Ever since the first round playoff series against Chicago in 2013 Marco Scandella has been a changed man. Up until that point Scandella's NHL career had been that of a struggling young defensemen. A second round pick in the 2008 draft by the Minnesota Wild, Scandella had spent his professional career shuttling between Minnesota and the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate, at the time the Houston Aeros. The 2012-2013 season was a turning point in Scandella's career to say the least. After signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the off-season the Wild were looking to earn its first post-season berth in four years. When the lockout finally ended in January, he was one of the few young players called up from Houston to make the NHL roster out of an abbreviated training camp. However, Scandella was sent back down to the AHL after playing just six games and wasn't recalled again until the playoffs. For reference, Justin Falk played 36 of the 48 regular season games for the Wild that year.
Despite playing just handful of games for the Wild that season, Scandella was thrust into the lineup for game one against the Hawks in the playoffs at United Center and he thrived. Scandella started playing the brand of hockey Wild fans have gotten used to the past two seasons. He moved the puck smoothly, was physical in his own end, and played big minutes against the opponents top players. In the six regular season games he played for the Wild that year Scandella averaged just over 14 minutes of ice time but in the playoffs he was playing 18 minutes a night against the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. Scandella finished the series with three points (1-1-2) and a -1 rating in five games. The only Wild defensemen that series to have a better plus/minus was Clayton Stoner who played just one game.
Scandella has carried his play from that series ever since and is getting better every year. In 2013-2014 he contributed 17 points (3-14-17) and a +10 rating while playing just under 19 minutes a night. In the 2014 playoffs Scandella played in all 13 games recording three points (2-1-3) and his +4 rating was best among all Wild defenders. He also averaged 21:28 TOI per game. This season Scandella has taken yet another step forward in his game with some added offense. Scandy led all Wild defensemen with 11 goals, four game-winners, and a career best 23 points in 64 games. He showed off his blistering snapshot from the point and ability to jump in on the rush on offense. In this year's first round series against the Blues, Scandella finished with a team-high +5 rating, was tied for second on the team with two goals in the series, and averaged nearly 21 minutes of ice time per game.
Scandella's play often gets overlooked because of who else is on the Wild's blue line. Between Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, and Jared Spurgeon often times Scandella gets lost in the shuffle but what he brings to the table for Minnesota is so crucial. If the Wild are to advance to the Western Conference Finals, then they will need Scandella continue his trend of getting better and better with each new challenge.
Five Things We Need to see from No. 6 Against Chicago
1. Physical Play
If you've watched Scandella play you have seen it time and time again. An opposing forward is carrying the puck on an odd-man rush into the Wild's zone and it doesn't look good, the forward looks to be skating by Scandella for a clean break, and all of a sudden that forward is sliding across the ice and the puck is going the other way. Scandella is so tough on opposing forwards using his strength and size to knock them off the puck. The Wild aren't an overly physical group on the blue line but Scandella provides that element. He's not out there laying open ice hits every shift but he consistently punishes forward down low in the corners and along the wall with physical play. The Wild need defensemen who can take on the bigger bodies the Hawks will bring and clear the crease. Guys like Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, and Wild killer Bryan Bickell just to name a few.
2. Eating Up Big Minutes Against Top Players
Yes, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are amazing. They play a ton of minutes and are a legit top-pairing, however, as the playoffs going on it takes a toll on the body. The intensity and style of play in the post-season is physically draining. The Wild need to focus on one game at a time but they also can't afford to run Suter and Brodin ragged chasing around Chicago's superstars. As a player who now has over 20 playoff games under his belt, Scandella needs to shoulder that load and he has proven over the past two seasons that he is ready for that responsibility. Early on in the regular was really showing when Suter and Spurgeon were struggling and Scandella was arguably our best defensemen. The Hawks are a deep team and they will roll four lines against us much like St. Louis did. This means everyone has to be contributing for the Wild to move on and we need to be able to rely on other defensemen besides Suter and Brodin to step up against the Blackhawks skilled lines.
3. Offense from the Blue Line
Scandella broke out offensively this season with 11 goals and 23 points in 64 games and the Wild need him to show that offensive ability in the playoffs. In the six games series against St. Louis the Wild got two points between Suter, Matthew Dumba, Brodin, and Jordan Leopold. Scandella isn't going to see time on the power play, or at least very little, but his shot is a difference-maker regardless. Scandella scored twice in the series against the Blues and both goals were the result of getting a hard shot at the net with bodies in front of Allen. Throughout the season Scandella also showed a real ability to create scoring chances when he joined the rush offensively. The Blackhawks are an experienced team and it wouldn't shocking if they controlled the majority possession of the puck in this series. That means the Wild are going to have to use a counter-attack offense, especially on the road in games one and two. This is where Scandella's size, skating ability, and puck skills make him an x-factor for Minnesota because when gets going forward with the puck he's hard to stop.
4. Penalty Kill
Scandella led the Wild in shorthanded TOI during the regular season and has done so also so far during the playoffs. The Wild were able to frustrate the Blues skilled players by constantly getting in shooting lanes and taking away space. It doesn't matter what Chicago's power play numbers were during the regular season or are currently during the playoffs, when some combination of Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Sharp, Saad, or Brad Richards are on the ice with a man-advantage they are as dangerous as any group in the NHL. There is so much pure offensive talent and skill in that group and the penalty killers are going to have to step up in this series as they did against St. Louis. If there is one part of the game Scandella is the Wild's most important defender, it's on the penalty kill. He has to be clearing traffic in front of Dubnyk and taking the puck away along the wall and behind the net.
5. The Breakout
If there was one thing during the series against the Blues that drove me crazy as a fan it was when the team trapped itself in the defensive zone, having to try and weather an offensive onslaught, because they failed to get the puck out of the zone the first time. Usually it was the Blues dumping the puck deep and going for a line change, the Wild defender retrieving the puck and then makes a bad decision with it, fresh St. Louis players get on the ice and gain possession, and tired Wild players can't get off the ice. The Blues did not make us pay for doing this nearly enough but the Blackhawks will. If you watched the series last year against Chicago, Kane does not squander chances. He has a nose for the net and is lethal if given time. Any mistake in our end will be paid for. His game 6 OT goal last year is a prime example. When Scandella is on his game he helps the Wild tremendously in this area. He gathers the puck and goes end to end using his strength to shield the puck from defenders and drive the net creating chances. This buys time to get clean line changes and allows the fresh line to get the puck in the offensive zone without having to work to recover the puck or break it in the zone.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way in the playoffs for the Wild, fans have got to be excited about the big steps forward Marco Scandella has taken in his game. Since that 2013 playoff series, no Wild player has improved more than Scandella. He established himself as a top-4 defender with his shutdown play and now he's adding an offensive wrinkle. After the Wild traded Brent Burns at the 2011 draft the lack of a true top-pairing defensemen on the team became glaring and now a few years later between Suter, Brodin, and now Scandella the Wild may just have three defensemen with top-pairing skill.