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Playing the System: Protecting the Lead

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Goaltending is not solely to be blamed for the blown leads this year. A passive mentality and lack of execution in the defensive end are big contributors to some early season collapses with Minnesota out in front.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild have had difficulties protecting leads all season long. Four times this year they have given up the lead and lost. They have given up a total of three 3-0 leads, however they were fortunate to come away with the victory in two of those games. The inability to protect the lead is surprising for a team that prides itself on defensive play.

On Friday, in their game against the Dallas Stars the Wild had a 2-0 lead after the first period. The Wild had a slight lead in shot attempts after one period, and it looked like if they continued to play as they did in the first period, they would come away with an easy road win. It seems though that nothing is easy for this team. As the second period began the Wild looked like a different team.  Clean exits out of the zone with possession weren't happening, defenseman stopped being aggressive, and all of a sudden Dallas was dominating the game. The shot attempt chart from that game illustrates exactly how the ice tilted after the first intermission.

Midway through the second, the Wild capitalized on a rare chance and extended their lead to 3-0. But poor defense here, a bad bounce there, and the Stars were back within one goal. Erik Cole then tied the game in the dying seconds of the second period. On a seemingly straightforward play, Cole entered the Wild zone and unleashed a filthy shot that beat Kuemper clean. It was probably a goal Kuemper would like to have back, but that is not really the point. The point is, that shot should have never been given up in the first place.

The play begins with a defensive zone faceoff for Minnesota. With the last change, Mike Yeo opts to put Erik Haula on the ice in place of Jason Pominville as an extra center who could take the draw if Mikael Granlund gets tossed from the circle. A strange move because Haula is a pretty terrible 43.1% on faceoffs this year, while Pominville is 48.7%. Granted, Pominville has only taken 39 faceoffs this year, but he has shown that he is fairly adept when his number is called. Even more strange than Haula for Pominville is that Yeo chose Haula as the extra center over Kyle Brodziak who is 51.1% in faceoffs on the year (Mikko Koivu played the prior shift and was not an option).

There is a scramble off the draw and the puck squirts loose to the boards on Erik Haula's side of the ice. Haula has time to take a quick peek over his shoulder to asses the play and he has some good options to exit the zone as illustrated below. Haula anticipates contact coming from the Stars forward and makes the "safe" play by pounding the puck off the boards out to center ice. Making good passes while under pressure along the boards is the toughest play a winger is asked to make, and it was not surprising to see Haula, a natural center, bail on what could have been a clean zone exit. Haula was put on the ice as a defensive asset and helped clear the puck from the defensive zone, so he did his job right? Not exactly.

Haula's clearing attempt makes it out to the neutral zone, and as Dallas gains possession, the Wild set up their neutral zone defense.

Granlund sags back towards the Wild blue line, Parise moves to take away the Stars forward on his side of the ice, and Haula pressures the puck carrier to ohgodno where are you going Erik. Oh that's right, he's got to get off so mister "defensive liability" Pominville can infuse some offense into the last 14 seconds of play.

And just look at that lovely passing lane that opens up after Haula's disappearing act. Cole receives the pass around the Wild blue line, and while the Wild have enough guys back defensively, the quick transition pass has caught Nate Prosser napping resulting in a horrible gap.

With Granlund coming back in support, there is no reason for Prosser not to try and close this gap quickly to eliminate any shot opportunity for Cole. Prosser though, perhaps weary of Cole's great speed, fails to close the gap and allows Cole to unleash a quality shot from the top of the circle.

Coaches always talk about not letting the mindset change when playing with the lead. Successful shifts in close games are spent in the offensive zone. When playing with a lead, players have a tendency to deem shifts successful when they simply don't give up a goal. Instead of taking that extra second to make a direct pass to a teammate, players are satisfied with a flip out of the zone, or just hammering the puck along the boards, as Haula was on this play. After all, it's tough for a coach to get too upset at you for clearing the puck out of your own zone. But these plays are essentially just long-form turnovers, hockey's version of the prevent defense. Knowing now how valuable possession is, there is no reason a player should ever be satisfied handing the puck over to the opposing team. This passive mindset almost always leads to the other team possessing the puck at a greater rate (hello score-effects) and in turn, to leads disappearing..