Coming off three needed days off after a busy chunk of their schedule, the Minnesota Wild had a fantastic opportunity to clean up on the road against a San Jose Sharks team that has been existing for most of the season near the bottom of the West division standings. But unlike recent wins where Minnesota was outshot and outplayed but managed to win anyway, San Jose outlasted the Wild thanks to puck luck and taking advantage of mistakes, winning a marathon game 4-3 after 65 minutes of regulation hockey and an eight-round shootout. Kevin Fiala and Marcus Johansson each had a goal and an assist, but it was Erik Karlsson that stole the show with two goals in regulation and the shootout slapper that finished off the Wild well after midnight Central.
After somehow defeating the St. Louis Blues last Thursday despite getting outshot 37-11, ten minutes in it looked like the Wild might be hoping to win by the same script. Halfway through the first the Sharks had six shots to the Wild’s zero. And just like last Friday, Wild goalie Cam Talbot had to be both lucky and good, making some tough saves as well as relying on his teammates to clear the crease. Like when a save made flew over his head and landed dangerously near the goal mouth but newly called-up taxi squadder Luke Johnson was in a good position to usher the puck away.
Despite being outshot and outpossessed by the Sharks early, the Wild drew first blood. Kevin Fiala had a great chance on the breakway knocked away by the Sharks’ Martin Jones, but Fiala kept with the play and found Marcus Johansson with a pass to the top of the slot. Johnansson spun and wristed the puck past Jones, giving the Wild a 1-0 lead.
Facing 17 shots in the first period, Talbot kept putting up save after save. But as good as the Wild goalie continued to look early, Talbot’s luck ran out just a few minutes later, as Radim Simek had a slapper deflect of the post and in to tie the game.
Despite being outplayed and outshot by the Sharks, the Wild, against their usual MO, pushed hard as the first period wound down and got the lead back on an absolute beauty of a toe drag by Joel Eriksson Ek, who set up Nick Bonino with an open net.
The Wild carried some of that late goal momentum into the third period, especially when Minnesota’s third line of Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Nick Bonino were on the ice. The trio had a bunch of good chances, including a pair of teamups between Bonino and JEE, one of which nearly extended the Wild lead when Eriksson Ek rang the outer post.
But a strong start to the second period faded away as Minnesota started getting a little too cute and made some careless mistakes with the puck. Fiala and Bjugstad were the most egregious, as Fiala had some poor zone clears that turned potential offensive zone possessions into odd-man rushes the other way, while Bjugstad’s poor decision on a centering pass turned into a two-on-one for San Jose. Evander Kane fed Erik Karlsson, who snuck a shot under the blocker of Talbot to tie the game.
Minnesota has been a top-ten team in terms of third period goals, but it was San Jose that came out with fire in the final frame. First, Rudolfs Balcers nearly tied it up on a breakway off of a blocked Ian Cole shot, but Talbot locked down the five hole to keep the game tied. But minutes later, the Sharks got their first lead after a couple failed clearing attempts led to Karlsson’s second goal of the night on a blast from the point found it’s way past Talbot off the post.
But luckily for the Wild, Johansson had one of his strongest games of the season and helped keep Minnesota in the game. After a great chance from Johansson that rang the pipe, Matt Dumba created a turnover behind the net and found Fiala on the doorstep who floated it short-side past Jones, redeeming his earlier mistakes and tying the game.
Seemingly content to force overtime (apparently hoping to get Kirill Kaprizov some open ice and maybe some new linemates in the 3-on-3 - more on that later), the Wild conceded much of the zone time and allowed the Sharks to come fast and furious over the final few minutes, but Talbot stayed strong and regulation ended without a victor. But whatever advantage the Wild thought they had heading into OT quickly evaporated, as Minnesota was unable to win a single faceoff during bonus hockey. A couple turnovers led to great chances for the Sharks, but luckily they couldn’t take advantage. The Wild’s best chance came on a breakaway by Dumba, but the notoriously poor ice of SAP Center caused the Wild defenseman to lose the handle on the way in. So after 65 minutes of hockey, the game would be decided in a shootout for the Wild’s first time in 2021.
In the best-of-three portion of the contest, Kaprizov’s first shootout attempt was for naught, but Fiala and Mats Zuccarello both scored on their chances - with the Lizard’s goal coming on a nifty deke that might have forced Jones to locate his jockstrap. But Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc each answered for the Sharks, and the teams went to sudden death. Remember the poor ice conditions mentioned earlier? Well, both the Wild and the Sharks seemed to be affected by the choppy surface as four more rounds of missed nets, fumbled stickhandling and easy saves meant that seven total rounds would elapse before anyone found the net again. And when Hartman missed on a frustated slapshot attempt, Karlsson showed us how it’s done and beat Talbot with a slapper, giving San Jose the 4-3 victory.
After ugly wins against the Ducks and the Blues, you had to think that winning games despite being outplayed and outshot was unsustainable, and Monday night, the theory was proven. Talbot stood on his head making 29 saves on 32 shots with two goals going in off the pipe and only one that he’d really want back. But poor passing and bad entries often killed what could have led to momentum-killing offensive zone time.
Also contributing to the Wild’s struggles during the first two periods was the the Mats Zuccarello - Victor Rask - Kirill Kaprizov line, who were having fits trying to get anything going. Their xGF were among the worst on the Wild at sub 30% - only Luke Johnson was worse, and he’s a COVID callup for Zach Parise. It’s clear to anyone watching that the Rask-as-a-top-center-experiment needs to have the cord cut. Burdening Kaprizov with defensive responsibility because Rask can’t hold his own isn’t doing any favors for the most dynamic player the Wild have had since Gaborik.
But the overarching fact is that the Wild were coming off a three-day layoff, and they looked like a team that hadn’t played in a week. They did manage to get a point in overtime, and in a division-only schedule every point is big and the NHL schedule heads down the stretch. The Wild will have a chance to finally get back to a semblance of the team that won 12 out of 15 games in February and March on Wednesday as they take on the Sharks in game two of the series.
Can the Wild out-chance the Sharks?
In the preview, Justin did a great job of setting the criteria the Wild would need to achieve in order to dominate a bottom-tier West division team. Let’s see how they did.
Corsi percentage? That’s a no - Sharks won 55%-45%.
Expected goals percentage? No again, 56%-44%.
I’ll throw another one in that Justin didn’t mention: High danger scoring chances. Sharks won there as well, 11-7 (including 8-1 in the first period).
But more than the stats will tell you, the Sharks out played the Wild in most aspects of the game. Luckily Talbot, Johansson and the Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Bonino line came to play, and the Wild were able to salvage at least a point.
Will the Wild find a way to win the special teams battle?
The referees swallowed their whistles for nearly the entire game, with the only penalty an automatic call on Jared Spurgeon for sending the puck over the glass. The Wild killed the penalty, so I guess that means they won the special teams on the night. But the victory is a hollow one as they were unable to turn the kill into any kind of momentum shift.
Is a breakout game in the offing?
If anyone had a “breakout” game tonight it would be Johansson, who had a goal and an assist and generally looked like one of the strongest offensive players for the Wild all game long. Fiala also had a goal and an assists (as well as a successful shootout attempt), but also made some interesting decisions with the puck, especially on zone entries. So while he had a good game, I wouldn’t call it a “breakout.”
Otherwise, the players you’d expect to be offensively dominant - like Kaprizov or Zuccarello - weren’t, which is all the more disappointing considering how poor the Sharks have been in the defensive zone this season.
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