Sunday’s loss marked the fifth-straight regulation defeat for Minnesota, but don’t write off the suddenly struggling Wild.
Little more than a week ago, the Minnesota Wild had a crucial meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks. The game was set to have major implications on which of the two divisional foes would finish atop the Central and possibly the entire Western Conference. Having dropped the previous two meetings against the Blackhawks, the Wild were seeking revenge, but fell 4-2. And the two teams have been heading in vastly different directions since that meeting.
Since downing Minnesota in their most recent battle, Chicago has been red hot, winning four more in a row and climbing within a hair of the 100-point plateau for the fourth-consecutive season. But for the Wild, well, things haven’t been going so well. Not only did Minnesota’s heartbreaking loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday mark the Wild’s fifth-straight defeat, but it was the fifth-straight game in which the Wild lost in regulation. Minnesota, leading the Blackhawks by a single point atop the division as of March 12, are now seven points back of Chicago with only 11 games remaining in the campaign.
And given the recent slump, there may actually be some concern about the direction the Wild are heading for the first time all season. That it just so happens to be as the post-season approaches isn’t about to help matters, either.
One of the greatest worries at the moment has to be the Wild’s inability to put the puck in the net. While that may sound bizarre coming on the heels of an outing in which Minnesota scored four goals — in a hurry, no less, potting all four in a 10-minute — the fact is the Wild have scored 11 goals over their past five games. That means during the recent slump, the Wild have scored at two-thirds of the rate they had been leading up to the current losing streak. Heading into March 12, the Wild averaged 3.3 goals per game. Beginning with the loss against Chicago, Minnesota has scored 2.2 per game.
And the issue there is that the depth of scoring that was working so well for the Wild for much of the season has suddenly dried up. Minnesota’s offense was intriguing because so many of its players were clicking. Seven players had 15-plus goals, four were 20-goal scorers and five were in the 50-point range. But starting with the contest against the Blackhawks, only five different players have found the back of the net, and of the 11 goals, six have come from the duo of Eric Staal and Mikael Granlund. Each has three goals in the past five games.
The reason for the struggling offense seems to be a statistical aberration, more than anything. Leading up to the slump, the Wild were scoring on roughly 9.5 percent of their shots at 5-on-5. The only team boasting a better shooting percentage was the Washington Capitals. However, during the five-game drought, Minnesota’s shooting percentage has fallen off a cliff. Only 4.7 percent of the Wild’s shots on goal over the past five games have found twine. It’s a tiny sample of games, to be sure, but it’s worth noting because this is exactly the time when a pure sniper could make all the difference in Minnesota.
Realistically, the one thing the Wild are missing to truly put them into the no-doubt Stanley Cup contender category is that there’s not a single shooter who consistently strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. Granlund’s having a breakout year, but he’s not yet on the level of other Western Conference sharpshooters like Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg or Jeff Carter. There’s no automatic 30- to 40-goal guy in the Minnesota lineup, and when slumps like this hit, it’s those players who can singlehandedly blast their way through them.
Scoring can only go so far, though, which brings us to the men between the pipes. More specifically, Devan Dubnyk. You could point to defensive letdowns or overall breakdowns in the structure during the current losing streak, but few would deny that Dubnyk’s unbelievable year finally has some serious blemishes. He was shelled for four goals on the first eight shots he faced Sunday and finished the contest posting his worst single-game save percentage of the season. His struggles date back beyond the current losing streak, too, as Dubnyk has only managed an .897 save percentage over the past month. That includes four games in which he allowed four or more goals against.
One could probably chalk that up to the ebbs and flows of the season as much as anything, and Dubnyk is still in line to be one of the top contenders for the Vezina Trophy. Despite his recent struggles, his .933 SP is fifth among goaltenders with 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 and he still ranks in the top 10 in all four major goaltending categories. His recent slump is a slump, no doubt, but there’s nothing overly worrisome about a period of struggle. And with a few weeks remaining in the campaign, there’s time for Dubnyk to find his game again and catch fire at the right time.
The chances he does that are strong, too, considering it’s not as if the Wild’s overall game has suddenly fallen apart. In fact, in terms of underlying numbers, Minnesota is about as solid as they’ve been all season. Again, the losing streak is a small sample size, but the Wild’s Corsi for percentage is a whopping 57.2 percent over the past five games, not to mention Minnesota has boasted an outstanding shots for percentage (59.1 percent), scoring chances for percentage (66.1) and expected goals for percentage (63.4). If the game was won simply by outplaying your opponent at 5-on-5, the Wild wouldn’t be in a slump at all.
What we could be seeing right now, however, is an overcorrection in the Wild’s season. When Minnesota was on top, it was difficult to find many who were all-in on the idea that the Wild were a top team. Part of that was that everything coach Bruce Boudreau’s team had been touching was turning into gold. One indication was the team’s PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — which was the second-highest in the league as of March 11 at 102.3. During the five-game pointless streak, the Wild have a PDO of just 91.1. That has led Minnesota’s PDO to regress closer to 100, which is the norm. It currently sits at 101.8 for the season.
Despite the recent slump, the Wild still remain one of the top threats in the entire Western Conference, but the hope has to be that the next 11 games sees a turnaround. There will still be concerns about the lack of the singular star who can drive Minnesota through a tough time, but if the team’s overall shooting percentage finds a middle-ground between its currently dreadful rate and the early season success, the Wild will be right back on track. Likewise, the concerns about Dubnyk will almost assuredly be alleviated by the time mid-April rolls around.
Times are tough for the Wild right now, but maybe the overcorrection now let’s Minnesota get back to level by the time the playoffs hit. And if the Wild can hit their stride, they’re in a great position come the post-season.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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