Having slowly advanced all five players, Minnesota could send all three forwards to chase the dump-in, while the defensemen could break up counterattacks.
The result was extended offensive zone possession due to Ottawa’s poor in-zone defensive abilities — it looked a lot like this:
Zone possession leads to tired opponents, which leads to powerplay time:
It also leads to tired net-front defenders, allowing strong plays to work better:
And finally it means pucks on-net, which means offensive zone faceoffs, which means Joel Eriksson Ek goes to work:
After getting their asses kicked for 35 minutes Ottawa lit a fire under its ass. On the puck, they found a little space and skated skating hard downhill. Away from the puck they finished checks like they wanted to win a beat-the-shit-out-of-you contest more than the hockey game.
With two minutes left in the second, Marco Rossi chased Artem Zub from the zone and had him on the ropes. It was a great example of the defensive aggression I’ve waited on Rossi to show as he gets more comfortable in his rookie year. Stuck on his backhand and retreating, Zub moved the puck weakly to a supporting player who nearly gave the puck away to Rossi. It’s something that will come with time, and the chase on Zub is a great sign of things to come.
Instead, the Wild took a penalty, got to spend the rest of the period killing it off, and nearly gave DeBrincat another easy goal on Fleury.
Fleury had an exceptional night. You could make him a highlight reel longer than some guys’ careers out of this game, and his advanced stats credit him with 1.65 goals-saved above expectation. This means that on an average night with an average goalie, Ottawa would’ve scored one or two more goals — enough to tie the game if you don’t count Frédérick Gaudreau’s empty netter, and enough to take a lead over that more than half of the time. In other words, Fleury saved our asses tonight.
Overall, it feels like the Wild have turned things around from their slow start. What first looked like an 0-3 start with 20 goals allowed now feels more like three games against elite offenses in which we put up a reasonable fight, and the team has earned a reasonable record of 3-3-1. The goaltending has self-corrected. Look out NHL — here come the Minnesota Wild.
Can we see some production from Matt and Marco?
Neither Matt Dumba nor Marco Rossi found the scoresheet. There were bright spots in both of their games — Dumba had a look in tight off of the rush fed to him nicely by Sam Steel, but didn’t finish it. Rossi had a nice shift pressuring Zub, but it never turned into much. Rossi’s largest contribution on the night came with 11 minutes left in the third period, possessing the puck below the net before drawing a huge penalty. At that time, it felt like it would bleed away a chunk of the game or put the Wild up enough to put the game away.
Unfortunately, both players were largely caved-in at five-on-five play. Dumba’s on-ice xGF% was 26.67%, and Rossi’s was a truly awful 11.21%. Tough look all around, and something to monitor going forward.
Will the special teams’ performance continue?
Yep! Powerplay goal made the unit one-for-four, and the penalty killing unit gave up only one goal on five opportunities. Ottawa has a fearsome power play unit on paper and given their early season results, so you’ll take 20% against. Given that that was an extended five-on-three, the coaching point is more so about taking penalties than the actual performance on the PK. This is encouraging for Dean Evason’s offseason special teams improvements, which he has stated was a focus all summer.
The defensive effort needs to continue against better opponents. Can the Wild keep it under three?
Yes we did! Easy answer — thanks for the layup Thomas.
In truth, the defensive credit tonight all goes to the goaltender. The Wild bled scoring chances to the Senators, continuing one of the season’s largest early concerns.