Staying out of the penalty box is a battle cry echoed by all NHL coaches. The Minnesota Wild need to listen up. A recent stream of minor penalties has plagued the team, causing them to lose three of their last four games. The Wild have spent more time shorthanded than their opponent in 13 of the past 15 games.
Slashing, Hooking & Tripping
At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, the NHL told teams that officials would be calling more penalties on players using their sticks improperly. The league felt this was a player safety issue and hoped to increase the amount of power-play goals. No team has felt this crackdown more than the Wild.
One-third of the Wild’s minor penalties this season have been for slashing or hooking. A total of 17 different Wild players have been called for slashing or hooking in 2017. If you include tripping penalties, stick-related infractions make up over half the calls against Minnesota. As a team, they are on pace to exceed the total penalties in minutes from last season by 50.
Veteran players Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal have been the slowest to adapt to the tighter rules and are leading the team in penalty minutes. The new faceoff rules have also caused the Wild trouble. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has not been shy in showing his frustration during games. He has also mentioned it regularly in his postgame press conferences.
“Any little touch above the pads, in the stomach area, they were calling that. Eventually, I think the players got it. Initially, it’s very frustrating,” Boudreau said earlier this year.
It’s tempting to place blame on the referees. But even the casual fan can see most of the penalties being called against the Wild are warranted.
In recent losses, we have seen these bad habits disrupt the offensive flow, wear out the goalie, and kill momentum. The Wild rely heavily on an aggressive forecheck to gain possession of the puck. This is how the Wild make up for their lack of size and physical presence. Tenacity on the puck is a calling card of Bruce Boudreau’s system. A number of penalties are being called as a result of lazy play while battling along the boards.
Overall, the Wild are trailing opponents in time of puck possession. They have been trying to catch the puck from behind. The Wild are a team that only win when they control the flow of the game. Minnesota lacks the goal-scoring superstar that many teams bank on. The team thrives in a fast-paced, gritty style of hockey. They are definitely not a “dirty” team.
In the Central Division, every loss hurts. It’s possibly the toughest division, as six teams are within striking distance of first place.
The silver lining is that Minnesota’s penalty kill is in the top five league-wide at 83.5 percent. They shut down opponents on 19 straight penalties at one point. They have also scored five shorthanded goals. Solid goaltending and tough defense are allowing the Wild to remain in the hunt for the Central Division. The team has been keeping the shot count close and minimizing scoring chances against.
But it is clear that the Wild must find a way to control their sticks. Teams with high-powered offenses have been able to consistently pit The Wild in their own zone. Three of the past six losses have come at the hands of divisional opponents (Winnipeg, Chicago, and St. Louis). The individual players will need to display more discipline while still fighting hard for the puck. A focus on solid passing and maintaining possession of the puck will be key to any success in Minnesota this season.