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After A Brief Flirt, Wild Back To Playing Hard-To-Get

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

SAN JOSE – It was seven games ago that Head Coach Mike Yeo said the way the Minnesota Wild has to play isn't cute.

He meant no offense to the 21 gentlemen in the locker room, but there has been a definitive hard-to-get allure to the way the Wild has played in a 4-0-3 stretch since then.

The name of the game has been a return to Minnesota Wild Hockey, which means a stubborn defensive effort night in and night out.

"It's been working, but that's the way it should be," Mikko Koivu said after Minnesota's latest win, a 2-0 victory against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.

After Yeo's look-in-the-mirror assessment, the Wild has earned a point every time it has hit the ice. It started with a stark reminder against the Dallas Stars that on nights when the Wild does find its scoring touch, the defensive structure can't take a backseat.

"We scored three goals, and were far more concerned about getting the fourth, and who is going to get it, and, 'I want my goal' than we were about making sure we weren't giving up the next one," Yeo said.

But then Minnesota's game continued to get more stubborn, and callous, and in some instances, rather rude.

The 4-3 overtime loss was followed by a 2-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center. Thirty shots on goal allowed, one goal against, and a game whose DNA felt a lot more familial.

"We had played like that at certain times; we just hadn't put it all together," Ryan Suter said after the Chicago victory. "We finally put it together, and now we have to build on it. We can't take a step back."

Instead, the Wild took two steps forward. Minnesota followed that win in the Windy City with two consecutive shutouts. Twenty-eight shots on goal allowed against the Toronto Maple Leafs, all stopped by Devan Dubnyk, and 20 shots on goal allowed against the Colorado Avalanche, with Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper combining for the no-hitter.

"When the team is playing as defensively as they are, and responsible, obviously it means a lot less quality chances against, which is going to make for an easier night," Kuemper said.

The defensive attitude continued to harden. Shot lanes were clogged, defensive gaps were tightened, and time and space on the puck became a privilege the Wild's opponents were not being afforded.

"For us, we're a team that can suffocate teams and make sure they don’t get a lot of Grade-A chances, and don't get a whole ton of looks around our net," Jason Zucker said after a morning skate in Colorado on Monday.

"If we do those things, that gives us a chance to succeed."

Those "A's" became "C's," "D's", and "F's," hardly reports that teams would want to bring home and hang on the refrigerator. Over the past five games, the Wild has allowed two even-strength goals.

"Before that five-game stretch, we kind of got away a little bit from the defensive game that we're supposed to play," Koivu said. "Sometimes that happens. Usually the results are not what we want.

"We talked about it, we've been practicing it a little bit, and for sure everyone is doing their job."

And the defensive reclamation has come in the nick of time.

There's a concept in statistics called regression — that when something is performing above or below a mean, it will work its way back toward average.

And over this recent defensive stretch, regression has crept itself into the Wild's offense. After scoring on 9.3 percent of its shots at even-strength over the first 21 games of the season (third-highest in the NHL), the Wild has scored on 5.8 percent during its current point streak.

"We had some great chances, but it just didn't go in," Koivu said on Saturday night.

The mathematics have played out in the Wild's offense not getting the bounces it was, say, seven games ago. Sequences like one in the third period against the Sharks when a Thomas Vanek pass on a two-on-one deflected off Tommy Wingels and toward an empty net, but stayed out. Then Vanek's follow-up also somehow didn't result in a goal.

There has been no room to flirt with another blueprint, as tempting as she's been, but the Wild has resisted.

"(We have been) tight defensively, and good on us sticking with that because when the goals aren't coming, it's easy to start cheating and get away from that," Kuemper said. "We stuck with it, everyone did, and we got rewarded for it."

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