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 2-0 win against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center.
SAN JOSE --
Some more line juggling for the Wild in an attempt to, as Head Coach Mike Yeo indicated after the game on Friday, find some kind of offensive spark.
It began in the first period when Mikko Koivu took a shift with Thomas Vanek to his left, and Charlie Coyle on his right. That trio managed to get in on the forecheck, work the cycle, and generate a few shots on goal in its maiden voyage together.
"Just a feeling," Yeo said of the switch. "Just kind of seeing the way the things went the first few shifts. Obviously it's not just a matter of tonight, it's the way things have gone lately."
On their second shift together, Koivu corralled a loose puck in the defensive zone and connected with Vanek on a home run pass, but Martin Jones stopped Vanek on a partial breakaway.
"It brought some life to some guys," Yeo said. "Mikko's line, they didn't get rewarded — Mikko obviously did at the end — but they generated an awful lot of offensive zone time, and some real good shifts in the offensive zone."
The move left Koivu's previous wingers without a center, and Erik Haula slid between Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter. Haula's speed combined with Zucker's skating ability stretched the ice vertically, and the line played a decidedly north-south style.
The two new lines continued to drive possession and create chances throughout the rest of the game, and quickly find chemistry, which isn't always an easy task when the experiment begins mid-period.
"That's a good sign to create, and get chances, and we were supporting each other well," Koivu said. "With [Vanek], his ability with the puck around the net, and with [Coyle], him working down low and using his body, that combination, it's easy to fit in for myself."
The one Wild line that remained untouched continued to make a large impact on both ends of the ice.
Zach Parise scored his ninth goal of the season, the game-winner, on Saturday, and his line with Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund had strong efforts on both ends of the ice.
Pominville said as much after morning skate — that the line has been able to sustain its recent success because of good defensive play.
"It was a little bit of a tough start for us," Parise said after the game on Saturday. "It didn't feel like we had the puck much in the first period. We had one good shift in the second, and we started feeling good about it, and did it again, and we started to get some chances and some looks."
The line's latest goal came after Pominville's positioning drew a Shark skater away from Parise, leaving him with more than enough time to score off his own rebound.
After Pominville passed the puck from the trapezoid to Granlund in the faceoff circle, he followed the path of the puck. That drew Burns toward the corner, and Joonas Donskoi got caught puck-watching in the slot, leaving Parise alone in front of Jones. Granlund waited as long as he could, allowing Burns to drift toward Pominville, before sending a shot-pass in the direction of Parise that he deflected on goal, and then flipped home the rebound.
"A little bit (surprised), but I felt them trying to go up ice, and try to be a little opportunistic," Parise said. "Granlund made a really good play to find me in front."
There were many strong shifts for the line all game long, and since Parise returned eight games ago, combining for 17 points with five goals and 12 assists.
The Wild has killed off 11 of the last 12 penalties it has taken, and has done so in an aggressive manner.
When the penalty kill began to pick up steam about two weeks ago, Chris Porter said one of the big differences was there was no hesitation in the four Wild skaters. When Minnesota was giving up power play goals, it wasn't killing penalties as decisively, a cause-and-effect byproduct.
Not only was there no hesitation in the Wild's penalty kill on Saturday, Minnesota was being so disruptive in the neutral zone it wasn't allowing the Sharks to generate any zone time. The likes of Porter, Ryan Carter, Justin Fontaine, and Jason Zucker anticipated passes and choreographed entries between the blue lines, beating the Sharks to spots and taking away time and space.
When San Jose did manage to get through, the Wild's last line of defense stood tall, leading to our next point…
Probably the most Darcy Kuemper has been asked to do since taking over the reins with Devan Dubnyk injured, and Kuemper answered the call.
"It's nice to get some playing time," Kuemper said. "I've been feeling good in practice, so to get out there, and feel good out there, it means a lot."
Early on, San Jose threw lots of pucks at the crease from sharp angles, and did a lot of work from around or below the goal line. Kuemper eliminated any superfluous motions, staying grounded in his crease and allowing his defensemen and forwards to attack rebounds.
"He looks very confident in there and he looks very poised in there," Yeo said. "He did a real good job of collecting some pucks, settling things down, and he made some sneaky-big saves. Just little tips and little things through traffic that were very big saves."
There were several occasions where Kuemper was called into action to make difficult saves, and he obliged. He stopped Tommy Wingels in the first period when he was almost caught off his post on a sharp wrap-around.
With the Sharks on the power play in the second period, Kuemper came up big, twice. He first shrugged off a Brent Burns shot that was taken through traffic, and then gloved a rebound attempt swatted out of midair by Joe Pavelski.
Kuemper was there time and time again, making 29 saves to earn his second victory of the season, and his first shutout.
"I feel like I'm seeing [the puck] well," he said. "Mentally, I'm in a good focus right now. A lot of that is how the guys are playing in front of me. They're giving me the sight lanes, and allowing me to see it, and it makes making clean saves a lot easier."
Save for a hiccup earlier in the season against the Winnipeg Jets, Kuemper has looked very solid and poised in each of his other five starts and six appearances.
"He's played some great games for us, and not gotten rewarded," Parise said. "But it's nice for him mentally to get the win, get the shutout, and get rewarded for how well he has been playing."
Though the Wild hasn’t been scoring at the same pace it did earlier in the season, the defensive backbone that has postured Minnesota the past few seasons is back.
"It's kind of how we've been playing on the road here," Kuemper said. "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."
One thing that jumps out is how stingy the Wild has been in first periods. Over its past seven games, Minnesota has allowed an average 6.57 shots on goal. In some instances, the first period can be a bit of a feeling-out exercise, but the Wild has been ensuring that, even if its still working to find its game, it's going to have a pretty good chance at winning regardless.
"Honestly the way we're getting out of the zone has been the best part," Parise said. "We're making short little bumps to each other, bumps to the middle, our [defense] are wheeling the net really well and making good plays off the wall, so we're able to get out of our zone with control.
(Not coincidentally, the Wild has earned points in each of those seven games, going 4-0-3.)
That stout defensive play has seen Minnesota concede one even-strength goal over its past five games. The Wild has three shutouts over that stretch, and has allowed only two regulation goals.
"When we are spending a little time in our zone we're doing a good job of keeping them to the outside, and blocking shots, and really not giving too many Grade-A chances up," Parise said.
It's a very encouraging sign for a team that prides itself on its defensive identity, and certainly one that is continuing to find its shape.
"It's been working, but that's the way it should be," Koivu said. "We need to build from there, and that's our identity, and the rest will come. We will score more goals just as long as we stay patient, and as a team, that’s a good sign."