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Freeze Frame: Wild Going Below Goal For Offense

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

Not all shots and shot-attempts are created equal, but shot location can go a long way in determining its quality.

The ability to generate shots on goal closer to the crease can be linked to a higher shooting percentage. It's why the home plate area around the goal is such valuable real estate, and a high price is generally paid to rent there.

But there are ways to make the path to the net-front easier, including using the area below the goal, and the Minnesota Wild is finding that out firsthand.

"Everyone has different ways of creating offense, and different ways of using the back of the net, but it's an area that, when we're going good as a team, we use it really well," Jason Pominville said.

When interim Head Coach John Torchetti became the Wild's new coach Feb. 13, the Wild scored 21 goals over its next four games, setting a franchise record with at least five goals-for in four consecutive regulation games. 

"We're making plays offensively," Zach Parise said after the Wild scored six times to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. "We're playing with a lot more patience with the puck, a lot more poise, and a lot more confidence with the puck. We're playing a fast game now, and to me, that's been the biggest difference."

Creating puck possession below the goal line can lead to different things. The patience that Parise pointed out is key, and giving the play enough time to materialize.

"But I think Torch has definitely stepped in and kind of gave us freedom to make more plays offensively and came in with new ideas and created a spark for our team," Pominville said. "It's kind of given us the green light to make plays offensively, whether you're behind the net in the offensive zone, you can make plays as long as you come back and defend."

Pominville's line with Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula has especially used the space behind the goal to change the spacing of the offensive zone, and actuate some quality scoring chances, and goals.

When Niederreiter scored against the Blackhawks on Sunday, it was the possession the line was able to generate below the goal line that freed up space above it.

With Pominville holding the puck in the trapezoid, it forced three Blakchakws skaters to rotate down toward the goal line. A fourth, in the right circle, had to protect against Pominville, on his backhand, moving the puck in that direction to Niederreiter atop the crease, or up the wall to Jared Spurgeon at the right point.

That gave Haula a clearer path to the slot, and a soft spot in the zone.

"It's a tough area to defend because every has to turn their back to the net, and usually there's somebody in the clear that will have time to make a play," Pominville said.

As Pominville held onto the puck longer, three Blackhawks collapsed toward the crease. Meanwhile, the Wild's forward line had set up a neat triangle down low, and trapped three Chicago skaters inside of it.

That left Artemi Panarin in a bit of no man's land, caught between Haula and Niederreiter.

Finally, as Pominville moved the puck to Haula, the wheels were in motion. The three Blackhawks that had rotated down were below the play, Haula had a clean passing lane to Niederreiter, and with Chicago goalie Corey Crawford already turning to face the play, a high-percentage shot by Haula became an even higher-percentage Niederreiter attempt with the play moving across the slot.

Against the Calgary Flames last Wednesday, the trio hooked up again, generating offense from below the goal line, and producing a goal.

After Pominville won the faceoff, Niederreiter corralled the loose puck and swung below the goal line. All five Flames skaters were compactly set up, and by carrying the puck down low, Niederreiter could take some Calgary sweaters with him.

At 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, Niederreiter has the frame to extend possession sequences by fending off would-be defenders. This play took longer to develop, but was created by Niederreiter maintaining possession, forcing more Flames to react, and freeing up space in the slot.

"Nino is a big body," Pominville said. "He protects the puck so well, so he can use his size anywhere."

Pominville, with his mental clock ticking like a quarterback in the pocket, made a beeline to support Niederreiter, carrying another Flames skater with him.

As Pominville took over possession, the Flames had three skaters dragged toward the crease. Recall how compact Calgary was, but how distended it became seconds later.

Pominville, giving up two inches and 27 pounds to Niederreiter, has to operate under a different time frame in those physical areas.

"I'm a smaller guy where I have to kind of use the net to my advantage where I can create separation from the defender with the net," Pominville said.

The goal can provide a screen, and with how shallow the nets are now, players can dart through the area behind the cage, cutting their angle sharper and gaining more speed.

As Pominville swooped out toward the goalmouth, Haula had snuck into a soft spot, and an excellent shooting position.

Finally, as Pominville passed the puck out to Haula, he had infiltrated the middle of the Flames defense, and the middle of the ice, with Niederreiter and Pominville having reconfigured the zone spacing by using the area below the goal.

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