Minnesota Wild’s offense is scoring like never before

The Wild's offense is scoring like never before
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Comfortably ranked first in the Central Division — and within range of the West’s top seed — the Minnesota Wild are ahead of schedule through the first quarter of the season.

When you consider the mile-high expectations of the Colorado Avalanche, and other factors, that’s a mild surprise. Still, this Wild franchise raised the bar when they were better-than-expected last season, so it’s not outlandish to see them remain in the thick of things.

No, the surprising part is how the Wild got here. Ranking fourth-best in the NHL with 3.68 goals per game, the Wild boast one of the league’s best offenses.

That brings us to some key questions. Why are the Wild scoring so much? Are these fluke successes, or is this something sustainable? And what should the Wild focus on to keep the good times (/offense) rolling?

Wild scoring this much is, well, wildly unusual

Truly, the Wild haven’t generated offense like this before.

Over 21 seasons in the NHL, the Wild have only scored 3+ goals five times. Short sample size and all, this season is easily the Wild’s most explosive.

1. 2021-22: 3.68 goals per game
2. (tied) 2020-21 and 2016-17: 3.21
4. 2019-20: 3.16
5. 2017-18: 3.05

Beyond those seasons, the Wild averaged 2.77 goals (2014-15) or less. They’ve never dipped below 2.02 goals per game … but, yeah, this defensive-minded team hasn’t exactly enjoyed the luxury of outscoring their problems very often.

One of the most peculiar elements of the Wild’s red-hot offense is that, frankly, their power play stinks. So far, the Wild’s power play is only clicking at 14.3 percent, which would rank fourth-worst in franchise history. (Again, this is a team whose early previous offensive stars were Marian Gaborik and, uh … Marian Gaborik, but half-injured?)

In case you’re wondering, that 14.3 power-play percentage ranks eighth-worst in the NHL. At least they’re not alone in less-than-special special teams.

Let’s get more detailed on what is and is not working for the Wild’s offense.

Some luck at even-strength, but definitely some skill, too

When a team’s scoring a little over its head, there’s likely some luck involved — and often some nuclear power play results. Obviously, a hot power play isn’t powering the Wild’s offense.

They’re getting some puck luck, however.

At 5-on-5, the Wild’s 9.89 shooting percentage is the second-highest in the NHL. Only the perpetually-hot-shooting Capitals rank higher at 10.68-percent. Along with the Wild and Capitals, the Hurricanes and Avalanche are the only teams at 9+ percent.

For the most part, such shooting percentage luck doesn’t seem repeatable. Yet, chew on this. The Wild topped all teams in 5-on-5 shooting percentage last season (10.38), with (wait for it) the Capitals placing second (10.07). Only six teams shot at 9+ percent last season.

[No surprise that the Wild are climbing PHT’s Power Rankings.]

On one hand, most signs point to gravity pulling the Wild’s shooting percentage down. On the other hand, the Capitals have defied those expectations for ages.

Ultimately, I do expect the Wild’s offense to deal with a lower shooting percentage over the long haul. That said, a lot of their underlying numbers indicate that they’re strong at controlling scoring chances. We’re talking about quality and quantity with Minny.

The Wild also sport commendable depth. No doubt, Kirill Kaprizov is a huge catalyst (25 points in 22 games), but eleven different Wild players — even Dmitry Kulikov — have at least 10 points this season. Only the powerhouse Panthers enjoy more depth (12 players at 10+ points).

So, yes, the Wild’s offense is driven a bit by luck, but also skill. Crucially, could the Wild improve on the power play, thus softening the likely fall of that bloated shooting percentage? They should certainly try.

How much better can their power play be?

With any struggling power play, it’s key to ask: what can they change, and what can only improve by bringing in different talent?

Overall, the Wild’s problems are fairly familiar. The Wild simply aren’t generating enough high-quality chances from the prime real estate of the ice. This Hockey Viz chart captures the dilemma succinctly:

Big-picture-wise, their plan isn’t totally out of touch. The Wild’s top two players in power play shots (Kevin Fiala – 22; Kirill Kaprizov – 21) are the players you’d want to pull the trigger. This isn’t a team deferring to defensemen shooting to an extreme.

So, the problem isn’t who is shooting, but from where they shoot. That’s where it’s tricky.

How do you get the Wild’s obvious offense creators into prime real estate areas more often? At Zone Coverage, the advice is to create more plays from behind the net, and maybe call up Matt Boldy to open up more of those opportunities.

Indeed, those might be the best areas where the Wild may experiment to create more offense from the power play. Consider personnel, in general. With all due respect to Marcus Foligno (an underrated defensive forward), it’s not ideal that he’s a top six Wild player in power play ice time (two minutes per game).

Why this trade deadline might be the time for the Wild to strike

Speaking of personnel, the Wild should already be cooking up schemes for the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.

Looking back at that previous section, would it make sense to “rent” an upgrade for that power play? It would be especially appealing if the Wild fear rushing Boldy.

Maybe more importantly, the Wild may seek a goalie upgrade. The Wild’s 90.30 team save percentage at even-strength ranks seventh-worst in the NHL.

Now, the Wild’s defensive structure is sturdy enough to keep Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen upright. However, if the Wild’s shooting luck cools off, they might need more saves.

Besides, the Zach Parise – Ryan Suter buyouts only make it more enticing to chase some rentals now. Consider the jump in dead money after this season, via Cap Friendly.

2021-22: $4,743,588 million
2022-23: $12,743,588 million
2023-24: $14,743,588 million
2024-25: $14,743,588 million

By the end of the season, the Avalanche and Golden Knights could easily solidify themselves as juggernauts again. And it’s possible that the Flames and Oilers may also look like contenders.

Still, this might be the best chance for the Wild to go on about as good of a run as they’ve ever enjoyed — even if that offense slows down.

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.

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.