November 20, 2011
There were a lot of surprises during last night's NHL action. With Jonas Gustavsson(notes) in goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs, many expected a blowout versus the Washington Capitals. It happened, but with a twist: the Leafs scored 7.
But the most surprising result of last night's action is this: with the Blackhawks' loss, coupled with the Minnesota Wild's 3-2 overtime victory over the St. Louis Blues, the Wild took over top spot in the NHL.
Seriously. From Mike Russo:
Your Minnesota Wild, by virtue of playing one fewer game than Philadelphia and Chicago, are on top of the 30-team NHL for the first time since Oct. 14, 2006, and on top of the West for the first time since Oct. 25, 2007.
I'm going to assume that instances of the Wild being atop the league after the first three weeks of the season are scarce.
Heavens no. It's not by outscoring the opposition, at least as a philosophy. The Wild average 26.0 shots per game, good for 28th in the league, and they're only scoring 2.2 goals per game, also 28th. Their powerplay scores 13.5% of the time, good for 25th.
Their top scorer is Mikko Koivu(notes), who has 13 points, along with 20 other players sitting between 80th and 100th in NHL scoring. So heck, it's not entirely untrue for me to say the Wild don't have a scorer inside the top 100.
Speaking of 100, what of former 100-point scorer Dany Heatley's potential resurrection in Minnesota? It's a no-go. He's on pace for 49 points.
But don't think first-year coach Mike Yeo is unhappy with Heatley's production. Prior to the start of the season, here's what he had to say about helping Dany Heatley find his game. From NHL.com:
I've had a lot of dialogue with Dany and what I anticipate from him is to bounce back from his so-called down year (64 points in San Jose last season) -- at least that's what everyone keeps saying he had. From what I gather, he still found a way to put a few pucks in the net and I'm expecting him to do the same thing again this season.
I love this. If Yeo doubts that scoring the fewest points of any full season of one's NHL career is a down year, well, he clearly doesn't care much for scoring. Heck, he's probably thrilled that Heatley's on pace for a worse year.
But there's your explanation. With Yeo at the helm, the Wild are back doing things the old-fashioned way: not by outscoring the opposition, but by allowing fewer goals. The Minnesota Wild are back.
This is the way it's always been for the Wild. Sure, with Todd Richards at the helm, they briefly tried to play skill hockey, but it was a failure, because they never quite had the skill for it.
Thankfully, Yeo's a realist. He knows the Wild aren't going to out-talent anybody. Heck, they still get outshot by an average of 5.6 shots per game.
But, while Minnesota is allowing their opponents plenty of shots, the entire team is committed to pressuring the puck, keeping those shots to the outside, and allowing their goaltenders a clear view of the action. Yeo has the Wild playing brilliantly tight, structured, defensive hockey, and the results speak for themselves: through the season's first 20, they're allowing 1.95 goals per game, best in the NHL.
I remember this team.
Prior to Saturday night's game, Yeo was asked whether the Wild's recent run was evidence that they've arrived as a team. Here's what he said:
"No we are not there yet; most NHL coaches right now will probably say the same thing," he said. "I'm very happy with our place in the standings right now, but we know that we need to continue to improve every single day. This process will last through March and April. The bottom line is our guys are buying into to this idea and they are working hard, which certainly is a good sign."
Of course, what he should have said was this: the Minnesota Wild haven't arrived. They've returned.