The Minnesota Wild hosted the Dallas Stars at Excel Energy Center on Saturday night for their final preseason game. There were high hopes for this contest, as head coach Dean Evason suggested that the game was a dress rehearsal for how the lines will look in the regular season. The Wild were still missing Jordan Greenway and Jon Merrill to injuries, and Nic Petan and Mason Shaw were in the lineup to duke it out for the final roster spot. But all in all, the club looked to be in regular season form.
The Wild wasted no time getting things started, as Joel Eriksson Ek kicked off the scoring with a nifty wraparound goal early in the first period. It wasn’t two minutes later that Eriksson Ek took a hard hit up high, taking his helmet off. As a result, the Wild went on their first power play of the night. The club’s top power play unit of Kirill Kaprizov, Matt Boldy, and Mats Zuccarello ripped one home, making it 2-0 before the first intermission, while Kaprizov and Zuccarello potted another two goals before the night was through. Brandon Duhaime even found the back of the net on a broken play, with Marco Rossi likely drawing a penalty if the puck hadn’t gone in. The Wild went on to win the game 6-1, finishing their preseason with six wins and just one loss.
The Dynamic Duo
There’s not really enough that can be said about Kaprizov and Zuccarello. It seems that every time they’re on the ice together, great things happen. The duo scored half of the Wild’s goals against the Stars, and it’s not just one thing that they do well, it’s nearly everything, from the quality of their passes to their on-ice awareness. There’s clearly chemistry in the way they play, and each one brings something to the game that complements the other. Not every team has that.
Kaprizov and Zuccarello work so well together that it seems that they are only looking for each other when they’re on the ice. This is what Evason admitted was sometimes frustrating about their game, but he also conceded that it’s hard to argue with a system that works. It’s very important, though, that Kaprizov and Zuccarello start looking for their teammates on the ice, especially as the season progresses.
One big reason why the Wild’s top line was able to do so much damage on Saturday against the Stars was their ability to stay out of the penalty box. This hasn’t always been the case. Last season, the Wild struggled in that department, and their penalty kill was, well, nothing to write home about, as their percentage last season was a whopping 76.14 percent. However, during the preseason, the Wild killed off 93.8% of their penalties and managed to rack up three shorthanded goals in the process. Wild fans have to hope that they can continue to have a near-perfect penalty kill in the regular season.
Fleury and Wild’s Defensive Corps
It became clear during Saturday night’s game that the Wild’s defensive play has a way of just wearing teams down. There was really nothing the Stars could do to create consistent scoring chances, and when they did manage to penetrate the defense, Marc Andre-Fleury was there to come up with big saves. By the midway point of the third period, it was obvious that the Stars were prepared to throw in the towel. They were not moving at the same pace, or with the same intensity.
Fleury only let in a single goal all preseason. There were moments of vintage Fleury in net, but there’s still a big question mark as to whether he’s capable of carrying the club deep into the playoffs. It appears that Evason believes he’s the one who can make it happen. But Fleury’s closing in on 39 years of age. If the Wild do go on to win the Stanley Cup this season, he would be tied with Gump Worsley for the oldest goaltender in NHL history to do so.
But it wasn’t only Fleury who came up big on the defensive side of things. The Wild played with an aggressive forecheck against the Stars, sending two forwards to attack the puck almost every shift. This made it difficult for them to get anything going offensively, as it forced turnovers and scoring opportunities for the Wild. The Stars eventually resorted to long stretch passes through the neutral to try and create some kind of offense, but the Wild shut them down almost every time. The old adage continues to hold true: good defense leads to good offense.
The preseason is over, and the Wild now need to focus on the games that matter. The Minnesota club faces the New York Rangers on Thursday, Oct. 13, and New York has just come off a mediocre preseason putting up a 2-3-1 record. However, none of that matters. The Wild must start the season off right, creating higher-danger opportunities in the offensive zone and playing the suffocating defense that they’ve put on display throughout the preseason.
It could be argued that the Wild have the most depth on their roster that they’ve had in franchise history. It’s up to them to make the most of it, and it starts with the very first game of the regular season on Thursday.