It’s amazing how one win can change the complexion of the start to a season. A broader view of the Wild’s first four games — now that it finally put a win in the books — show it has given up very little defensively.
As coach Mike Yeo said before the season, as much as the Wild is working toward opening things up offensively (clearly still a work in progress as evidenced by nine goals in four games), the team’s “bread and butter” must be good defense.
It’s early, but the Wild, which held Winnipeg to 15 shots on Thursday, has given up 2.5 goals per game and surrendered a league-low 22 shots per game heading into Saturday’s game against the Dallas Stars.
“The structure in our game, stuff that Mike has preached since Day 1, is strong now,” assistant coach Rick Wilson said. “It’s becoming more habit. That’s a big part of what we do. It’s also getting us the puck more, and then we’re doing better things so far with the puck.”
And, in Hockey 101, it’s taught that when you have the puck, the other team doesn’t, which limits chances and thus goals against.
Defenseman Clayton Stoner, whom Yeo praised as a “warrior” after the victory over the Jets, says all the defensemen’s gaps have been better so far than he’s ever seen in Minnesota. It’s been something Wilson and the staff has been stressing since the first day of training camp.
The Wild is trying to capture more ice in the offensive zone to start the gap there, and thus keep things tighter.
“It keeps you more in the play and helps you read the play better rather than being back and letting them come with more speed,” Stoner said.
There’s little doubt Thursday’s effort was the finest of the season by the Minnesota defensemen. The Wild was more physical than it has been previously, especially Stoner, who leveled Mark Scheifele, and Keith Ballard, who crushed Evander Kane with a Curt Giles-like hip check.
“Every team in the league likes physicality and sometimes it changes the momentum of the game, which is fun to do,” Stoner said. “Some nights the hits aren’t there and you don’t want to be running around. But some nights they’re there and if you take advantage of it, especially with the home crowd, it’s a good thing.”
Second-year defenseman Jonas Brodin has scored two goals and an assist in 25 minutes, 36 seconds of ice time a game — ninth-highest in the NHL. And 2012-13 Norris Trophy runner-up Ryan Suter, after leading the league in ice time last year, has topped 30 minutes three times and is again leading the league by two minutes this year (29:26).
The Wild is trying to shave some penalty-killing minutes from Suter, but Wilson, who changed the defense corps, joked, “I’d like to get him up to 40.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Stoner said of Suter’s ice time. “I couldn’t imagine playing that much. I don’t think I’ve got it in me. The guy’s got iron lungs. He can play those minutes consistently and not show that he’s tired. It’s amazing. Not many guys if any other guys in the league that can do that on a consistent basis.”
Backstrom tests knee
Three days after he strained his right knee, goalie Niklas Backstrom practiced during the Wild’s optional skate Friday.
“It’s not normal yet, but we’ll see how it feels [Saturday],” Backstrom said. “I’m glad it’s not serious. It felt pretty bad [Tuesday in Nashville]. But the MRI said everything wasn’t as bad as thought first. Now it’s just rehab and work and get back out there as soon as I can.”
Backstrom said it’s too early to say if he’ll be able to play on the Wild’s four-game road trip that begins Monday in Buffalo.