Some would say that tonight, the Minnesota Wild got off to a slow start against the St. Louis Blues. In my opinion, the Wild had them right where we wanted them from the start. More precisely, the game was over from the second we saw Jordan Binnington in net.
While that statement comes mostly from my distaste for a player that I consider to be among the least sportsmanlike in the NHL (see why at this YouTube video), I can conveniently back it up with numbers tonight as well. Jordan Binnington may call me a nerd for that, but I would call him a sieve. Tonight, the Wild earned only 2.48 expected goals per MoneyPuck.com, meaning that Binnington’s 4.00 goals against were much worse than expected based on the shot location of Minnesota’s scoring chances.
The Blues did start the game out hot. Coming out strong in the first with a lead in shots on goal, they eventually capitalized with two late goals. The first came from Jordan Kyrou, and the second from Sammy Blais about 1:49 after that. They both beat him glove-side.
Seven minutes into the second period, Mats “The Lizard” Zuccarello finished a feed from the Kirill Kaprizov, the Siberian Sniper, bringing the game back within reach for the Wild. The low-to-high left-side feed was a theme that continued throughout the night against Binnington.
Kirill later took a beautiful feed from Ryan Hartman via a neutral zone stretch pass which created another opportunity, but was denied by some guy who shall not be named.
Later in the period David Perron daggered Minnesota, as he is wont to do in his career. Facing an uphill battle in the third period, the Wild needed two goals to tie the game against a Blues team which is renowned for their ability to suppress opposing shots. Fortunately, the Wild were able to solve St. Louis’s neutral zone trap and establish zone time in the second half of the third period. It’s likely that the Blues won’t deploy this system again against Minnesota, as our pressure upon the Blues’s defense snowballed into fatigue.
Just as the game seemed to be slipping away, Nico Sturm gave the team hope on a beautiful tip-in goal from the stick of smooth Swede Jonas Brodin. Anybody’s guess what led to this, but I have my suspicions.
Nico Sturm absolutely putting a smelling salt in a body bag even after the puck is dropped. Major Sturm Warning for the third period pic.twitter.com/wvn33prSbA— Spoked Z (@SpokedZ) May 2, 2021
The tip-in is actually executed to perfection here, as the “shot” by Brodin really never has a chance to go in, as it’s not directed on net. However, by tipping the puck from off-net to on-net, Sturm creates a much more dangerous angle which is hard for any goalie to stop. It’s one of the things that makes tip-in artists such as Joe Pavelski and Zach Parise so efficient at scoring these goals.
With the game back in reach and five minutes remaining, the Xcel Energy Center was buzzing, humming, roaring. The crowd fed the Wild’s legs with enough juice to get to the end of the game - and as any good hockey fan knows, the legs feed the wolf. With Kahkonen at the bench, the Wild zipped the puck around the zone, peppered Binnington with shots, and retrieved the puck at the boards to begin the cycle again. Finally, they broke through.
Echoing the Zuccarello goal, this one went low-to-high on the left side, and Binnington likely never saw it. Enter 3-on-3 overtime, in which the Wild are conspicuously build for success compared to past seasons.
Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov light the world on fire, finding tiny spaces, at the clogged NHL version on 5-on-5 hockey. Fiala is especially good at this due to his quick moves in stride as well as his whippy shot. Today, he used both to bring tears to my eyes, not in the way that good horseradish does but in a much smoother, tastier way:
That was all she wrote. The Wild save some face in this three-game series vs. the Blues with an overtime win.
Who’s first line is it, anyway?
It’s easy to just point to whatever line has the best player and call it the best line. Statistics such as time-on-ice, xG rate, or plus-minus are another method. I don’t think that either of these are particularly helpful in understanding Dean Evanson’s nuanced approach to lineup-building this season.
If Kaprizov’s line is the first line, it’s hard to say you’d put Victor Rask on it as the first-line center. In terms of TOI tonight and in terms of best results vs. difficult competition, you’d have to highlight Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno - the problem with calling this the “first line” is that it’s clearly the shutdown line tasked with matching up against other teams’ best players. So, what’s the top line? Is it the defense, or the system of hockey we play?
In my opinion, Evason lets other teams decide their lineups in a 1-2-3-4 ranking, and operates on what he sees as the next level - building the toughest possible lineup to match those lines up against. With gamebreakers Fiala and Kaprizov, it’s hard to use a checking line to defend these players simply because their stickhandling in transition beats good defensive players. Top lines are shut down by Sturm’s line or Eriksson Ek’s line. So, maybe there is no first line? Otherwise, I have no explanation for what we typically see rolled out.
Will Evason give Kahkonen a chance at Blues redemption?
Indeed he did. The night went fine for Kahkonen, although below-average. He faced 1.74 xG per MoneyPuck and let in 3, so he probably let in a softy or two overall. On the other hand, he was a rock for the Wild as they pressed to tie the game, saving multiple odd-man opportunities for the Blues. While I don’t think Kaapo is as good as he initially seemed to start the season, he’s done well adjusting to the NHL level in his rookie year and is poised to be a top-end backup at the very least going forward in his career.
Can Dumba sharpen up?
Dumba and Brodin were excellent tonight at 5-on-5 play, on ice for the most even-strength minutes of the night and posting an xG rate of 63.8%. They were also on the ice for 2 goals for and 0 against. While Dumba had one play at the opposing blue line which went south, he’s capable of stickhandling past guys just as often - in other words, I like to see him make that play to try and create a numbers advantage down low for the Wild offense.
One thing I wish we had seen more of this season is Dumbombs from the point. I’d also like to see him on the ice with Kaprizov more often. I believe the combination of Kaprizov’s stickhandling in transition, his skill at pulling up in the zone to find an extra pass, and Dumba’s love for jumping up in the play to get on the end of a hard shot, would all pair nicely. This chemistry can be especially potent between wings and defensemen who play on opposite ends of the ice, as they can find each other for a weakside pass on each other’s forehand.