At least the defensive start by the Minnesota Wild this year is somehow improved from last year?
Those were my first thoughts following Minnesota's second game this early into the season giving up 7 goals, this time on Thursday night to the Los Angeles Kings on home ice. Not that it was overly difficult to beat out last year’s four-game start of 26 goals allowed. This year’s Wild has given up just 16 in comparison, but that 4.0 GA/G is still tied for 5th worst in the NHL through the first week of the season.
Even though it’s still the very early part of the conquest, a rough defensive start still warrants digging into. We all know how the old saying goes, you can’t secure a playoff spot in October, but you can lose one. So with that, I dug into the first four games and reviewed each goal and high-danger chance against for a common theme the Wild need to fix.
I figured this exercise would leave a glaring mark on the defense, and it did, just not the way I expected. And of course, stretches of poor goaltending, since two separate games allowing seven goals must be riddled with a few tendy whiffs. But issues with those two position groups shouldn’t be a surprise. Following Matt Dumba's departure in free agency, coupled with the training camp injury to Jared Spurgeon, and it was easy to see a slow start from a suddenly scrambled defensive core seemed inevitable.
Instead, what stood out most about the Wild’s struggles around their own net was how much their forwards were to blame. And it’s here where you start to scratch your head and worry a bit, as they weren’t supposed to be an issue early in the season. To make matters worse, most of the blame falls on the supposedly vaunted top line.
Following my short exercise, it was clear there are two changes their first line must make to help prop up a struggling blue line: situational awareness and just good ol' effort.
Below the Wild are leading the Montreal Canadiens 2-0 at the end of the first period and the top line is on the ice. The breakout begins up the half wall to newly-minted Ryan Hartman. As mentioned, it’s 2-0 Minnesota late in the first. Hartman has to understand the situation here and realize the last thing the Wild need to do against such an inferior opponent is gift them with an easy goal to get back into the game.
Hartman’s intentions are fine, but his lack of execution on a lazy backhand pass just inside his own blue line simply isn’t going to cut it. And it didn’t, literally. Immediately following his turnover the Canadiens find a player all alone in front of the net. Hartman’s just lucky that Marc-Andre Fleury bailed him out.
Fast forward to the second period of the same game and Hartman’s linemate falls into the same mental trap. It’s now 3-0 Minnesota halfway through the second period. Toward the end of a very productive yet very long shift Kirill Kaprizov cycles up high with defenseman Jon Merrill. Kaprizov has essentially switched places with Merrill and thus, his rules change.
Being one of the last guys back, Kaprizov can’t do two things as he walks the blue line with pressure approaching. He can’t afford to turn the puck over, and he certainly can’t shoot straight into the shin guards of the defender in front of him. Kaprizov chose door No. 2, and since he was at the end of a long shift, he is gassed in his retreat to help out Brock Faber in defending the oncoming 2-on-1.
The result was a Tanner Pearson goal and a gift from the Wild in allowing Montreal back into a game they had no right to be in. Kaprizov needs to understand the situation he is in and not make the kind of mistake that puts his already thin blue line in peril.
The video above features a special guest appearance from second-liner Marcus Johansson. But it occurs while on the top power play, so he’s getting thrown into the crosshairs by default. It’s the same game against the Canadiens (honestly, the Wild were lucky to come out of this one with a win) and the Wild are up by three goals on the power play early in the third period.
Again, situational awareness is key here. Yes, they should be trying to score to effectively snatch all hope for a comeback from the Montreal faithful. But you can’t score from your own faceoff dots. The last thing you need is to allow a mental lapse in the defensive zone to pry open that comeback door. And that’s exactly what happened.
Both Johansson and Kaprizov are caught puck watching and sprint out of the defensive zone with the puck still in possession by a Canadiens forward. It’s been a trend seen far too often by many of the Wild forwards this season. Johnathan Kovacevic is allowed a free pass into the slot where Fleury’s windmill save absolutely robs him.
I almost placed the video below into the first category, but Hartman actually does a great job of identifying his man on the back check and begins to mark him up at the center ice red line just before this clip begins. But for whatever reason, he just stops moving his feet as they both cross the blue line. His coasting allowed Florida Panthers’ young star, Anton Lundell, a free lane to the front of the net where he nearly scores.
It’s just a clear lack of focus and effort that will bite you in the rear end far more often than it won’t in the NHL. And for a guy who just signed a lengthy extension in Minnesota and takes pride in his role as the No. 1 center on the team, it’s a lapse in effort that just can’t happen when you are trying to hold onto a lead.
I don’t mean to pick on the young superstar, and to be honest, Kaprizov is known as a 200-foot workman-type sort of player. But the complete lack of effort on this play nearly costs the Wild a goal just a few minutes after they took the lead in the first period of the season. As you can see, the play turns into a 2-on-1 when Hartman sprawls out at center ice and misses on a pass up to the neutral zone. Middleton is immediately on an island defending against it, and Kaprizov doesn’t even take another stride until he almost reaches his own blue line.
There is certainly plenty of room to blame a few goals on the defenseman and goaltenders through the first four games, but the forwards have their share of the blame to shoulder themselves. The fact of the matter is that the Wild new coming into the season they were going to be shorthanded on the blue line. One has to imagine the coaching staff was aware of this and placed an emphasis on the forwards to help out with clean break outs and marking up a man in the defensive zone. Apparently the first line didn’t get the message.
Hopefully they wake up sooner than later, because even if they start finding the scoring touch at 5-on-5, their defensive awareness and effort needs a jolt.
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