Who would have ever thought defense wins championships?
It's not a new idea by any means but the Minnesota Wild are just getting around to the concept, and it seems to be paying off now a quarter of the way through the season.
In recent games the Minnesota Wild may have not scored many goals, but they haven't had to because of their defensive efforts and stellar goaltending from Niklas Backstrom.
When Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher took over for Doug Risebrough a little over a year ago, he promised to bring a more exciting and faster paced game of hockey to Minnesota.
The focus of the transition from a defense-first style was to incorporate an offensive attack style of play where it would create more freedom and opportunities for the offensive players to score more goals and apply more pressure to the opposing defense.
However it seemed ironically that there was one thing missing: defense.
The Minnesota Wild gave up more short-handed goals last year than any other team and allowed a much increased number of odd-man rushes against them.
For a team who led or was near the top of the NHL for many seasons for allowing the fewest goals against seemed now to be near the bottom.
How did a team this good at defense allow this to happen?
Although the coaches and front office staff will claim it was a transition year for the team, a lot of the team's woes came from the lack of effort from certain players.
The attitude in the locker room wasn't right for what GM Fletcher was trying to accomplish, create a puck-hungry hard working team that played 100 percent for 60 minutes every game.
Was it partly that some players weren't transitioning to a new system? Maybe, or could it be some players' "game" wasn't right for the new style?
Possible, but the word from the front office was that some players were just mentally checked out and weren't giving all their efforts.
Another reason for the lack of defense is simply the system was overly aggressive.
In the "new age" of the NHL where the game has become more offensive-minded and faster, you still have to be able to cover your end of the ice while being aggressive at the same time.
Minnesota was overly aggressive, allowing the defense to pinch-in without a winger covering that position or ill-timing step-ups cost the Wild a great scoring chance the other way for the opposing team.
The key to the system working is finding a balance between offense and defense, and the Wild are seeming to find that balance which has in turn cranked up their offense.
A couple noticeable changes within the fore check have allowed Minnesota maintain an aggressive fore check, while still having the ability to have strong numbers coming back on the back-check and providing much-needed defensive support and coverage during transition hockey.
By keeping at least one man high in the slot opens up options for the Wild offense in terms of passing, it allows easier coverage for a pinching defenseman and it creates virtually a three-man defensive support system that makes it hard for a team to cleanly carry the puck in the defensive zone for Minnesota, but forces a dump-and-chase scenario.
Minnesota historically has been more on the winning end of low-scoring games due to their past system, mainly because of the lack of offense made it important to have tight defensive coverage.
Take that same mentality and combined with the new offensive depth in Minnesota, and you seem to create a winning picture.
Low scoring games and defense first is the key for Minnesota to win and return to the playoffs, and it seems the newly revamped Wild coaching staff, players and tweaked system seems to be working.
Minnesota once again is thriving at home—no real surprise there for the team of 18,000.
The road record, although, is not anything special is sitting at .500, which remember last season took nine road games for the Wild to win one.
The Minnesota power play has seemed to really rise this season too, and it needed to.
The lack of five-on-five scoring has created a nervous buzz around the state of hockey, but the No. 1 ranked power play has most fans feeling a little more at ease at least for now.
Minnesota on its last four-game road trip was nearly 50 percent successful on the power play with a season average near 25 percent.
The keys to make the playoffs from this point in the season?
Even Strength Scoring
Minnesota is getting by for now with a potent power play, but if that takes a break or fails to produce, the Wild are in trouble in the scoring department.
Even though there are still critical injuries to offensive players, the Wild have the depth in the organization to overcome injuries, and it is a must that these players step up and contribute to the score sheet.
Minnesota must utilize their offensive talents if they are continue to play a complete 60-minute effort, applying constant offensive pressure to create scoring chances.
Backstrom and Theodore
Two No. 1 starting goaltenders at one point in their careers have the ability to play extremely well and so far this season have done exactly that. If that continues they could be the one factor that pushes Minnesota into the top eight once again to return to the postseason.
Keep It Simple
Playing a simple smart game of hockey has worked for Minnesota this season. By sticking to the basics, they create good scoring chances, remain strong on defense and in turn play a complete game of hockey on both the the front and back ends of the ice.
Areas to improve for the Wild would first need to start with discipline. Again although Minnesota's special teams are great this year, you can wear players and a team down by being shorthanded too often, and the Wild need to find ways to stay out of the penalty box.
Minnesota will travel to Detroit on Friday to take on the Red Wings for the first time this season. Detroit is 8-1-1 this season at home and leads the Western Conference with 25 points.