Judging from the regular-season statistics, it appeared the Wild would have its hands full trying to contain Colorado’s power play during the teams’ first-round playoff series. The Avalanche finished fifth in the NHL with a conversion rate of 19.8 percent, while the Wild’s penalty kill was among the worst in the league.
The Wild’s players and coaches believed a tighter focus on detail could turn an apparent deficiency into an asset. Through the first four games of the series, they have followed through on that promise. The same penalty-killing group that finished 27th of 30 teams in the regular season now leads the NHL in the playoffs, snuffing out 14 of Colorado’s 15 power-play attempts.
The only goal the Wild penalty kill has surrendered was an empty-netter in the final minute of a 4-2 loss in Game 2. Coach Mike Yeo said he saw flashes of excellence earlier in the season, but one lapse would erase all progress. He credits the current success to the team’s growing ability to shake off mistakes and forge ahead.
“I feel like we’ve been dictating a little bit more,” Yeo said. “We haven’t been as reactive to them. We’ve looked at opportunities for us to pressure, we’ve looked at situations where we can be a little bit more aggressive. But at the same time, we recognize times when we have to play a little bit tighter.
“Little things add up to make the difference. The biggest thing is we have to keep that idea that the next [penalty kill] is the most important.”
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon said the Wild hasn’t changed anything. He noted players are simply doing a better job of clogging shooting lanes, blocking shots and clearing pucks, raising their penalty-killing efficiency from 78.8 percent in the regular season to 93.3 in the playoffs. In Thursday’s Game 4, the penalty killers finished a perfect night by blocking four shots in the final minutes, when the Avalanche enjoyed a 6-on-4 advantage.
Darcy Kuemper was in net for the Wild’s 1-0 victory in Game 3 and its 2-1 triumph in Game 4, stopping 33 of 34 shots. According to Elias Sports Bureau, he became the fifth goaltender in the NHL’s expansion era to win his first two playoff starts while allowing only one goal.
Among the others: Wild goalie coach Bob Mason, who had forgotten his own feat until reminded of it Friday. In 1987, in his playoff debut with Washington, he earned a 2-0 shutout over a New York Islanders team that featured Pat LaFontaine and Bryan Trottier. He won Game 4 by a score of 4-1.
Though a concussion sidelined Kuemper for nearly three weeks at the end of the regular season, he played well in relief of Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2 to earn his first career playoff start in Game 3.
“He got focused and relied on what he does on the ice, on his positioning and instincts,” Mason said. “He’s building a résumé, and a good way to do that is to bank some big games in the playoffs. These are games you can remember and grow off.”
In Saturday’s Game 5, the Wild again will try to shut down the Avs’ top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny. While Yeo still plans to rely on center Erik Haula to keep MacKinnon in check, he said that playing on the road means he will not always get the defensive matchup he wants. He isn’t worried about it.
“There have been a lot of shifts where I’ve had Mikko [Koivu] or I’ve had [Mikael Granlund’s] line go out there against them,” he said. “Those guys have played against the best centermen in the league and done the job. I really believe, regardless of who we’re playing, we can have anybody go out there in that situation if our team is playing a certain way, because we don’t defend as a one-man unit. We defend as a five-man unit.”
Thursday’s Game 4 victory earned a 12.7 rating, the highest ever for a Wild game televised on Fox Sports North. The network estimated that more than 219,450 households in the Twin Cities metro area watched the game.