Game 2 should have been a wake up call for the Minnesota Wild. After a Game 1 victory where Minnesota easily dispatched the Vancouver Canucks, Vancouver roared back, catching the Wild flat-footed. They made Minnesota chase them all night, baited them into bad penalties and stymied their power play.
The Wild were down 4-1 through 57 minutes before Kevin Fiala struck twice to put Minnesota within one. One could optimistically point out that it was a one-goal game that went down to the final seconds. The game also could be seen as a narrowly-averted blowout by a team with flaws that needed fixing.
Minnesota’s performance in a 3-0 shutout at the hands of the Canucks would be upsetting enough on its own. It sent the Wild to the brink of elimination, down 2-1 in a best-of-5 series. But what makes this much more alarming is how the team followed essentially the same script from Game 2.
Again, the Wild relied too heavily on Fiala, as he took 14 of the team’s 72 shot attempts (19.4%). Again, Minnesota couldn’t keep their emotions in check, taking 10 penalties and giving Vancouver’s power play seven opportunities.
And of course, the power play fizzled out again. After a strong showing in Game 1, Minnesota’s power play has completely vanished. They went 0-for-7 in Game 3 after an 0-for-6 performance Tuesday night.
Historically, the Wild have been middling with the man advantage, so feeling frustrated by the power play isn’t a new feeling in the State of Hockey. But it must be said that Minnesota had very good results on the power play this season.
They were in the NHL’s top-ten in both goals (46) and conversion rate (21.3%). Fiala and Zach Parise were massive threats, combining for 21 power play goals. On the blue line, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Brad Hunt all had 10 or more points.
So seeing Minnesota’s power play go 0-for-13 in two of the biggest games of the year should be surprising, frustrating and unacceptable. But what went wrong? And how can Minnesota fix it before it sends them to an early exit from the (literal) playoff bubble?
It comes down, in many ways, to predictability.
There’s an adage in baseball that it doesn’t matter how fast your fastball is if you only have a fastball. Giving a hitter one thing to prepare for allows them to catch up, adjust and then destroy it.
Minnesota has a hell of a fastball with Fiala. He blew Vancouver away early in Game 1 with a shot from the point. But ever since, Minnesota’s top unit has spent their power plays backing off from the crease and putting the success and failure of the group solely into Fiala’s hands.
Vancouver has adjusted. They spent Games 2 and 3 harassing Fiala physically and shadowing him on the power play. Of Fiala’s 11 shot attempts at 5-on-4 play, the Canucks have blocked five.
Worse yet, the Canucks’ rough treatment of Fiala has gotten the Wild’s young star to sabotage himself. Fiala snapped with 14 minutes remaining, hitting goalie Jacob Markstrom for a double-minor penalty that kept him in the box for four minutes. He then slashed a Canuck with 2:25 left, taking him out of the end game. Vancouver scored on the ensuing power play to put the game out of reach. All told, Fiala was in the penalty box for six of the final 15 minutes.
This isn’t so much to lay blame at Fiala, rather to show the pitfalls of relying on one player to provide your offense. All it takes is for that star to have one bad game, and all of a sudden, you’re facing elimination.
Many, many others need to step up.
Parise, who led Minnesota with 12 power play goals in the regular season, has been silent. He got a huge opportunity, moving up to the top line alongside Fiala and Eric Staal. Despite this and leading the team in power play time, Parise was held without a shot. In fact, Parise has no shots and just one attempt in almost 16 power play minutes this series. Staal collected two power play shots tonight, his first of the series.
The second power play unit hasn’t been any less predictable, a fact that Vancouver pounced on. Defensemen Brad Hunt and Matt Dumba have taken the lion’s share of the shot attempts, with little threat coming from their forwards. Because of this, the Canucks have been able to key in on them, blocking eight of their 14 power play attempts in the past two games.
If Minnesota wants to get their power play running again, they must add a couple of curveballs into the mix. A good start would be to introduce some movement. The Wild spent much of their power play time remaining fairly stationary, moving the puck mostly around the outside. Vancouver is onto that pattern, blocking 20 of 47 attempts the past two games, and Minnesota must disrupt their positioning.
The second might be putting their biggest weapons, Fiala and Dumba, on the same power play unit. Coach Dean Evason has put them on separate units, presumably to give the top unit Fiala’s wizardry and the second Dumba’s cannon of a shot. Both are skills capable of having a power play built around, but Vancouver’s penalty kill is able to shut them both down.
At least when they’re apart. Together might be a different story. All of a sudden, Vancouver needs to make a choice. Do they shut down Fiala and leave Dumba open to tee up on Jacob Markstrom? Or do they elect to shadow Dumba and his shot, giving Fiala some breathing room. Either should give Minnesota an opening to get on the board at 5-on-4.
Minnesota appeared to make few adjustments after Game 2. They can’t afford to repeat their mistakes in a do-or-die game Friday night, and that starts with the power play. Minnesota must throw Vancouver some different looks and get their forwards involved, or risk being shut out again and headed home early.
And if that happens, Minnesota may spend next year seeing if Kirill Kaprizov or Alexis Lafreniere can do what Parise, Staal and Mats Zuccarello can’t.
All stats from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise stated.