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Freeze Frame: Active Defense Buoys Wild Success

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

Pace is a difficult concept to quantify in hockey: There are no statistics that definitively can separate the fast from the slow.

The Minnesota Wild is a team capable of putting its foot on the throttle and using its skating ability to make the opposition uncomfortable. And a common ingredient to that formula, a catalyst and sparkplug to that pace, is its defense.

When its firing on all cylinders, upping the tempo and getting north quickly, the Wild's defense is deft in jumping into the rush, activating up ice, and complementing Minnesota's transition from its own end into the offensive zone.

It's something that Ryan Suter was able to successfully incorporate more of into his game this season, a hallmark of Marco Scandella's game, and a strength of Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. Rookie Mike Reilly showed flashes of having that element to his repertoire.

(Before the season began, Spurgeon said: "I'm hoping to be a bit more offensive in jumping up into the rush more." He scored a career high 11 goals this season.)

"One of the big things for our team is transitions, so when we can get going back on the other team, and catching them out there, it's huge for our offense," Spurgeon said. "We're just trying to play as fast as possible without making mistakes."

That starts, and, in some instances, ends with the Wild's defense, and its ability to recognize situations to take off, using its speed to join the rush.

Identifying when it is appropriate to activate up ice is also crucial to these sequences. Having the proper support, or knowing when a situation can be capitalized on maximizes offensive gains, and minimizes defensive risks.

Its part of the Wild's identity, ingrained out of the strengths of its personnel, specifically the defense.

"You play within your structure," Dumba said. "We know the structure of our game, and you have to be smart. You take risks further away from your net. We're not taking those risks the closer we are to our net.

"It's just making smart reads, and playing within our system, and at the same time, being creative, and being able to play your game when the time is right. You have to pick your spots."

As the modern NHL defenseman has evolved, the Wild hasn't fallen by the wayside through the cracks of change.

"Defensemen have had to adapt, and stay in front of forwards, and not grab them or hold them up," Scandella said. "You see a lot of great skating defensemen out there, and puck moving, and jumping into plays is a huge thing right now. Just getting more bodies into the attack."

On this goal against the Chicago Blackhawks, Spurgeon sees an opportunity to join the rush, and ends the play by beating Scott Darling.

Again, before the Wild can even think about turning this play into offense, it needs to shore up things in its own end.

In the midst of that happening, Spurgeon seals his man along the wall, and Minnesota gains possession. Skating from the goal line, Spurgeon picks up his head, noticing Chicago has three skaters pinching in.

"You have to scan the ice before you get the puck," Spurgeon said. "You have to make sure who's coming down on you, and the position the forwards are in at the same time."

What Spurgeon also does well here is provide an outlet for Suter. By skating wide, he gives Suter a target to help facilitate a breakout. Clean and quick zone exits go a long way in maintaining pace through the neutral zone, and in this instance, it's Spurgeon adding another body.

He also moves the puck at the perfect time, sending it to Jason Pominville, driving down the center lane. That also allows Spurgeon to side-step Teuvo Teravainen, overtaking him and giving the Wild an odd-man situation.

At this point, Spurgeon has beaten four Blackhawks skaters back to Chicago's blue line. Niklas Hjalmarsson rushes toward Mikko Koivu at the bottom of the frame, likely attempting to hold the play up and force it offside. But Spurgeon drags his left skate as he enters the zone, and walks into Koivu's centering pass before beating scoring.

From taking care of his responsibilities, to scooting 200 feet after recognizing an opportunity, Spurgeon was able to activate up ice and turn a simple rush into a goal.

The offense-from-defense can come in a number of different fashions. Off this faceoff win, the Wild puts into motion a set play, but Suter's hustle and pinch is what ends up creating a goal.

Suter is coming off a career offensive season, matching a high in goals and establishing a new high in points.

"How he manages his ice, and just his positional play (is so good)," Dumba said. "It does a lot for us in the d-zone and in the o-zone. He's always in the right spot, and creating stuff from being so good positionally."

Suter lines up for this faceoff along the wall. Should the Wild win the draw, and the play has been choreographed to wheel behind the goal, and then diagonally through the neutral zone. But Suter's primary responsibility with a defensive zone start is to navigate any potential danger.

The Wild win the faceoff, and the wheel is in motion. Spurgeon moves the puck along to Pominville. Mikael Granlund is cutting across the zone, creating a seam for Pominville to send a two-line pass across to Zach Parise to start the breakout. Suter holds his position, first making sure the Wild exits the zone.

Now is where the hockey IQ comes into play. The Blackhawks have overcommitted to the left part of the frame, shading toward that half of the ice, maybe thinking Pominville will make the straight-ahead play up the boards, and that they can cut it off and create a turnover.

You can see the change in Suter's posture, his knees bent, his shoulders hunched, as this is the moment he realizes he can join the rush with Chicago having sent too many forecheckers to the strong side.

The puck makes its way to Parise, and he and Granlund hit the offensive blue line for a 2-on-1. Suter is still jumping into the play, but also two levels below the puck, with both Duncan Keith and Artem Anisimov closer than the Wild defenseman.

This last component incorporates the other element to speed the Wild likes to talk about. It's one thing to be fleet-footed, but the brain must process the game at the same pace to sustain that level. Suter, in the top right on the frame, is still very much on the periphery. But again, you can see him ready to make another move, pinching down as Granlund gets set to attempt his first shot. Though three Blackhawks are in a better position to make a play on a rebound, Suter activates into that area, and cashes in on a loose puck in the crease.

When the Wild is having success, contributions from its defensemen are usually a constant. There are several parts to that, beginning with sound plays in its own zone, to that up-ice transition via a quick first-pass or carry, and then finally, to the defensemen themselves becoming part of the play.

"It's incorporated every day in practice when we work on that, and just finding a way to be a good counter team, and a team that starts their offense by playing good defense," Dumba said. "Our whole mindset is built around that, and that's how we're going to move on."

There's a pressure it creates on opposing teams, physically by forcing them to either turn and skate, not facing the play, or mentally, by having to make a decision so quickly and shift into a defensive mindset.

"It's fun having this D-corps that we do," Dumba said.

That is, of course, unless you're on the wrong end of one of those counter attacks.

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