As the Wild’s goals-against average continued to creep skyward in December and early January, defenseman Ryan Suter didn’t think that number reflected a complete picture of the Wild’s play in its own end.
“Our team defense has been good all year,” he said. “For a month or two, things were ending up in the back of our net, but I thought we’d been playing well.”
Once goaltender Devan Dubnyk sealed off that leaky net, Suter and his fellow defensemen continued to shine. Their joint efforts have anchored a taut team defense that has generated pride and confidence throughout the lineup. Entering a five-game home stand that begins Friday against Calgary, the Wild ranks fourth in the NHL with 27.5 shots allowed per game, and it has surrendered an average of 1.7 goals in its past 32 games.
While Dubnyk has been the headliner, he is quick to point out that he isn’t performing a solo act. Dubnyk has long lauded his teammates for limiting shots, sweeping away rebounds and ensuring he gets an unobstructed view of the puck. As he has thrived, the entire roster has become more disciplined and efficient on defense, a recipe that has led to five victories in the Wild’s past six games.
“Team defense, that’s it for me,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said of the basis for the Wild’s revival. “Certainly, it starts with [Dubnyk]. But the game that our defensemen play, it’s huge.
“It’s certainly a team effort. And our guys definitely take pride in doing the little things and playing a strong defensive game, with the understanding that when we do those little things, it helps us offensively as well.”
In 32 games since Jan. 15, when Dubnyk made his first start for the Wild, the team has given up an NHL-low 54 goals and scored 96. That plus-42 goal differential is the best in the league over that time frame. Tampa Bay, which has the second-best goal differential since Jan. 15, is plus-27.
The Wild’s penalty kill also has moved to the top of the NHL with an 86.8 percent success rate. The team has killed 71 of 76 penalties (93.4 percent) in 28 games since the All-Star break.
Dubnyk’s confidence, focus and attention to detail are mirrored by his teammates, creating a strong group dynamic. Forward Zach Parise noted that even when opponents get large chunks of time in the Wild zone, the team does a good job of pushing play to the perimeter, allowing few high-quality scoring chances. The defense also keeps rebounds to a minimum and has become extremely efficient in transition, fueling the offense with its ability to get the puck out of the zone quickly.
The better Dubnyk plays, Parise said, the better everyone around him plays. “It really goes hand in hand,” he said. “Our defensemen are doing a good job of boxing out and letting Dubnyk see his shots — and right now, for the longest time, when he’s seeing it, he’s stopping it. And when there’s a breakdown, he’s making saves. They help each other out.”
Defenseman Marco Scandella said his group aims to win one-on-one battles throughout the game, control the pace and allow few second-chance scoring opportunities. Their growing confidence has allowed them to play without anxiety, and the fact that everyone is doing his job has enhanced the team’s trust and unity.
Rookie defenseman Matt Dumba has felt those bonds growing over the past 10 weeks, another reason why the Wild has moved from playoff outsider to playoff contender.
“When you have [Dubnyk] shutting it down, doing what he does, that takes some pressure off us for sure,” Dumba said. “We trust each other and trust what we’re doing, and that all helps with making plays in the D zone.
“We’ve got a really good group in here, and our chemistry is great. Everything has gotten a lot tighter and stronger as our team has become more closely knit.”
• Yeo said that forward Ryan Carter, who has missed 22 games because of a shoulder injury, could rejoin the lineup Friday against Calgary. Yeo will not determine the lineup until Friday morning.
• Winger Matt Cooke (sports hernia) continues to skate on his own, as does winger Jason Zucker (broken collarbone). Yeo said Zucker is “still a ways away” from returning and added that defenseman Nate Prosser (knee injury) is “coming along well” without setting a timetable for his return.