Over the next few months, Wild.com will take a closer look at some of the areas of the Minnesota Wild's 2015-16 season, from players, to systems, and everything between.
Two seasons ago, the Wild boasted the top-ranked penalty kill in the NHL, erasing power plays at an 86.3 percent effectiveness-rate. It was an area of its game that, entering the 2015-16 season, Minnesota felt was a commodity it had in its back pocket, a strength it could expect to remain a strength.
And at times, the Wild looked the part of a team with the league's best penalty kill. But in other stretches, the penalty kill became leaky, and overall, the Wild dropped nearly 10 percentage-points, down to 77.9 from season-to-season.
Like other areas of the Wild's play, the penalty kill could be characterized by streaks.
At its peak, like in the month of January, the Wild successfully killed 24 of 27 penalties against, an 89 percent success rate on par with the level Minnesota was at when it paced the NHL in '14-'15. That also came over a 13-game span, when the Wild averaged just over two penalty kills a game, a sweet spot and a comfort zone.
But that was followed by a February in which the Wild conceded 14 power play goals on 45 penalty kills. The number of shorthanded times the Wild found itself on per-game climbed above three, and the effectiveness of the penalty kill dipped.
Then in March, back up to over 88 percent in 15 games, and back down to just above two kills per-game. This was, in a nutshell, the Wild's penalty kill.
"It's funny how things like that go," Ryan Carter said after the Wild's penalty kill went 1-for-1 March 6 against the St. Louis Blues. "The PK, it seems like everything is going in. At some point, they just stop going in. It seems like everything is, and they stop, and you get a bounce here or there, and things go your way. You get a good kill, and you go from there. Hopefully that's what today is. It's a good kill, and you move forward."
When it was most effective, it mirrored how the Wild was able to apply pressure at even-strength but not go over the line. Minnesota was intelligently aggressive in certain areas, picking its spot to alleviate pressure and keep the opposition on its toes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, in the Wild's two most disciplined months (January and March) Minnesota had its best months in terms of penalty kill percentage, at 89 and 88 percent, respectively.
Likewise, its least disciplined month, February, coincided with its lowest penalty kill month percentage-wise.
As the goals-against began to come more frequently, the Wild said it felt a timidity crept into the penalty kill, with players apprehensive of being over-aggressive and opening up opportunities.
"Obviously, it's like anything: When things start to pile up, you start to think a little bit too much, and not trust what's going on," Devan Dubnyk said after the Wild surrendered two power-play goals against the Buffalo Sabres in a March win. "We all want to be better on it, so we're going to continue to talk about it, and find a way, and you need to start somewhere, and get it rolling a bit. We understand that needs to be better going forward."
There were tweaks made in attempt to bolster the penalty kill that preceded positive results. Interim Head Coach John Torchetti used forwards Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund on the penalty kill late in the season after playing sparingly in that area of special teams for the first three-quarters of the schedule.
"Using Zach and Zach's speed maybe backed them off, so now they're a little bit leery, and he did a fantastic job," Torchetti said. "So did [Granlund], so did [Coyle], so did [Chris Porter], and it's something that we're going to keep improving on, and now the guys are going to have to pull the rope a little bit harder, and tighten up. We'll get it straightened out."
The Wild still managed to take the fewest penalties this season, finding itself shorthanded less than any other team in the NHL. It also had the third-highest penalty kill faceoff percentage, affording itself an opportunity at the beginning of penalty kills to clear the zone.