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 2-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens at Xcel Energy Center.
In the Wild's past two games, each a loss, which snapped a season-high nine-game point streak, the organized defensive structure that buoyed Minnesota over said streak was amiss.
It was back on Tuesday.
"Lately we’ve been scoring a lot of goals and sometimes you think it’s going to be that way once you get one or two early, and you kind of slip away from what we do best," Jason Pominville said. "When we defend hard, we’re a tough team to play against, and I think we showed that tonight."
Just in time to see the Wild off into the holiday break, Minnesota turned in another stubborn defensive effort that led to two more points in the standings.
The Wild conceded 25 shots on goal, on par with the kind of games it was playing as recently as a week ago. The lapses were on singular plays — not sequences — and were few and far between.
"They've been struggling a little bit so they came out with a real tight effort, and we wanted to get back to playing tight," Darcy Kuemper said. "There wasn't a lot of room for either team out there, and we kind of expected that kind of game. We stuck with our game all 60 minutes, and we were rewarded for it."
After morning skate, Kuemper said during his recent successful stretch, the way his teammates played in front of him made his life much easier, and that was the case again on Tuesday. There were shots from the outside, blocked attempts, and a reclamation of the neutral zone that made it difficult for the Canadiens to enter the zone with control.
Much of what the Wild does so well defensively involves things that occur before defined defensive plays would need to be made. They're still influential defensively — puck possession and management, gap control, spacing, et al — and those were all back in the Wild's latest victory.
Speaking of Kuemper, he'll be the first to defer credit to his teammates (who have done a good job in front of him of late), but he is deserving of praise as well.
Kuemper is still without a regulation loss this season (now 4-0-4), and has improved in areas that aren't flashy, but go a long way in changing the outcome of plays.
"I think he's got points in his last however many games, and at the start of that we weren't even helping him that much," Charlie Coyle said. "He was shutting the door and we weren't playing to our capabilities. Now we're starting to help out more and more, and he's still shutting the door for us, and that's huge."
Kuemper has gotten better at managing the puck, be that playing it along the wall, or making an outlet pass to a teammate. He's doing a good job of tracking through traffic, and getting stoppages with coverages that afford the Wild a line change, and a chance to reset.
Of course, Kuemper did his fair share of goalie-ing as well on Tuesday. In the second period, he flashed the pad on a Max Pacioretty shot from the low slot. Pacioretty is one of the most dangerous scorers in the NHL, but Kuemper read the shot off his blade, got a good push, and watched the rebound into the corner.
"He looked really confident right from the start of the game," Yeo said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if they out-chanced us in the game."
That all ties into puck-tracking: Kuemper doesn't look like he's making overly acrobatic or high-end saves because his positioning is grounded, and he's putting himself in the right spots to stop pucks.
"Not playing for a while, since the Vancouver game was my last one, I'm just working hard in practice, and focusing on tracking the puck, and keeping my eye on it, and playing out rebounds," Kuemper said. "That keeps translating into games, so I'm trying to stay on top of that."
Kuemper has a pregame ritual he goes through every warmup. He is one of the final three Wild players who stays out on the ice along with Jonas Brodin and Nino Niederreiter. Brodin and Kuemper pass the puck around, as Brodin takes a few shots, and then Kuemper takes a shot of his own toward goal from the blue line.
The attempt Tuesday was a bit high, one of the only blemishes on Kuemper's resume for the night.
"He’s been real solid and he’s kept himself sharp in practice," Pominville said. "He’s looked good. He’s working hard, and it’s nice to see him step in and get rewarded with some wins the way he has for us."
Confidence in a hockey player is like a physical, palpable thing one can observe in how someone is playing. It's evident in how he skates, it's evident in his movements, and it's a thing you can physically see.
Watching Coyle and Niederreiter play right now, it's evident two confident players are out there.
Coyle's goal in the third period against the Canadiens is something he doesn't attempt if he's not playing with confidence. He attacked Nathan Beaulieu off the rush, forcing the issue. He didn't passively try to gain the zone, hoping something would make itself available: he aggressively, angrily went about his business.
"He’s had a lot of real strong moves where he has been close to finishing and this time he finished it off," Yeo said. "He's just playing with a ton of confidence."
And the finish was all-world. The little outside, inside move in that pocket of space requires a lot of skill, and a lot of strength to lift the puck under the crossbar like that.
"It definitely adds some confidence to my game," Coyle said. "That's what allows me to move my feet, and try to get into scoring positions like that, and get the puck off and on net. I'm going to do that more and more if I keep playing that way, and our line plays that way."
The line with Niederreiter and Fontaine has been doing a lot of things well the past two games, including getting pucks deep. There are different ways to establish possession and zone time. With two big bodies in Coyle and Niederreiter, the line is having success dumping the puck in and retrieving it.
It's a derisive concept in some hockey circles, but putting the puck in an area that allows Coyle or Niederreiter to go hunt it down has been a successful proposition.
Niederreiter also continues to go to the net, which is a good sign. When Coyle does it his game is going well, and likewise, for Niederreiter, it's a good indication that he's being effective.
"That line was very good again tonight," Yeo said. "Nino, his last couple games, two of the best of the games that he’s played this year."
When you watch that creativity from Coyle, you almost wonder how he comes up with that kind of move.
"I don't know where I've seen it," Coyle said. "Henrik Zetterberg I think used to do it a lot; just growing up and watching those guys, and those little moves.
"I used to watch his YouTube videos, and so you try them when you're younger. Just little things you have in the back of your mind."
A nice return to the lineup for Erik Haula after being a healthy scratch for three games.
Haula was back on his line, albeit in a different spot playing on the left wing. The differences sliding over into that position include how you break out of the defensive zone, and where you position yourself on defensive sequences.
Playing on a line tasked with being defense-first, those are things that directly correlate to how successful the line can be. And Haula did not skip a beat. In the second period, under duress in his own zone, he slipped a pass through his own legs, hitting Ryan Carter in stride, and not only clearing the danger, but also jump-starting the Wild the other way.
Later in the period, Haula nearly set up Jarret Stoll for a goal, when the former pinched and kept the puck in at his offensive blue line, and then had a shot turn into a perfect pass to Stoll. With only Mike Condon to beat, Stoll couldn't quite get a handle on the shot.
Yeo had said taking Haula out of the lineup came in part due to a numbers game. Getting a chance to get back in, Haula put forth a solid performance.
Good teams don't allow slides to last long. The Wild talked about cleaning up its game, and going into the holiday break on a high note, and that's exactly what it did.
"It's going to be nice to kind of regroup, and some guys going home, and enjoying the holidays, but right back at it on the 26th, and we have to come back with the same attitude," Coyle said. "It's not just going to come for us."
It's been a trend for the Wild this season: Minnesota hasn't gone three consecutive games without earning at least a point.
That's important in a division where, as Kuemper said this morning, it seems like every night you lose, you drop in the standings. The Wild wants to be a top team in the NHL, and talks about building toward a product that will be effective come playoff time.
And being able to make adjustments on the fly is key to that script. The Wild knows its identity, which it got back to Tuesday night.