Nino Niederreiter has a lasting memory of the first half of the Wild season.
On Dec. 27, minor league goalie John Curry got a start against Winnipeg because Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom were ill. The Wild gave up only 23 shots, but the last one in overtime by Andrew Ladd fluttered off the glass, off the top of the net, off Curry’s back … and in.
Skating 30 feet from the chaos was Niederreiter. He got his second minus of the game to give him a team-worst minus-13 despite 14 goals at the time.
“What can you do?” Niederreiter said. “It seemed like every time I jumped on the ice, somebody scored. There was just so much bad luck back then. It was that way for a lot of us. Just a very frustrating time.”
The turnaround for the team and thus individuals since Devan Dubnyk’s Jan. 15 arrival has been remarkable. The most stunning statistic in the Wild’s NHL-best 26-6-2 second half is the fact its goal differential is an NHL-best plus-47. That’s 104 goals scored (3.05 per game) and 57 given up (1.67 per game). The Rangers have the next closest differential in that span at plus-24.
And becoming one of the NHL’s stingiest teams is illustrated in everybody’s stats.
It’s well-documented that plus-minus is a flawed statistic. Nevertheless, Niederreiter has gone from being the Wild’s worst plus-minus player to having the NHL’s best plus-minus since the All-Star break (plus-19). Ryan Suter, once a minus-24 in a 21-game span, ranks second in the NHL since the All-Star break (plus-18). Fourth is Charlie Coyle (plus-16). Six others are in the top 20.
“This is what happens when your team plays better,” Zach Parise said. “Everyone benefits.”
Coach Mike Yeo says Niederreiter’s defensive game has improved playing with Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart, but Niederreiter never felt like the Wild’s worst defensive player. The team was simply going through a miserable six-week stretch.
Similarly, Niederreiter doesn’t suddenly feel like the NHL’s best defensive player. The team’s just going through an incredible nine-week stretch.
“Each and every player wants to be a plus player,” Niederreiter said. “Even though it’s sometimes a silly stat to look at, a minus never looks good. Let’s be honest: The Dubnyk trade changed everything.
“During that time, we just needed a new face in the locker room. Everybody was very frustrated, everything always looked the same. We called up players, but it never really felt different. We brought Dubnyk in, it was a fresh, new face, we got to know a new guy, we had a great start and there was trust right away in each other again.”
Dubnyk, though, says it’s impossible to have such an about-face in goal differential without everybody chipping in.
“That was the majority of my excitement coming here,” Dubnyk said. “I just knew this group was too good to be going through what they were going through. Everyone has struggles, and it can snowball off each other when things aren’t going well. But I knew at some point they were going to start playing the way they were capable of and fortunately for me it was right in that [Jan. 15] game in Buffalo when I got here.
“That’s why it’s fun for everybody. You look at the run, everybody’s pitched in at some point. When we need six goals, we get six. When we need to shut the other team out because we only scored one, we do it. Sometimes it’s the third and fourth line pitching in, other times it’s Zach and [Jason Pominville] and Mikko.
“It’s been awesome to watch. It’s different people all the time. You don’t go on a run like we have without that. It’s brought us pretty close, too. When everybody feels like they’re a part of it, it’s exciting.”
Everybody’s excited for the schedule to resume Thursday against the Rangers. Asked if he’s ever seen a turnaround like this, Yeo said: “I believed in this group and what we could do, and I never stopped believing that the playoffs was a real goal for us.
“Certainly, where we were at that time, you’re looking at it and you’re thinking, ‘OK, last game of the season if we’re going to get in.’ We’ve got a chance in the next couple games not necessarily to clinch but to make things pretty darn close to that.”