The Wild, 5-5-3 (13 out of a possible 26 points, .500) in its past 13 overall and 2-2-3 (7 of a possible 14 points, .500) in its past seven at home, looks to enter the NHL’s 3-day holiday break with a win Tuesday (6 p.m.) against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers, behind surprising NHL leading scorer Jake Voracek who was named the league’s Second Star of the Week today, have won two games in a row on an eight-game road trip. Voracek leads the league with 44 points and is tied with teammate Claude Giroux for first in the NHL with 30 assists (Giroux is third in NHL scoring with 40 points).
Mikael Granlund didn’t practice for a second day in a row and is questionable against the Flyers. Coach Mike Yeo said it’s not the mumps. He said he would have to feel considerably better Tuesday in order to play.
Yeo wouldn’t say which goalie would start. Also, GM Chuck Fletcher told me Keith Ballard won’t need surgery to repair three facial fractures, but he is out indefinitely.
Afternoon from the press room at Xcel Energy Center. I’m back in town and it appears as if nothing has changed.
The Wild, which battles back seemingly nightly in the third period (the continued comebacks are commendable, but they only keep happening because the Wild falls behind almost EVERY game), rallied again in the third before losing in overtime to Nashville. I’ll look up the overall numbers, but the Wild has rallied in four in a row now to tie at some point in the third.
Get five goals on Pekka Rinne, you have to win, so a lot of focus the past few days has understandably been on the below-average goaltending of Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.
That is fair. Kuemper has been pulled in four of his past five home starts.
The Wild has allowed a league-low 26.5 shots per game and 820 in 31 games. Yet, the Wild’s save percentage is .898. It’s PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage) ranks 25th. Kuemper’s .903 save percentage ranks 52nd in the NHL, Backstrom’s .901 ranks 55th (tied with Vancouver’s Ryan Miller).
According to war-on-ice.com, Kuemper has the fourth-worst even-strength save percentage in the NHL at .897 and second-worst adjusted save percentage (measures shot quality) at .887. Backstrom is seventh-worst there at .899.
The Wild has scored 89 goals in 31 games compared to 72 through 31 games last year. That’s 17 more goals and four fewer points in the standings than 31 games last year, so that tells you something right there.
Last year, whichever goalie the Wild put in there was interchangeable. This year, not so much.
So Yeo said, “Clearly our defensive play is not where it needs to be right now.”
In other words, Yeo knows the goalies need to be better, but he says the defense in front of them and the details of the Wild’s game haven’t been up to par either.
“I’ve never been one to single out a player,” Yeo said. “I always believe it’s a team game. I always believe that’s generally not something that helps players feel better. But I’m not going to sit up here and say that we don’t need a higher save percentage and we don’t need to give up less goals a game.
“That goes without saying. But we’re not helping the situation with some of the play in front of our goalies. You look back to last year and how many goalies came in – whether it was Backy, whether it was Bryzgalov, whether it was Kuemps, take your pick -- we were able to throw different goalies in there and they were able to play well, and that was a credit to those guys, but that was also a huge credit to the structure and the system and the players playing in front of them. That’s what we have to get back to.”
Yeo said, “There’s a lot of details in our game that are missing. Our changes lately, they’ve been terrible. We’re so focused on scoring a goal, … we’ve been stretching our shifts, we’ve been taking longer shifts. We’ve been changing at the wrong time, we’ve been hurting the guys that are coming on the ice because of that and we’ve been giving up goals against because of our changes.”
So Yeo wants more discipline to the Wild’s game.
“We need some mental toughness right now,” Yeo said. “We have to fall back on the things that we’ve done effectively before and the things that have made us a tough team to play against. You have to trust that your teammates are going to do all those little things. And you have to trust that if you do all those things that the result that you do badly want will be there for you.”
I’ll be writing about the goalies mostly in Tuesday’s paper. If you’re expecting a new one to come to the Wild’s rescue, I wouldn’t count on it. Good, capable goalies don’t just become available in the middle of a hockey season, and again, Kuemper cannot be sent to the minors without going through waivers and Backstrom has a no-move clause. So unless the Wild’s willing to carry three goalies – an option, but one that will create little flexibility – it’ll be hard to just add a goalie no matter whom it is.
