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STONY RIVER…. On New Years eve the Wild kicked off a four game road trip in St. Louis and played a sterling game to depart the Gateway City with a 3-1 victory over the Blues. The club appeared to be very focused, kept the game simple and the Blues to the outside in the defensive zone and got a needed two points. Last night the team played in Tampa Bay against the Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference Champion and dropped a 3-2 SO loss. This morning upon reading a few articles about the game and the ensuing fan comments, my attention turned to the new NHL 3 on 3 Overtime format.
Some clubs are proficient at it and some aren’t. So far the Wild are in the latter category. And with the loss, there was the usual negative fan commentary. I get that and it should be noted that a fair percentage of article commentary is posted by “experts”. Ah well, some of it is thought provoking, and some of it, not very. What I saw in the OT was some back and forth in the first couple of minutes and then the Bolts had a stretch of zone time that kept the Wild pinned in their defensive zone and unable to change players to get fresh troops out there. In the latter part of the frame the Wild regained possession and got in a couple of attempts and time ran out and they lost in the shootout.
This afternoon I had been gazing at a chart illustrating full Won-Loss-OT-SO records for all 30 teams in the league. There are some surprises to be certain, and some expected results. I went into the season fairly skeptical about the format of 3 on 3 being used to settle an official NHL game. I never looked at 3 on 3 as anything more then a summer hockey cardio boost drill. The league though was pursuing it as a way to cut down on the amount of games ending up in the shootout. Many fans were starting to refer to the shootout as the “skills competition”. I never liked that reference, in my book the entire game is a “skills competition”. I am OK with trying to cut down on shootout endings though.
The two best teams so far, the Capitals and NorthStars are average in the extra frame with 2 and 3 OT wins respectively. Other pretty good clubs are the Blackhawk’s with 7, the Kings have 6, and then the surprises, those teams who are beyond where some thought they would be in the standings this year, the Devils and Red Wings with 6 each, the Oilers have 5 OT wins, the Canes and Coyotes are at 4 apiece, there are several clubs with 3 OT wins and less and the big surprises, the Flyers, who are 15-22 have 6 OT wins and the Flames (18-20) who some were discounting as already out of a playoff shot in November lead the entire league with 8 OT victories! The Wild have won only once in OT against 7 OT/SO losses.
So, does this mean that about a fourth of the league have figured out how to successfully play the extra frame and the rest have not? No, I believe that it is a process that is still ongoing. From what I can see thus far, the obvious is that possession is of supreme importance and that insuring that missed shots or poor rebounds do not propel the opponent up ice with speed are elemental. The most vital thing though appears to be able to put 3 player combos out there that can excel at playing with a lot of open ice. And not all players are really great at that.
The Flames had a pretty good regular season last year because they had excellent possession stats. Their possession is down so far this year yet they have the most OT wins. That’s personnel. The comments this morning about the Wild OT woes were that they got schooled by the Bolts in the 3 on 3, that Coach Mike Yeo doesn’t know how to coach the OT frame and so on. There was a stretch where the Bolts enjoyed extended O-zone time because they had possession and they had the short change, the Wild could not get fresh players on to the ice. Tampa just kept throwing guys over the boards every 30 seconds and the Wild were stuck with trying to defend against that. In addition, I would only play hands guys and speed guys in the OT period.
Yeo does appear to be unsettled on his OT personnel. Thomas Vanek is a hands guy, but he sure isn’t a speed guy now if he ever was. He played a bit in OT. Zach Parise? I’m not sure. He has some speed, has hands but really plays a behind the net-crease game on offense. Mikko Koivu, not quick but can command possession down low. My OT for certain guys are Suter, Granlund, Coyle, Neidereitter, Spurgeon, Dumba, (if he can display some patience and not get “happy” out there) Scandella, probably Zucker because he is flat out quick, and Haula. There are 9 to 11 guys to choose from. That could form 3 plus combos that you would think could be fairly good.
One thing that would also be interesting to see would be the chart showing where all OT goals are being scored from and how. Are they coming off of the rush? From sustained pressure down low? Bullet shots from 15 to 25 feet out? Whatever the data shows, whatever the prevailing factors are, it is clear the Wild aren’t on to them yet, but neither is the bulk of the league. One thing you can count on though is that once it looks like some clubs are getting a handle on it, everything will change. That is the one constant in this game we love so much….
THE WILD WERE 6th in the Sagarin NHL rank prior to tonight’s 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. 43 year old ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr scored both Panther goals. Former Gopher Nick Bjugstad returned to the Florida lineup after missing 15 games with a migraine situation. HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL! PEACE