In all invasion sports (hockey, soccer, basketball), there is much made of strategy, tactics, skill, and the beauty of the game as a team element. On the other hand, sometimes you just want to see a big guy do strong things and dominate the other team. Shaquille O’Neal often criticizes slumping big men in today’s game and tells them to, “just dominate.” It’s been said that Shaquille O’Neal’s perspective on basketball has, understandably, been skewed by being Shaquille O’Neal. Fortunately for the Wild, I believe that Shaq would have been quite satisfied with the performance of 6-foot-6 Nick Bjugstad tonight.
Bjugstad was critical to a number of big plays tonight, and honestly he should consider copyrighting the term “big play.” It works on two levels. Playing alongside of a fired-up Nico Sturm and centerman Nick Bonino in what appeared to be a shutdown role, Bjugstad made a huge play (sorry) to set up his game-winner by chipping the puck out of his zone, boxing out and stick-lifting a defender, and finally muscling the puck on net.
The Forest Green were were lackluster by comparison in the lead-up to their success. The first period looked exactly like the Ducks probably drew it up - little offense going either way, a boring affair for Minnesota at home which might just bounce Anaheim’s way. In the second period they turned up the forechecking pressure which has given this team trouble at times. It led to a turnover at the Wild’s defensive blue line and a quick break for Troy Terry which he ripped home on the backhand. Anaheim’s opponent was discombobulated, missing passes all game long, and now down a goal. After the weekend in Colorado, things looked gloomy for them.
For the next 15 minutes, either Anaheim seemed to park the bus, giving the Wild the possession needed to generate chances, draw penalties, and eventually score a powerplay goal off of the stick of noted sniper Ryan Suter. The seeing-eye puck adage probably applied here, but with Minnesota’s powerplay you’re just happy to see it go in.
As the sands of the third-period hourglass sifted away, the Ducks actually did well, racking up 1.33 xG per MoneyPuck. Much of this actually came after the Wild had scored their second goal and were killing off the final five minutes of play. From what I could tell, this was due to too much chip-and-chase hockey, flipping pucks out from their zone and giving Anaheim the most crucial item required to score hockey goals: possession of the hockey puck. It is frustrating for me to see this team drift from what I (but apparently not they) understand to be this team’s identity - a team which is exceptional at possessing the puck. We create high danger chances by holding the puck, and prevent chances against by holding the puck. Without the puck, Minnesota does well enough at keeping danger to the perimeter, but why settle for that when the puck could be safely on our own tape?
Fortunately, Talbot held strong in net against the shots he faced and the Wild got the friendly bounces necessary to drain the clock. Talbot posted a strong game overall, giving up only the 1 goal from Terry versus an expected production of 1.94 xG estimated based on the locations and volume of shots he faced.
Can the Wild start this one on the right foot?
Kind of. The first first period ended with essentially equal shot danger from both teams. On the other hand, Anaheim is a rebuilding team which the Wild should probably expect to come out ahead of in any given period. They also looked like a soccer team with all the passes that landed in skates. Rask’s line and maybe Nico Sturm were the only skaters to show much jump in the first period. Perhaps Coach Dean Evason had a talk with the equipment staff after the first intermission, because the team looked like they were playing with their gloves on the wrong hands.
Can Kevin Fiala earn some points?
In a word, no — Fiala scored zero points. He looked a bit meek to start the game, getting what appeared to be a good look from the hashmarks; however, it was only recorded as around .04 xG. As the game wore on, he seemed to develop chemistry with glue guy Ryan Hartman, so hopefully this skating line of Fiala-Johansson-Hartman can stick together for a while. Stability has been rough for Fiala this year, but he was sprung for some real chances by Hartman later in the game. Doubtless, the savvy veteran knew what he was doing and wanted to get Fiala going.
Will the powerplay get some jump?
I’m not going to sit here and argue with results — it’s bad mojo! If somebody were to say that Ryan Suter’s goal had a 3% chance of going in, I would dismiss them as a fraud. For those who say that a one-timer from the point in an umbrella powerplay is the least dangerous shot available, you can kiss his soon-to-be-fitted Stanley Cup ring.
As a real analysis, the Wild scored 0.43 xG over their three powerplays. That works out to about 17% based on the amount of time Minnesota’s powerplay was on the ice and the shot danger that was created at five on four. League-average is just over 20 percent, and 17 percent would be good for 24th in the league. That’s better than I thought they looked in the game, but their powerplay still probably needs to find new, better ways to generate offense.