Following Wild games, Content Coordinator Evan Sporer will give the Five Takeaways that he remembers from the contest. Tonight, he looks back at the Wild's 3-1 win against the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center.
ST. LOUIS –
Playing the first of a four-game road trip, without forward Zach Parise, the Wild went into Scottrade Center looking for a performance it could build on for the next six days.
And a big part of that, and finding success on the road, is by playing simple hockey, which the Wild did.
"That was perfect, and that was exactly what we talked about," Devan Dubnyk said. "That's how you have to do it on the road. It was nice to kind of get that feeling of how we need to win on the road."
One of the biggest examples of that simplicity was the Wild's third line of Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, and Justin Fontaine, which scored the first two goals after being assembled in practice on Wednesday.
"We kind of got thrown together with Zach being out, so we had to make sure that we found chemistry right away," Niederreiter said. "We talked right off the get-go that we had to make simple plays to be successful, and that's what we did tonight."
Niederreiter continued his recent stretch of very strong hockey, and now has two goals and three assists in his past five games.
"It was important to make sure you get out there and end the year right: 2015 was a solid year, and I just wanted to make sure that it ended on a good note," he said.
It was a big night for all three forwards on the line, who were strong in both the offensive and defensive zones.
"All three of those guys deserve a little bit of mention," Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "A great response by [Fontaine], probably [Haula's] best game of the year, and Nino was a horse all night.
"[Nino] has been on for a while, and he was physical, and he played a big boy's game today."
Most importantly, the line, and the Wild, was able to keep things simple.
"We just have to bear down, and keep it simple," Ryan Suter said. "It doesn't have to be pretty, at times tonight it wasn't, and that's the main thing."
Devan Dubnyk has strung together two very solid performances, and has really played strong hockey coming out of the holiday break.
The three goals against in a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins painted an unkind picture, but Dubnyk has now stopped 91 of 95 shots coming out of the break.
He made a number of high-quality saves on Thursday in St. Louis, and continues to track the puck very well. He made three saves on a 41 second 5-on-3 kill right before the Wild conceded a power-play goal. (Of the 5 goals Dubnyk has allowed in the past three games, two have come at five-on-five).
The other thing about Dubnyk's game on Thursday was many of the saves he made were hard-working ones. With the traffic St. Louis throws toward the crease, tracking the puck around bodies is even a more difficult task, so the routine saves (as they appeared) were anything but against the Blues.
And that leads back to the puck tracking. The pad saves Dubnyk was able to make through traffic, or the shots he was able to swallow up to afford the Wild a line change after an extended shift happened because of his sonar-like ability to find the puck.
When talking this morning about counteracting the heavy forecheck pressure the Blues tend to apply, Jared Spurgeon pointed out how Dubnuk's ability to play the puck can help relieve some of that pressure.
St. Louis tried to dump the puck deep a number of times early, and Dubnyk cut off those pucks, made a simple pass to one of his teammates, and helped transition the puck out of the zone.
"Our [defense] did a really good job retrieving pucks, and it's not easy against that team the way they forecheck, the way they pressure, and the way they force you to defend," Yeo said.
Dubnyk's success in those instances deterred (at least from a numbers standpoint) the Blues from continuing with that strategy. St. Louis tried to carry the puck over the blue line more frequently, and, as Spurgeon predicted, with backchecking help from forwards, the Wild's defensemen were able to stand up and have good gaps.
"It's important. You don't want the guys to get banged up every time," Dubnyk said. "I'm able to do that because they work hard to get back for me, and they communicate with me, and it all works together."
All of this in turn made for fewer sustained shifts for the Blues in the Wild's zone, save for a few sequences at even-strength when St. Louis was really able to cycle the puck thanks to a five-man effort working in tandem with Dubnyk.
"When they do as good of a job as getting back to the puck for me, and giving me an out, then it's my job to give it to them, and it makes things easier," Dubnyk said.
Sometimes, a shot on goal can be as good as a pass when placed properly. Fontaine took a shot off the rush that served as a perfect pass, and Niederreiter pounced on a rebound to score and tie the game at 1-1.
With space hard to come by at five-on-five Thursday, there weren't too many passing lanes open to create quality chances in the offensive zone. So as the Wild went below the blue line on a three-on-three, Fontaine angled his shot diagonally toward Jake Allen's pads, creating a rebound in the direction of Niederreiter, who buried the loose puck (VIDEO).
Think of the geometry of a pool table: If you're taking a shot with the wrong color balls in the way, you need to use the rails to choreograph the cue ball into the right direction. Similarly, with three Blues skaters essentially playing man-to-man defense on the Wild, Fontaine used the rail — or Allen's right pad — to make sure the puck got to Niederreiter without going through the wrong colored sweater.
It's also a good sign to see Niederreiter continue to be impactful without Charlie Coyle playing on his line. The two had been meshing very well together, and the results followed. With Coyle promoted in the absence of Zach Parise, Niederreiter kept rolling, and continued to provide the Wild with secondary scoring.
The year 2015 was kind to the Minnesota Wild in many respects. It included a trip to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a first round win against the Blues, and the most combined regular season and playoff victories in a calendar year at 53 in franchise history.
And there is plenty to be excited for in 2016, which begins Saturday for the Wild in sunny Tampa Bay (that's something to look forward to, right?), and will include an outdoor game against the Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Stadium February 21.
And obviously, the support the Wild gets from the fans night in and night out is unmatched by any other team's in the NHL.