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The Wild Have Played Themselves into the Playoffs

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Improvements in discipline, goaltending, and puck possession have turned the Wild’s season around

Minnesota Wild v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild have been playing like a different team since the turn of the calendar, or perhaps they’ve returned to being the franchise record-setting team from last year. Yes, they are still resembling a bit of a roller coaster giving up terrible 4-3 overtime losses to the Arizona Coyotes or getting shellacked like they did recently against the Dallas Stars. A deeper look at the numbers from before and after New Year’s Day shows that this team has actually turned a corner though, and that’s great news for the team and its fans.

Comparing the Wild’s stats aggregated from all the games before January 1st and all the games from that point until now shows that the Wild are more disciplined, getting better goaltending, and are possessing the puck much better in 2018 than they were earlier in the season. Let’s start with what might be the biggest change in the Wild’s game: penalties taken. In the 16 games since the calendar turned over, the Wild have taken 43 penalties. This works out to 2.688 penalty kills/game. This is a far cry from earlier in the season when they were playing shorthanded 3.949 times per game. The old adage is that special teams can’t win you games but they can lose them for you. Well, the Wild aren’t giving their opponents nearly as many chances to take the game away from them as they used to.

Goaltending on the whole has improved as well. Through the beginning half of the season, Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock were providing average goaltending overall with save percentages of .918 and .916 respectively. In fact, their even strength numbers were below average (.923 and .922) but buoyed somewhat by solid penalty kill save percentages of .892 and .899. While their shorthanded save percentages have dropped down to earth with Dubnyk at .820 and Stalock at .833, Dubnyk has recovered his excellent even strength game, climbing to .935. Unfortunately, Stalock hasn’t quite joined him (he’s drifted down to .917), but he is at least trustworthy enough in net to spell Dubnyk enough to prevent burnout in the back half of the season.

Puck possession, while still not at the most encouraging place, has improved a great deal from where it was during the first half of the season. On average, the Wild were giving up a deficit of over 3 shots per game. While still in the red, the Wild are now only spotting their opponents 1.5 shots per game. Corsi % Close (shots attempted when the score is close or tied) is actually over the 50% at 51.27% now whereas in the first half it was an abysmal 44.67%. When the game is up for grabs, the Wild are now playing like a team that wants to win it.

That extra drive to win combined with better goaltending and staying out of the penalty box has seen the Wild win, or at least push games to overtime, a lot more frequently. During the first 39 games of the season, the Wild were scoring 1.103 standings points/game. Since New Year’s Day, the Wild are scoring 1.438 standings points/game. Moving forward from the Wild’s win against the Chicago Blackhawks this past Saturday, a scoring rate of 1.438 sees the team end up with 105 points on the year. That’s only one point shy of their franchise record from last year. That’s assuming they can keep up this current pace of course. If, however, the past six weeks were just a stretch of overperformance by the Wild and they returned to the old scoring rate, the Wild would end the season with only... 96 points. A big drop from 105, sure, but still good enough to make the playoffs as a wild card based on the past couple of seasons.

It’s unquestionable that the Wild have been a letdown compared to last season. But that disappointment was almost guaranteed between the loss of players to the Expansion Draft and the high expectations created by the 12 game win streak and record high finish last season. The lackluster start and the fairly uneven performance haven’t helped. It’s definitely colored my opinion of the team this season almost regardless of however it all turns out. That being said, these past six weeks have seen the team likely elevate themselves (appalling losses to the Coyotes notwithstanding) to a playoff berth. Things could still turn around on the Wild, of course, but it is far more probable that we’ve seen the Wild earn themselves a sixth consecutive appearance.