There is now less than one month remaining in the 2021-22 regular season. That’s all that’s left for teams to resolve any remaining concerns before the real challenge begins in the playoffs. For many playoff teams, those challenges involve finding the right line combinations, getting players healthy, or maybe helping their goaltender build confidence. For the Minnesota Wild, they have a more significant problem to try to fix in the final weeks of the season.
The Wild’s special teams have been their Achilles heel during this regular season. Despite having one of the best records in the league at 44-21-6, they rank in the bottom half of the league in both power-play and penalty-kill percentage. Let’s explore why this is a concerning problem as we move closer to the playoffs.
Tougher to Score in Playoffs
During the 2020-21 regular season, the Wild averaged 3.21 goals-per-game (G/GP). In the seven playoff games they played against the Vegas Golden Knights, they averaged just 1.8 G/GP. Looking at the entire NHL during the 2020-21 season, the average G/GP was 2.94. In the 2021 Playoffs, only three teams averaged higher than 2.94: the Boston Bruins, the Colorado Avalanche, and the champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Defensive play becomes a significant point of emphasis in the playoffs. Therefore, when opportunities arise with the man advantage, teams want to be confident they can strike with a goal. Currently, with the Wild sitting 18th in the league at 20.5 percent on the power play, questions remain on if that’s going to be good enough come playoff time.
Possibly what’s even more crucial is the Wild’s penalty kill, which is a shocking 24th overall at 75.7 percent. If that were not to improve in the playoffs, their opponents could, in theory, score on one in every four power plays they get. Over a seven-game series, that could be a major factor in deciding a winner.
St. Louis Blues
Although the possibility to play other teams in the first round still exists, it is looking more and more likely each day that the Wild are destined for a matchup against the St. Louis Blues in the first round. If that is the case, the special team’s advantage will not look favourable for Dean Evason’s crew.
Currently, the Blues rank third in the league on the power play, clicking at 25.8 percent on the season, trailing only the Toronto Maple Leafs (29.4 percent) and New York Rangers (26.4 percent). They have two units that can do damage with the man advantage and are always strong around the net with some big bodies in Brandon Saad and Ryan O’Reilly.
The Blues look to have a significant advantage once again on the penalty kill. They are currently sixth in the league at 83.5 percent, thanks to a collective of defencemen who aren’t afraid to block shots and throw hits.
Three defencemen on the Blues, Justin Faulk, Robert Bortuzzo, and Niko Mikkola, have over 100 hits on the season, and Colton Parayko is currently sixth in the NHL with 151 blocked shots. They know how to make teams work for every inch of ice, and it has been a direct correlation to them having such a successful penalty kill.
St. Louis has dominated Minnesota in recent memory, going 8-0-1 in their last nine matches. Ultimately, if the Wild can’t close the gap on both the power play and penalty kill, they could see themselves in trouble against the Blues in the playoffs.
Wild Players Could Start Feeling Pressure
There is a lot on the line for the Wild this season, with impending cap trouble quickly awaiting them this offseason. Therefore, it is pivotal that this team somehow finds a way to fix their power play and penalty kill before the playoffs begin. The most frustrating thing about all of that might be that they seem to have the talent to be so much better.
The Wild have some of the league’s best defensive defensemen, highlighted by Jonas Brodin and captain Jared Spurgeon. They also have two of the best defensive forwards in Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. All players have elite defensive metrics at 5-on-5, but for some reason, can’t seem to put it together on the penalty kill.
The same can be said for the Wild’s power play, which simply hasn’t been good enough when you consider the talent this roster has offensively. They have one of the league’s best point producers in Kirill Kaprizov, along with solid campaigns from Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Fiala, and Ryan Hartman, who are all over 50 points on the season. This team is far too talented to be 18th in the league on the power play, and it must be frustrating for the coaching staff and management as to why they can’t find constant success on special teams this season.
It’s possible that deadline pickups Marc-Andre Fleury and Jacob Middleton could, over time, greatly help the penalty kill. However, nobody was brought in at the deadline to help the power play significantly, so it will be up to the players who have been here all season to step up and help solve this concerning issue.
The Wild are a solid team, easily capable of going on a deep run in the playoffs. If it comes down to the special teams being their kryptonite, leading to another first-round exit, it will be a massive disappointment for the entire organization and their fanbase.
Sports writer covering the Minnesota Wild. Graduated with a degree in sport media, also working with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.