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Minnesota Wild’s Empty Net Goals a New Source of Strength

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The goals are nice but the real value is in putting games away.

NHL: New York Islanders at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Is it just me, or have the Wild looked like a different team this year? It might be a silly question to ask after the Wild just finished a 12-1-0 run to end 2016. Of course they look different from the teams of past, well-known for the mid-season swoons, after a stretch like that. The team is also enjoying more center-depth than it has in years thanks to the free agent signing of Eric Staal. Young guns like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Jason Zucker have seemingly stepped up to drive much of the offensive renaissance of the Wild. All of those differences factor into the new look for the Wild, but the change that has caught my eye lately has been the Wild’s ability to put games out of reach by scoring empty net goals. Scoring an empty netter puts the dagger in the other team’s hopes of a last second comeback and this season the Wild are all about crushing dreams.

Take a look at the Wild’s performance over the past few seasons and this season when facing empty net situations. The Wild are a net positive every season, as are most teams in the NHL. After all, NHL teams are generally pretty talented at playing a man down on defense and they’re even more talented at successfully shooting pucks into an empty net. This year, however, the Wild have taken it to another level entirely as they have already surpassed their 5 on 6 empty net totals from two of the three previous seasons and almost certainly will pass last season’s mark of 12 empty net goals by a wide margin.

Empty Net Situations

Season 5 on 6 GF 5 on 6 GF Rank 6 on 5 GA 6 on 5 GA Rank Differential
Season 5 on 6 GF 5 on 6 GF Rank 6 on 5 GA 6 on 5 GA Rank Differential
2013-14 6 T-18 3 T-12 3
2014-15 9 T-10 2 T-5 7
2015-16 12 T-8 5 T-19 7
2016-17 11 1 2 T-19 9

The Wild currently lead the entire NHL in empty net goals scored (in 5 on 6) and the second-place team, the New York Rangers, are three goals behind in this category. That same differential separates the second place Rangers from seventh overall in the league, and three empty net goals separates seventh place from 22nd. What that tells you is that a the three goal differential is a huge margin for this statistical category.

There are three major factors in the Wild’s ascension to the top of the league in empty net goals. The first is the outstanding play of Devan Dubnyk. There isn’t an aspect of the Wild’s performance that hasn’t been positively impacted by the Wild’s goalie. In this case, Dubnyk is keeping opposing teams from capitalizing often with a 6 on 5 advantage, giving the Wild more opportunities to score on the empty net. Although the Wild are currently tied for 19th in the league for 6 on 5 goals allowed, it has been for a grand total of two goals. Hard to say Dubnyk hasn’t been holding up his end of the bargain.

The second is the presence of breakout artists like Staal and Zucker on the team. Zucker can use his speed to outrace opponents and pick up a goal as in this clip:

Of course, Zucker has to be on the ice for this to happen. Previous seasons often saw Zucker in former head coach Mike Yeo’s doghouse, and even when he wasn’t, Zucker wasn’t trusted much in the defensively demanding 5 on 6 situations.

Staal has time and again used his size, skill, and hockey IQ to force a turnover or, as seen here, get past multiple opponents and set up a teammate, in this case Granlund:

The third and final factor has been Boudreau’s differing philosophy with regards to 5 on 6 situations. The Wild under Boudreau seem to treat empty net situations at the end of games like a prime opportunity to score. The players almost seem to relish facing the extra attacker. Contrast that to prior seasons under Yeo when it seemed the prevailing mentality was to survive the opposing team’s man advantage by hunkering down, blocking shots, and clogging lanes as much as possible. It worked fairly well as seen by the Wild generally finishing in the top half of the league in 5 on 6 GA under Yeo, but it often felt like the team was hanging on for dear life.

Here’s an example of the Wild’s more aggressive mentality. The Rangers pulled their goalie pretty early in the game as they were down by three goals. Chris Kreider deflected a centering pass into the net for a goal that brought the game within two. Even though the Rangers had just managed to score with the extra attacker, the Wild don’t turtle and hope for the best. Rather they kept up the aggressive defense and looked for an opportunity to get one back. The Rangers dump the puck into the corner. The Wild’s forwards manning the points maintain their position instead of shrinking back to clog the lanes, giving their teammates options while trusting them to defend low. Marco Scandella chases after the puck and looks for an outlet. At the time Scandella is flipping the puck towards the blue line, Coyle has actually already left the zone. He’s looking for the opportunity to score and does.

This type of mentality is finding success a lot this season. The Wild’s improved ability to score in 5 on 6 is helping them put games out of reach of their opponents. It’s been a noticeable change from the Wild of past seasons and hopefully one that is here for good.

All stats were taken from www.nhl.com.