Wild faring fine, even with fewer players having breakout seasons

With almost half the lineup turning in breakout performances last season, the Wild put up record-breaking numbers.

But nearing the halfway point of this season, only two Wild players coming off their highest scoring clip in the NHL are on pace to do it again.

This potential drop-off, though, hasn't hamstrung the Wild, who remain in pursuit of one of the top three seeds in the Central Division.

"There were times last year we were winning games 7-6 and 8-7 and coming back from behind because we let up five, six, seven goals and we had to score six, seven or eight goals," Ryan Hartman said. "This year we're defending better. Our goalies are playing great. I think it relieves us from that a little bit."

The Wild closed out the 2022 portion of their schedule 21-13-2, which isn't too far from the 23-10-3 record they had through 36 games last season.

What has changed is their goal output: They tallied 20 fewer goals while giving up six fewer.

Even though scoring hasn't been at the same pace, the Wild have been almost as successful. The clean-up job they've done in their own zone hasn't demanded more out of last season's offensive leaders.

Among the eight Wild players who posted career highs in points last season, just Joel Eriksson Ek and Mats Zuccarello are on track to eclipse them.

Kirill Kaprizov and Jon Merrill are close and Frederick Gaudreau is on pace for a career-best in goals, while the rest (Jonas Brodin, Marcus Foligno and Hartman) have been affected by injury.

(Second-year player Matt Boldy is poised to produce more than he did as a rookie, when he played about half the season.)

"We've played great defensively, which maybe leads to us still winning games but not scoring as much," Eriksson Ek said. "For us, it's about winning hockey games and doing it as a team and so far we've been doing it pretty well lately."

Back to business

Tampa Bay faced the Wild on Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center after playing the previous night in Chicago, but back-to-backs aren't automatic mismatches anymore.

Take the Wild, who are 4-1 in second halves after going 8-4-2 last season. Their next set is this weekend, when they'll be at Buffalo on Saturday before returning home to host St. Louis on Sunday.

Almost two-thirds of the NHL is .500 or better in second games of back-to-backs. Ten years ago, not even half the teams met that mark, which is the same as 10 years before that in 2002-03.

"Elite athletes, charter planes, great meals, all that kind of stuff," Wild coach Dean Evason said. "Before it was commercial flights, way back obviously. The guys don't care anymore. They want to play hockey.

"We can throw all of that stuff out. When the puck is dropped, these athletes will compete."

Center of attention

The Wild won an abysmal 28% of faceoffs last Thursday vs. Dallas and didn't fare much better two nights later at St. Louis, when they won just 29%, but these games panned out very differently: While the Wild fell 4-1 to the Stars, they overpowered the Blues 5-2.

"It goes up and down," Eriksson Ek said. "Of course, we want to win the faceoffs to give us possession of the puck. For us, maybe we were better at getting it back against St. Louis than against Dallas. It's for sure something we have to do better."

Although centers are usually the ones hovering over the faceoff dot, the Wild are making it clear everyone on the team should care about the outcome.

"It hasn't been as successful as it has to be," Evason said. "We have to continue to try different things to get it to that point. Ultimately, it comes down to compete, not just the centermen, everybody, defensemen, forwards.

"Whoever has that opportunity to win that puck battle needs to win it so that we can have success in the circle."