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Trying to figure out the Wild’s Jekyll and Hyde home and road act

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PITTSBURGH — If the Minnesota Wild, currently sitting on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, end up missing the postseason they can probably point the finger at their awful record away from the Xcel Energy Center.

Following their 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, a game that was not anywhere near as close as the final score (“We got killed. We got outplayed in every facet of the game,” said an obviously disappointed Bruce Boudreau after the game) the Wild are now just 9-14-1 on the road this season, one of the worst marks in the NHL.

This is the same team that is one of the best teams in the league on home with a 17-4-4 record. It is the same team that was one of the best teams in the league a year ago on the road, finishing 22-13-6.

What changed, and what is behind the sudden struggles this season, was something a lot of Wild players were asked about on Thursday night.

“I don’t have the answer,” said forward Zach Parise. “I don’t know if there is something we are doing differently at home … there shouldn’t be.”

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” said Boudreau. “We’re one of the best teams at home and one of the worst teams on the road. We have to find a way to get the road side better because we have some tough road buildings to go to and we can’t afford to go in like this.”

Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk, who was mercifully pulled after being left out on an island by his teammates through the first half of Thursday’s game, tried to go into a little more detail and talked about needing to keep things simple early in games.

“I just think we have to be a little bit more simple, especially at the start of games,” said Dubnyk.

“There are a lot of teams that are good in their own building that are going to give you a good push at the drop of the puck and sometimes you have to embrace that and just play simple. Let them come at you, stay simple, get to your game. When you try to do to much and turn pucks over that is when it starts to feel out of control. You just have to keep it as simple as you can until you start to feel good and I don’t think we have done a good job at that.”

He continued: “When you start to turn pucks over and everybody is discombobulated,  that is how it feels, it starts to feel hectic for everybody, from the front to the back. The reason we are a great hockey team when we are is because everybody plays together as a unit. When that starts to get twisted up, it starts to feel out of control for everybody, and that’s when things start to open up. We just have to stick together and be more simple on the road until we start to feel good about it.”

Let’s try to look at this objectively and see if there is actually any sort of significant difference in their actual performance beyond just the record.

Are the Wild really that good at home? Are they really that bad on the road? Let’s figure it out!

Some numbers. The table below looks at the Wild’s home and road records, Corsi percentage, even-strength scoring chance percentage, even-strength goal differential, shots for and and against totals, and their special teams marks.

A few things to unpack here.

— First, from a possession standpoint there isn’t much difference between the Wild at home versus on the road — they are bad no matter where they play.

Their home Corsi percentage is the second-worst mark in the NHL and their road Corsi percentage is the absolute worst. That is not a great sign, and seems to suggest that the issue isn’t necessarily that the Wild are *bad* on the road, but perhaps that they are actually little lucky at home.

— I don’t really believe in home/road power play or penalty kill splits because, well, that’s one area where home/road shouldn’t really make much of a difference because you’re not playing a matchup game, so having the last change doesn’t really matter, and the systems really should not be all that different.

The Wild’s power play is virtually identical no matter what building they play in. There is an extreme difference in the penalty kill, however. But perhaps more interesting than that is that the Wild’s penalty kill gets put to use A LOT more on the road than it does at home. So far this season the Wild have been shorthanded 103 times in 24 road games, versus only 78 times in 25 home games. That is an additional penalty kill per game and is one of the biggest home/road differentials in the league.

— The fact they take so many more penalties on the road, as well as the big swing in their scoring chance data, as well as the fact they are giving up close to five additional shots per game on the road, would seem to back up Dubnyk’s point about not keeping things simple on the road and allowing things to get opened up more than they should. That certainly happened on Thursday because as Boudreau accurately pointed out after the game it seemed as if the Penguins were getting an odd-man rush on every shift.

This is odd, because the conventional wisdom about NHL teams is that they are more likely to play a simpler game on the road than they are at home because there isn’t as much pressure to “put on a show” for the home crowd.

So what do we make of this if you’re a Wild fan? Well, the team does need to be better on the road because there is not much about its performance that is anything close to good. The problem is their home mark is probably a bit misleading and, if anything, there is reason to believe that it could potentially tank in the second half if they do not improve there, too. That is not to say that it will tank, but teams that lose the territorial battle the way the Wild do — regardless of venue — do not typically have a lot of sustained success.

The big question for the Wild shouldn’t be how do they get better on the road, but how do they get better no matter where they play. Period.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He’s leaving opponents all shook  up is absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.