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Wild’s winning is just an illusion

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NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Minnesota Wild Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

It’s super easy to look at the Wild’s 6-3-1 record and immediately assume things are positive. Yes, the Wild was among the highest in the league in goals scored, and Devan Dubnyk has been very good, even in defeat as in the Wild’s 2-1 loss to the Sabres. The penalty killing is very strong, and anchored by the amazing goaltending that’s helped prop the Wild up in the standings.

But as many articles toss around PDO and sustainability in regards to the Wild’s hot start, the pastures aren’t so green for Minnesota. As has been said, the Wild’s PDO is a sky-high 106.79 and the likelihood that the Wild could maintain the hot shooting and hot goaltending isn’t very good at all. Even if you don’t put a ton of stake into PDO and its quantification of luck, there is some context to share regarding the six wins.

Minnesota took advantage of some very timely circumstances happening to other teams. The Wild got the benefit of facing the back-up goaltenders, or even in some cases, the back up to the back up goalie. Jeff Zatkoff for the LA Kings wasn’t very good, and played just one game following a 6-3 loss to the Wild. Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson effectively split time in net for the Jets. When the Wild played Toronto, it was Jhonas Enroth’s first game of the season. Anders Nilsson is the back-up to Robin Lehner in Buffalo, and Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre were emergency call-ups from Providence (AHL) because the top two goalies for the Bruins, Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, were sidelined with injuries.

The only real goalie the Wild have managed to beat this season was Kari Lehtonen, and Minnesota seems to play well against him most nights. Even then, the Stars had been hit by a rash of injuries to their skating depth. The Sabres were missing Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. Early this season, it’s been more of a story of “It’s not who you play, but when you play them,” as the Wild seemed to catch break after break.

Each goalie the Wild had beaten so far through 10 games not only hasn’t been the top starter (aside from Lehtonen), but they haven’t been good. Prior to facing the Wild, the combined save percentage was .759 on 305 shots faced. That’s with three of the goalies playing either one or zero games. So while Minnesota’s goaltending has been very good, the opponents it beaten haven’t been good at all.

The Wild could really do a favor for their netminders if they could get more shots on goal as well. Much has been said about the Wild’s underlying numbers, such as Corsi For and Fenwick For, not being good enough or at least indicative of a winning trend. With FF and CF percentages, adjusted for score and venue, being barely good for 10th and 9th worst in the league respectively, it’s hard to believe this team can get away with what it’s doing right now.

This start, while not nearly as long, has the feeling of the 2011-12 version Minnesota Wild. If you remember that season, rookie head coach Mike Yeo coached his new Wild team to the top of the Western Conference for the first half of the season. Despite many saying that the Wild weren’t a good team and that the lead in the Western Conference was built on a house of cards, Wild fans weren’t ready for the bottom to completely fall out from underneath the team. Coupled with terrible numbers, injuries, including a a shoulder injury to Mikko Koivu saw the team that once led the conference fall completely out of the playoffs.

Avalanche fans had the very same issue going into the 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Wild. Their season, which had bad puck possession numbers was propped up by an unreal level of play by Semyon Varlamov and a very high shooting percentage. Ask any Avs fan if they saw the impending series loss to the Wild.

Whether or not you want to believe in advanced stats and their predictive nature, that’s fine. But just look at the game logs. Tuesday’s loss to the Sabres was the first game this entire young season in which the Wild didn’t have at least one period with five shots or fewer. So things are changing, right? Well, the first and third periods in the game had only six and seven shots respectively. We can agree that while you may not get caught up in the Fensies and Corswicks, having the puck more than the opponent and peppering the goalie is a good thing.

The problem is that the Wild isn’t doing those things that are requisite of good process. The results are there, but as I stated above, much of that has been circumstantial and taking advantage of weakened opponents. There’s flashes of brilliance though. Like the 15 shots to the Sabres seven in the second period of Tuesday’s game, or the 13 shots to the Sabres eight in the first period from last week. There was also the two period domination against the Jets in the first week of the season.

There is hope. It’s those flashes of dominance that give us hope that the Wild can achieve good process and good results. However, for every flash of dominance, there’s the meat grinder periods where the Wild is hemmed into its zone for long stretches and can only clear the puck long enough for a line change. If there is one area that absolutely needs work, it exiting the defensive zone. Any good team that is dominant in puck possession, top half of the league in scoring, and has aspirations of the Stanley Cup all know that offense starts 200 feet away in the defensive zone.

Breakouts should be something with which the Wild excel. Mobile defensemen that are decent puck movers such as Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter, and Jared Spurgeon are great because they are able to turn a rush going the wrong way into quick offense heading back the other way. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau has explained that he his system is about getting the puck moving forward and winning battles in the defensive zone. He doesn’t want to spend too much time defending. However, the five-man group has had trouble executing the breakout. Often the puck travels up the boards and is chipped out, or shot high off the glass. Few times are the Wild skating the puck out, which, in turn, is leading to more turnovers and allowing the opposition to come right back in. If you watch the second period of the first game against the Sabres, this was a common occurrence, as well as the puck getting gloved down, blocked, and stopped a the line keeping the Wild inside the defensive zone.

The Wild’s best asset is its skating, but the team is not using it to move the puck from zone to zone to zone.

The Wild record and goal scoring is likely inflated based on weakened opponents. Minnesota doesn’t have to apologize for beating those teams while those teams were dealing with unfortunate injuries. However, in the longer term, to have success, the Wild will have to get the puck on-net with much more frequency. There should be no expectations of winning games with just 15 shots on goal that included a full 20 minute period where it tallied one shot on goal. The Wild have done exactly that. Though, the Wild have plenty of improvement to go before it can assume it can continue to win.