Goalie names rumored to be on the trade block include Cam Ward ($6.3 million cap hit this year and next, and he is not the same goalie he once was), Viktor Fasth (his save percentage stats are right around Kuemper and Backstrom, so is it really an upgrade?), maybe Martin Brodeur once Brian Elliott is back (severe downslope of career), Michal Neuvirth, maybe James Reimer.
Also, look at the Miller trade last year. It would take a king’s ransom likely to get a big name, and that sure worked out for St. Louis, didn’t it?
Basically, the Wild needs to figure this out with its current cast of characters (and again, Josh Harding is out of the picture due to sadly effects of multiple sclerosis again).
I talked to Ryan Suter, and he said, “Every team goes through ups and downs. Every team that’s trying to be an elite team year after year, you go through things before you can get to that stage. These are growing pains. I feel we have the right group of guys here. We need to start playing as one from our goaltending out, we have to be better.”
On the goalies, Suter said, “They have to be better. They know that. But we have to help them better. Early in games, we have to be better to limit the chances to get them into games. They want to be better. I know they do. They’re working hard. It’s not like they’re coming to practice and taking it easy. They’re working hard. We just have to be better as a group. The faster we get it figured out, the better off we’ll be.
“I remember last year at this same time we were struggling and things were going downhill, and then we came out of it. Hopefully we can do the same here.”
On the urgency level, Suter said, “Every time you look, other teams are winning and we’re not. You definitely feel that pressure. But there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to try to get the next one. Once we get one, hopefully we can build off of that. We had a solid game against Boston and we blew it. We played a good game. We should have won that game. And then you score five goals against Pekka, you should win that game too. We’re not playing a complete game and we have to be better.”
I got Kuemper alone and he said, “There’s no question about it that me and Backy as a whole, we need to worry about ourselves and get ourselves ready. Just as a team, we’ve got to get back to playing defensively as a unit. If we’re not all on the same page, some breakdowns start happening. I don’t think we’ve been quite on top of that. It starts with the goaltending, but I think everyone as a whole, we need to tighten up.
“Me and Bax, we’ve got to focus on ourselves and be better and give our team a better chance to win every night. I think if everyone gets back to the way we were playing, we’ll be alright here.”
On him personally and his struggles, Kuemper said, “I’ve been playing good hockey on the road. It seems like lately at home there’s been bad luck. You’ve just got to reach back on some older times. This is a building I’ve had a lot of success in and I just have to look back and reflect on those times and get some confidence back here.”
Jason Pominville concurred that it’s frustrating when the Wild has continually shown an uncanny ability to rally in the third and yet isn’t finding the final ability to win routinely. He said the Wild has to figure out a way to grind out a 2-1 win and stop getting in these run and gun games. He said they’ve been way too loose.
Personally, I think the Wild has lost a lot of the detail in its game because it constantly has to open up to rally in these games because it constantly falls behind. And again, that does also have to do with goaltending and how they must be better early in games.
Nothing can derail a team more than goaltending.
But Pominville said, “We’ve got to clog it up defensively. Look at the start of year, puck possession was great, we didn’t play much in our zone. Now we play more in our end and turning pucks over. We have to get back to being tighter defensively.”
Backstrom said, “It’s about winning. Sometimes you start to think too much about winning instead of doing the work and thinking about the way you have to play to win.” So he said the team has to get back to the level of play it should be at and the wins will take care of themselves.
But he said, “We goalies, we have to be better.”
More on all this in Tuesday’s paper. I also hope to talk with Fletcher Tuesday for a state of the team chat.
I'll be on Fox Sports North ++++++++ during Tuesday's game and in the pregame show and I'm filling in for Barreiro on KFAN on Friday from 3-6 p.m. I'll also be in studio with Paul Allen at 9 a.m. Wednesday.