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Forwards Helping Wild Defensemen To Buy Time

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

As Jonas Brodin collected the puck at the left point, he picked his head up and looked toward the goal.

Seconds earlier, the Wild had worked the puck as low as the goal line. By the time Brodin gained control, the closest Nashville Predators skater was nearly 35 feet away. 

And then, seconds later, Brodin scored to put the Wild ahead, 3-0. 

Minnesota has the fourth-highest scoring defensive group in the NHL (12-35=47), and the third highest in terms of point percentage, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Brodin scored on Saturday, as did Ryan Suter, and the Wild's defensemen also accounted for three assists.

When they're not using their speed and scoring off the rush, Minnesota's defensemen are reaping the in-zone benefits of a hardworking forward group that is creating space for the defensemen to maneuver.

"You cannot create offense; your defensemen will not be successful offensively if your forwards are not doing things the right way," Head Coach Mike Yeo said. 

What the Wild have done so effectively lately is getting opposing teams to collapse by creating possession down low. By throwing off the spacing, the Wild can move the puck low-to-high, and afford its defensemen the luxury of however many extra seconds or feet.

"You really don't have too much time up there," Matt Dumba said. "Guys come out so hard at you, guys are already in the lanes, or have their shot blockers on. It's hard to get pucks down low."

With how big the offensive zone is now, too (64 feet from blue line to goal line) as opposed the old 60-foot dimension, there is more room to play with, but also the risk of drifting at the blue line, where a full 64 feet from goal is a far distance.

"The good defensemen in this league, they use the whole zone like that," Charlie Coyle said. "They have their feet out, stick in, and use that whole zone to their advantage, and get more room; get more time on the puck.

"Just a split second that a guy has to come out to get in a shooting lane, or get a stick on a puck, you have that much more time that they have to push out on you, that's huge; that's everything."

And while a second may not seem like a long time, it's an eternity when it comes to how quickly a player is closing out on a defenseman controlling the puck.

"When the forwards can get it up to us quick, it's awesome," Dumba said. "They can make plays, go to the net, and it just helps everyone."


Forward Justin Fontaine returned to Wild practice on Monday. Fontaine, who sustained a sprained MCL in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 30, had begun skating on his own, and was back with his teammates for the first time. 

"He got a little more probably than he was bargaining for today," Yeo said. "That's the only way we're going to get him back, is get him in there, and get him the reps."

That's because forward Ryan Carter exited practice early after getting hit in the face with a puck. Yeo said Carter went for dental work, but with only 12 forwards, Fontaine got a chance to hop into most drills.

"It's a good first step to be able to get out there, and skate with the guys, and kind of get back into it," Fontaine said. "Get the knee moving a bit quicker, and it was a good first day."

Fontaine said he's been skating for about 10 days, beginning with light skates to get his range of motion back, and gradually adding more to each session, with today being his heaviest workload.

"Skating on your own without contact, or everything is in a controlled situation is one thing," Yeo said. "You start getting out there, and you have to read and react, and obviously challenge yourself a little more physically than what you're used to, that's how you start to get closer to returning."

While Yeo said he didn't expect Fontaine to play on Wednesday, he was interested to see how Fontaine progresses with a back-to-back on the schedule for Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. start on Friday.

"It makes a difference, for sure," Yeo said. "If you play a 7 or 7:30 game, obviously a pretty quick turnaround for the next day, and the fact that we play an afternoon game the first day that definitely helps (Fontaine)."

Zach Parise was not a participant in the Monday practice. He took morning skate with the Wild prior to its game against the Nashville Predators on Saturday, and has been out since sustaining a sprained MCL on Nov. 5.

"He clearly wasn't feeling 100 percent the other day when he was out with us, so we'll just take things slowly," Yeo said. "Tomorrow he'll skate with Andy (Ness) again, and we'll see where he's at from there.

"We're not panicking here by any means. Certainly we weren't sitting around thinking he'd be in the lineup for us on Wednesday."

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