Contender or pretender: It is time to take notice of the Wild

As the NHL season reaches the halfway point of the 2020-21 season we are taking a closer look each week at teams that are right on the line between being a Stanley Cup contender or a Stanley Cup pretender. Today we examine the suddenly exciting Minnesota Wild.

For most hockey fans the Wild are not a team that typically shows up on your radar.

In two decades of existence they have played beyond the first round of the playoffs just three times, reached a conference final only once (and that was 17 years ago) and never played for the Stanley Cup.

Even so, it is still a franchise that has probably been better than you realize over the past seven or eight years. Between 2013 and 2018 the Wild were one of the more successful regular season teams in the league, averaging around 45 wins and 100 points per season. But they would always find themselves in a situation where they would just so happen to fall into a first-or second-round series with the Blackhawks when they were at their peak. That is a tough matchup, and it always created a ceiling for what they could do. They were good. At times really good. They just were not as good as the best team in the league at that time.

But even when they were winning a lot it was never really a team that demanded your attention. They never played an overly exciting brand of hockey, and their star power has been limited to the early days of Marian Gaborik’s career, and the downside of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Kirill Kaprizov has changed everything this season

It is rare that one player who is not a No. 1 overall pick can show up and instantly transform the vibe of an entire team.

But that is exactly what Kaprizov has done. He has not only brought top-line production to the lineup, he has brought an excitement and feeling that the Wild have not really had with an individual player since the days of Gaborik.

Keep in mind, this is an organization that has only had 12 30-goal seasons (from only six different players) in 20 years of existence. Gaborik reached that mark five times, Brian Rolston hit it three times, and Jason Pominville, Jason Zucker, Zach Parise and Eric Staal each hit it one time. Excluding expansion Vegas, the only teams that have had fewer 30-goal seasons during that stretch are Arizona, Nashville, Florida, and Edmonton.

They have only had two 40-goal seasons.

[MORE: ‘Dollar Dollar Bill’ Kirill Kaprizov has been money for Wild]

It is just not a team that has ever really had superstar talent that would make you take notice. Kaprizov looks like he has a chance to be that sort of player. When combined with Mats Zuccarello, that line has created magic with the puck. When that duo is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Wild are averaging 4.47 goals per 60 minutes, compared to just 2.88 when only one of them is on the ice, and only 2.85 when neither is on the ice (per Natural Stat Trick).

Kaprizov is a game-changer. A season-changer. Maybe a franchise-changer.

But there is another important element at play here: Those goal numbers even without Kaprizov and Zuccarello are still excellent. The Wild are the highest scoring 5-on-5 team in the NHL per 60 minutes this season. Some of it is shooting percentage driven, yes. But they do have some balance.

The defensive foundation is still in place

For as good as the Kaprizov-Zuccarello duo is, it is their defensive play and goaltending that is going to give them their best chance to compete.

Even though it did not always show up in their goal prevention numbers a year ago, the Wild had excellent defensive metrics across the board when it came to preventing scoring chances. The issue they ran into was their goaltending was not always up to par. It was not until Alex Stalock stepped in during the second half and solidified things that their season started to turn around.

This year the Wild remain one of the top teams in the league when it comes to shutting down scoring chances and high-danger chances. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Wild are a top-10 team in expected goals, scoring chances, and high-danger chances against. They are excellent in their own end of the ice. When you combine that with strong goaltending from both Kaapo Kahkonen and Cam Talbot, you get one of the best defensive teams in the NHL at both even-strength and while shorthanded.

Entering play on Monday, the Wild are allowing just 2.46 goals per game, the sixth-best mark in the league. Their penalty kill is converting 85.6% of the time. That is fifth best in the NHL.

Are they a contender or a pretender?

At the start of the season the Wild seemed to have the inside track on the fourth playoff spot in the West Division.

On paper, the West was a division that had two very different tiers of teams. At the top you had contenders Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis.

At the bottom you had a declining San Jose team, a flawed Arizona team, a bad Anaheim team, and a rebuilding LA team.

In the middle, you had Minnesota that did not really fit into either group. Assuming they took care business against the lower tier teams and could simply hold their own against the top tier teams, that fourth spot seemed to be belong to them. So far, that is exactly what has happened. The Wild are 13-5-0 against Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, and San Jose. They are 4-3-1 against Colorado and Vegas, while they have yet to play St. Louis.

Maintain that, and they should be a playoff team.

The problem is going to be in the path. For the Wild to make a Cup run they would have to beat two of Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis in a best-of-seven series just to get to the Stanley Cup Semifinals. That is a daunting task for any team, and they would probably be underdogs in any of those matchups.

Because of that they probably fall on the pretender side of the spectrum, but an exciting one that could potentially cause a lot of problems depending on how well their goaltending holds out.

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.

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    Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

    The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

    Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

    “It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

    In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

    “It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

    In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

    “We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

    Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

    Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

    Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

    Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

    Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

    TAKE NOTE

    The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

    Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

    Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

    Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

    The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

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    TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

    Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

    Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

    Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

    Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.