After multiple members of the Minnesota Wild tested positive for COVID-19 and a handful more ended up on the protocol list, it would have been understandable if they got off to a slow start after their hiatus.
Dealing with much of the active roster taking two weeks off from skating, training, and general exercise can’t be good for elite athletes and their routines. Not to mention the potential complications the virus has begun to inflict, like reduced lung capacity and heart conditions. All of this added a new level of uncertainty to a team that is in a unique and relatively unpredictable position this season.
Minnesota immediately suffered a 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings coming out of the break with essentially the AHL squad suiting up. But they went on to win six games in a row until they lost in overtime to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday. How did the Wild, which got off to a shaky start to the season against inferior competition, rattle off six consecutive victories?
It All Starts With Dolla Bill Kirill
After initial weeks of individual success paired with linemates who couldn’t keep up, Kirill Kaprizov finally has someone on this roster with whom he has chemistry. The season debut of Mats Zuccarello after the Wild’s time off was much anticipated. The team needed another finisher after feeling their way through the early parts of the season without him. Before his arrival, Kaprizov looked three steps ahead of every other linemate he had, resulting in broken plays and unfinished chances. Now, Zuccarello has become a natural fit alongside Kaprizov to help the young winger blossom in the past few weeks.
Kaprizov had eight points in the six-game winning streak, including at least one point in five of the six games and three games with two points. He narrowly missed out for the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for February, despite exceeding the award’s winner in points per game through the month.
Speaking of players who narrowly missed out on Rookie of the Month…
Kaapo Kahkonen Has Been Steady in Net
In keeping with the trend that players with the initials K.K. have been exceptional for the Wild this season, Kahkonen has provided a sure hand in net through the winning streak.
He started five games during Minnesota’s hot streak, where he recorded the win in all five. He only sat out one game against the Kings, a back-to-back. Through those five games, he had an average save percentage at nearly .935. He also only allowed three goals once during that span.
When No. 1 starter Cam Talbot was injured earlier in the season, then was relegated to the COVID protocol list, Kahkonen needed to take over starting duties. A far cry from the plan that would have seen him as the No. 3 man on the Wild’s depth chart, starting for AHL Iowa this season. His impressive stretch, highlighted during the winning streak, forced the Wild to make a move with Alex Stalock, who was supposed to be Talbot’s backup this season before health complications kept him away from the team.
Stalock had to be moved for a stint in Iowa thanks to the salary cap, but he didn’t clear waivers and is now set to join the Edmonton Oilers. With Stalock out of the picture, Kahkonen doesn’t have to force himself into games as much as he did earlier this season. If he continues this run, he and Talbot may end up in a platoon situation where each player takes on a 1a and 1b approach, alternating starts as the season goes on.
Scoring by Committee
Minnesota exploded for 27 goals across that six-game winning streak. They scored at least five goals in half of those victories. In terms of even-strength scoring, they were on a tear.
Those 27 goals came from 14 different players. Aside from the top-six mainstay players who are expected to score on a nightly basis, the likes of Marcus Foligno, Nico Sturm, and Victor Rask showed up for multiple goals. In addition, Ryan Hartman, Jonas Brodin, and Nick Bjugstad also had goals through that stretch.
On a squad that doesn’t have the glut of proven talent up front like the teams expected to end up on top of the West Division (the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas), the score-by-committee approach will have to keep working this season even while Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala continue to break out and become top NHL players.