WINNIPEG – Two years ago, back when the Wild tied an NHL record with 12 consecutive road victories and was the league’s best second-half road team, it was largely due to suffocating defense and Devan Dubnyk allowing 1 ½ goals per game.
This season, the Wild again has been the NHL’s best team on the road (17-6-5, 39 points) heading into Tuesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, but the success largely derives from filling the back of the net.
That’s not to say Dubnyk has been leaky. On the road, he leads the league with a .937 save percentage and is second with a 2.07 goals-against average.
But, the Wild usually wins on the road with a high-powered, balanced offensive attack.
The Wild leads the NHL with 90 road goals and is second to the Rangers in goals per game (3.21). The Wild’s road special teams actually have been mediocre (penalty killing) bordering on poor (power play). But its 76 even-strength goals on the road are 10 more than the second-best team.
“We’ve got a good, solid group four lines deep that can contribute,” veteran Eric Staal said. “If you look at our numbers as a group, we’re pretty balanced lines and really solid on the back end. When you’re on the road, a lot of times it’s less matchups, more playing and rolling them over for the most part.
“We’re getting timely scoring from different guys on different nights. When you gain confidence as a group like that, it keeps building.”
Said coach Bruce Boudreau: “We play the same way at home and the road. There’s no big difference. We don’t play any bigger, we’re not tougher at home. We skate. There’s not a big change between our home game and our road game, and that’s probably been one of the secrets to our success.”
Jason Zucker, Staal, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle are all in the top 26 in road scoring, but Dubnyk also pointed out how many big goals have come from third- and fourth-liners and defensemen.
“You add [Chris] Stewart and Staal to the line, and now you have depth scoring,” Dubnyk said. “Lately, we’ve probably given up too many goals on the road, but other than the fluke goals scored last game in Vancouver, we got back to playing really well defensively.
“That’s still how you’ve got to play to win on the road. And, that’s the whole message Bruce has been trying to send. We can put pucks in the net and still shut down the defensive end.”
Boudreau used the Zucker-Koivu-Granlund line as an example. The line combined for eight points in Vancouver and stifled the Sedin twins.
“That line has been crazy, both offensively and defensively,” Boudreau said. “You look at the clips from last game, defensively they were in perfect spots all the time and they were able to finish off. But it’s their defense that has made them all plus-30.”
After using Super Bowl Sunday as a travel day, the Wild got back to work with a hard practice Monday at MTS Centre.
Koivu missed the practice due to maintenance. Jordan Schroeder was a placeholder between Zucker and Granlund, who was named the NHL’s second star of last week, but Boudreau indicated Koivu will play Tuesday.
Coyle, who was dropped to the fourth line against the Canucks, moved from right wing to center for the first time this season on the third line with Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville. Erik Haula centered Stewart and Tyler Graovac, who moved to right wing, on the fourth line.
Boudreau said he didn’t know if he’d go with that look against the Jets. But Coyle, set to play his 283rd consecutive regular-season game to tie Antti Laaksonen’s team record, certainly thought he will move to center.
“I’ll probably get more touches down the middle,” said Coyle, who has one goal and 10 assists in the past 18 games. “I just have to stay positive and try to play my game.”
Better at home
For the Wild, which averages 3.33 goals per game, to win Tuesday — its last road game before returning to Winnipeg on Feb. 28 — it will have to slow the second-best offense in the Western Conference (2.89 goals per game).
Wild-Jets games often look different in Winnipeg compared to Minnesota. At home, the Jets, who have defeated the Wild three consecutive times, often try to intimidate the Wild with their size and play run-and-gun off the rush.
Zucker said the key to the Wild on the road this season is players come in with the mentality that they have “to beat” their opponent.
“You’re in their building, they have their fans. You have to beat them,” he said. “You can’t just go out there and expect to win. You have to actually go beat them, and our mentality all year is we’re not going to let anybody beat us. On the road, we come out strong, and even down a couple goals, whatever it is, we always feel we can win the game no matter what happens.”