There’s a scenario where losing Kirill Kaprizov would be the turning point for an incredible Minnesota Wild collapse. Heck, most in the State of Hockey saw exactly that coming last Friday, when the Wild announced Kaprizov’s injury will keep him off the ice for 3-4 weeks.
Minnesota is the birthplace of Charles Schultz, the creator of Charlie Brown, so it’s appropriate that its fans are always waiting for Lucy to take the football away from them. Missing Kaprizov at such a crucial point seemed to be that exact moment where the football gets tucked away.
Instead, the Wild have increased their playoff odds from about 97% to 98.7%. The Detroit Red Wings, who stand 9 points out of a Wild Card spot with 15 games left, have a better chance of making the playoffs than the Wild have of missing.
Why? Their scoring has improbably come alive. In the past three games, the Wild scored 17 goals, punctuated by an 8-5 drubbing of the St. Louis Blues. It’s easily the most this goal-starved team has in a three-game stretch all season. Their previous three-game high was 14 goals, from December 1 to 4.
Even with Kaprizov in the lineup, 17 goals in three games might be surprising. But to do it without him? It’s Bizarro World.
The Wild played 15 games from February 9 to March 8, and Kaprizov scored 11 goals in that time. The rest of the Wild scored 18, combined. And Kaprizov assisted on two of those.
So how does this offensive explosion from a punchless team even happen?
Some of it is that the schedule softened at precisely the right time for Minnesota. The Wild played nine playoff teams in their previous 10 games, with another two coming against the Calgary Flames, and one more coming against the Nashville Predators, who still have playoff hopes. Those defenses are going to be tighter than the teams at the bottom of the schedule.
To their credit, Minnesota went 10-2-3 during that stretch. But Kaprizov shooting 17% and their goalies two or fewer goals in 13 of those games went a long way toward building that streak.
In their past three games, they played the San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes, and St. Louis Blues. The Sharks have the 18th-ranked defense, giving up expected goals at 5-on-5, and have the league’s worst goaltending. The Coyotes and Blues have the 28th and 27th-best defenses, respectively.
If there was ever a time when the Wild could get out of a slump, it was these three games.
We can look at those three games, see how they shot 14.3% at 5-on-5 during them, and say it was luck. And that probably is part of the story. Another part, though, is this: This team’s shooting has been awful for quite a while, and it’s difficult to be that bad forever.
In the two months before Kaprizov’s injury (January 8 – March 8), the Wild shot a ghastly 4.8% at 5-on-5. That wasn’t just the worst rate in hockey. The Ottawa Senators were 31st over that time, the next-worst team, and even they shot 6.0%.
Major players on this team couldn’t buy a goal when they were on the ice. The Wild shot 3.0% at 5-on-5 with Matt Boldy on the ice and 3.1% with Joel Eriksson Ek. Those two logged over 330 minutes each. Matt Dumba almost played 500 5-on-5 minutes, a span where the Wild shot only 4.1%.
520 NHLers logged 200 or more 5-on-5 minutes in that two-month stretch. As you can see above, Alex Goligoski, Connor Dewar, and Calen Addison are also in the bottom-15. Look at the bottom-50, and Jon Merrill, Ryan Reaves, and Brandon Duhaime make appearances.
Sometimes you’re just due for some goals, and if you look at the biggest beneficiaries of Minnesota’s scoring output, those guys who’ve been near the bottom pop up. Boldy’s picked up five points, Reaves has four, Dewar and Eriksson Ek each have three, and Goligoski has two. Even a player like Merrill hasn’t registered a point, but suddenly, the team is shooting 23% with him on the ice at 5-on-5.
Obviously, this isn’t going to last, but more importantly: Neither was shooting under 5% at 5-on-5.
What’s great is that Minnesota’s streaks tend to come at the exact right times. When no one but Kaprizov could buy a goal, Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury came to the rescue. When their two goalies looked human in their most recent games, the scoring stepped up despite losing Kaprizov.
It’s not ideal to rely on the “timely” goal or save to carry you to wins, but that’s the sort of game Minnesota has to play to succeed this year. It’s not because they’re a paper tiger, or winning only because of absurd luck. Their possession numbers are strong. Over their last 25 games, they’re controlling 53.1% of the expected goal share, eighth in hockey.
But they’ve played some low-event hockey during that time. For every hour of 5-on-5 play, they and their opponents combined for 5.03 expected goals per hour. With so few scoring chances up for grabs, Minnesota’s relying on getting that timely goal and save, because the games are so tight.
It’s obviously working for them now, and their potential Round 1 opponents, the Dallas Stars (5.03 xGF+xGA per hour) and Colorado Avalanche (5.21), also play a low-event style. Will it work for Minnesota? Maybe. They have the goaltending for it, and all it takes is a bounce or two in these low-scoring slugfests. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy this goals outburst while we can, and hope that Minnesota can continue to get these timely streaks.
All data from Evolving Hockey unless otherwise indicated.