Let’s say you wanted to engineer the perfect plan for the Minnesota Wild to drop Game 2 of their series. It would have seemed like a tough task, given how Minnesota frustrated the Vancouver Canucks in a 3-0 shutout in Game 1. But it might have gone something like this:
Come out flat and give up the first goal within 30 seconds. Squander three early power plays en route to an 0-for-6 night. Keep marching to the penalty box and hand the Canucks seven chances on the man advantage. Don’t get into a rhythm at 5-on-5. And by all means, let all the Vancouver stars you stymied in Game 1 find the scoresheet.
It looked similar to a lot of frustrating playoff losses of years past. Minnesota found themselves down 4-1, looking out-matched in terms of talent and unable to get the timely save.
And then Kevin Fiala announced that he was still, indeed, Kevin Fiala. The Wild’s gamebreaker scored with 2:29 left to bring Minnesota within striking distance. He followed it up with another goal with 7.7 seconds remaining to cut the lead to one.
Vancouver clung to the lead in the final seconds to tie the series, but Fiala has clearly made the Wild a different team, in at least one crucial way. You might be able to shut down Minnesota completely, but Fiala is always a threat to steal a game. Even one the Wild have no business winning.
And even when it’s obvious to everyone that the puck will be on his stick in crunch time, Fiala isn’t a secret any longer. He played at an MVP level in February and March, then picked up the opening goal in Game 1. Vancouver knew Minnesota would put the game in Fiala’s hands, and they couldn’t stop him.
To be clear, this is no moral victory. Those don’t exist in the playoffs. You have to win, or you’ll be kicked out of the bubble early, wishing on ping pong balls next Tuesday. Minnesota can’t be satisfied with Fiala’s last-minute heroics and try riding that momentum into Game 3. They have to make adjustments.
One of those adjustments has to be making the offense just a tiny bit less reliant on Fiala.
Fiala led Minnesota with six shots and 11 attempts in Game 2. Through two games Fiala leads the Wild with 11 shots on 19 attempts, representing one-sixth of the team’s output. Only Filip Forsberg, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin have carried a higher percentage of their team’s offense.
None of this is to say that Fiala needs to shoot less and pass more. Fiala has made at least two passes this series to set up Eric Staal for gorgeous scoring chances. And even if your takeaway from Fiala’s dominance is that he’s being selfish — that’s a good thing. You want him to be selfish, because he’s a threat to score every time he touches the puck.
No, the problem in Game 2 wasn’t that Fiala was shooting too much. It’s that almost every other forward was missing in action for much of the game.
Just three other players had more than two shots Tuesday night: Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Brad Hunt with four apiece. They’re all defensemen, and took the majority of their shots from the point. Astute readers will also notice that limiting shots to the point was exactly how Minnesota toppled Vancouver in Game 2.
As for the other 11 forwards on the team? Almost silent. Luke Kunin’s first period goal had him join Fiala as the only two forwards to score this series. Zach Parise, Minnesota’s power play czar, had zero shots through 53 minutes, and finished the game with just two. Neither came on the team’s six power play opportunities. Staal failed to finish on his two shots. The Wild’s vaunted bottom-six forward depth was a non-factor, collectively producing a measly four shots on goal.
Fiala is proving to be Minnesota’s most dangerous player since Marian Gaborik, and the offense from the blue line is a major strength of the team. It’s understandable to want to use those weapons as much as possible.
But relying too much on Fiala makes the Wild easier to defend. Sure, Fiala has shown he can still get his, even if the Canucks key in on him. But shadowing Fiala will work sometimes, as Vancouver’s penalty kill showed last night. The Wild had nine shots in six power play tries, with only one coming in a high-danger area. With no other forwards a threat to make them pay, Vancouver can (at least sometimes) neutralize the Wild’s power play.
A fine line exists between letting Fiala have the touches he needs and merely waiting for him to break games. Minnesota stood at the wrong end of it in Game 2. The Wild need to have a secondary threat on offense, which means working to get open or to find for rebounds and tips when Fiala’s on the ice. And when he isn’t, the rest of the forwards need to be applying offensive pressure of their own.
Failing to do that is asking Fiala to win games by himself, which is an unreasonable thing to ask. Yes, a star player is able to do unreasonable things at times, and Fiala almost did on Tuesday. But relying solely on one star player won’t get you far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially for a depth-oriented team like Minnesota.
For the Wild to make any noise, a forward not wearing 22 will need to step up.