I’m not contractually obligated to tell you that I’m losing 6-0 in my friendly wager with Rocket over which team will win more games this season (Wild or Wolves), but I do think it’s only fair to point out the good so far for the Wild after pointing out the bad so far for the Wolves.
Some of these things are fairly obvious, but even so they’re worth illustrating — again to both see exactly how the Wild is getting it done during this 6-2-1 start and also to see if we should expect more of the same. So here are five things that have gone right for the Wild:
1) Devan Dubnyk. The Wild’s starting goalie was off to a decent start through his first handful of games, but suddenly he looks like a brick wall. With three consecutive shutouts (94 saves total), Dubnyk has looked in large part like the savior he was down the stretch in 2014-15 instead of the average goalie he was much of last season.
Here’s where the question of “sustainability” and “regression” become tricky. Obviously Dubnyk won’t put up 73 more shutouts in a row, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to play at a high level. The Wild scored 13 goals combined in those three shutouts, so even good play from the goalie might be enough on a lot of nights.
2) Penalty killing. Dubnyk can take some credit for this, too, since his 96.3 save percentage while short-handed is among the best in the NHL, but playing short-handed requires effort from everyone on the ice. The Wild has allowed just one goal in 26 opponent power plays — best in the NHL. The Wild has scored one short-handed goal, too, so essentially Minnesota is even when down at least one man. That’s incredible.
Again, that rate won’t continue. It’s healthy to be skeptical of just how good the Wild can be on the penalty kill as the season goes on, considering Minnesota was 27th in the league in that metric last year. But new personnel and new systems can work wonders in special teams situations. So far, the penalty kill has been a major strength.
3) Even-strength goal scoring. The flip side of special teams is the Wild only has four power play goals in 30 chances. But Minnesota has compensated with 27 even-strength goals in nine games. That’s a ton, and it’s a big part of the reason Minnesota ranks No. 2 in the NHL in overall goals per game so far (3.56).
4) Balanced scoring. Perhaps just as impressive as all those even-strength tallies is how they are being distributed. The Wild has had 18 different players score at least one goal already, and nobody has more than four (newcomer Eric Staal is the team leader at that number, Ryan Suter and Charlie Coyle have three each, and a ton of guys have two).
Good hockey teams have good balance. The Wild has shown it can roll four lines and get some offense from its blue line. Sustaining that will be a key for a team that is missing Zach Parise right now and that doesn’t have any lights-out scorers to begin with.
5) Riding the wave of a new head coach. A new voice in a hockey locker room can have a major impact, at least in the short term. (Remember, the Wild won eight of its first 11 under interim John Torchetti last season).
Bruce Boudreau seems to be pushing the right buttons so far, and he’s easily the Wild’s most accomplished coach since Jacques Lemaire. His track record suggests the Wild can keep winning, though it’s also reasonable to expect Minnesota to go through some lulls after the honeymoon phase is over.