A lot of folks are wondering if the Minnesota Wild are for real. There’s a lot to like for sure. The Wild no longer employ a dump-and-chase strategy. Instead, it’s a much more up-tempo, aesthetically pleasing style of play predicated on possessing the puck. They create a lot of scoring chances and frequently convert them. As of this writing, Minnesota ranks second, only behind the Colorado Avalanche, in goals. Indeed, that's one of the most drastic changes from past editions of the Wild.
There’s been come-from-behind wins and blowout victories this season. Head Coach Dean Evason has turned the team's play in overtime, stealing the uber-valuable second point for the standings. Minnesota has even found signature wins in games that featured top teams in the league. These are all things previous Wild teams were deficient in or couldn’t do consistently.
Take, for instance, the third period. The Wild regularly use the final 20 minutes to storm back to tie the game or put the pedal down to close out the win. Much has been discussed with the Wild’s scoring in 6-on-5 empty-net situations. And we’re not forgetting that either. In those situations, Minnesota leads the NHL with nine goals and a plus-4 goal differential. Simply put, when Minnesota needs a goal or two to tie the game late, they’ve been successful getting those crunch-time goals.
But to focus solely on the final five minutes of these games would be tunnel vision. These comebacks often start with goals earlier in the period to set up for the fantastic finish. Where Minnesota dipped its toe into the period and took whatever the other team gave them in years past, this Wild team goes out and tries to grab the win. It’s a stark contrast to what most people have come to know about the Wild. It’s also part of the reason why they vaulted to the top of the NHL.
This trend dates back to the start of the season. Even when the Wild were giving up the early lead or having issues in the second period, the faceoff to start the third period was like a switch. They’d turn it on and find a way to score the next goal.
In another way, the Wild have scored 52 of their 70 5-on-5 goals in the first 40 minutes of games. In the third period alone, Minnesota has scored 18 goals at 5-on-5 or 25% of their even-strength output. They have been a team that owns expected goals all season long. And they up the ante in the third period. Expected goals go from 51.04% to 53.21% in the final 20 minutes.
Furthermore, the Wild aren’t great at controlling the majority of the shot attempts – at least on the whole of the season. Minnesota’s 50.73 CF% ranks just 17th in the NHL. But in the third period, that number increased to 53.13%.
To put that kind of production in context, Minnesota’s third-period CF% would rank in the top-5 of the NHL. The “final stanza” Wild would rank 7th in expected goals.
Minnesota's looked like an elite team before, at least in the advanced numbers. But to play like one in the final period, no matter the score, and either putting away teams or coming back to find victory, that’s truly what’s different about this Wild club. It's a killer instinct your older brother's Wild rarely put on display. Combine all of the previously discussed elements to this year’s Wild – overtime wins, signature wins, improved style of play – add in this ability to close out games, and that's where they shine.
The regular season can only be the proving ground for this type of play. It wins games, no doubt. However, this team will be graded upon what they do in the postseason. So will they continue to show this killer instinct when the stakes are raised? We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there. In the meantime, the Wild need to keep showing up and showing out for the third period. Few teams can use the final 20 minutes of a game to their advantage. The Minnesota Wild are one of those teams, and it’s been exciting so far.