Myers: Penalty kill has been a key to Wild's success in 6-game win streak
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Road wins in places such as Detroit, Vancouver and Dallas have been exceedingly rare for the Minnesota Wild. Add first period penalties to the long odds of winning on the road, and the chances of a quiet, sullen bus ride to the airport get larger.
But in recent road wins over the Canucks and Red Wings, the Wild survived those first period man-disadvantages, keeping the home team off the board, and rallying to win later.
In Monday's 7-4 victory at Dallas - the Wild's first in more than a decade in that city - they gave up a power-play goal in the opening 20 minutes, then looked to be in deep trouble late, when the Stars went on an extended power play.
In a 4-4 game, with the clock winding down, the Wild's Mike Rupp was assessed four minutes for a high stick to the face of a Dallas player, giving the Stars a perfect opportunity to extend the Wild's decade of misery in Texas by one more game.
Instead, stout defense by Clayton Stoner and a shorthanded goal by Kyle Brodziak led the Wild to the win, their sixth in a row, and put them back into a tie with the Canucks atop the Northwest Division. The statistics tell an important tale, showing the Wild among the NHL leaders in penalty killing.
Their top offensive player says the success comes from being patient, and knowing exactly when to pounce on the opponent, even when you're down a man.
"We're pressuring at the right times," Wild forward Zach Parise said.
On Monday, Parise had two goals and an assist. "We call them 'trigger moments,' when we recognize that a guy is on his off side or against the wall or has his back turned," he said. "We're doing a good job of recognizing those and jumping at the right time. It's working."
The constant pressure and willingness to jump in the play while killing penalties, is not only creating shorthanded offense for the Wild, it's keeping the other teams' power-play units on edge, and not allowing them to get comfortable, even when they have numbers in their favor.
"When you know when the other guy is going to jump, it's almost like if one goes the rest of the guys go too," Parise said. "We make it hard for them to consistently set up."
While some coaches would jump at the opportunity to claim credit when things are going well, Wild coach Mike Yeo admits that the spark is coming from the guys on the bench, not the guy behind it.
"It's the players. It's their preparation and their focus going into a game, so I give full credit to those guys," said Yeo on Sunday, after the Wild's morning skate at St. Thomas Academy. "Especially considering that we've had success to not allow our urgency level to drop or our focus to drop, to go out and play the same way. It's not just the first line, it's every line going out and showing it's a team game and we're ready to play."
And while the quartet of goals given up in Dallas may make it look like one of Niklas Backstrom's worst outings of the season, the Wild penalty killers say that the consistency they're getting in goal is foremost in their success.
"Number one is goaltending. Backy's been great for us. Your best penalty killer has to be your goalie and he's been that," defenseman Ryan Suter said. "The work ethic when we get out there. We want to compete. That's the big thing is you have to out work the power play, and we've been able to do that."
When he was asked on Sunday about the importance of those first period penalty kills in road games, Yeo perhaps had a premonition of what was to come in Dallas, and said that strong penalty killing has been a key to Wild wins early, late, and at any point at all.
"It's important in every part of the game," he said, when asked about the wins in Vancouver and Detroit. "Certainly those moments were big, but you get penalty kills in the third period when you're hanging onto a lead and it's just as important. Every penalty kill is big. It doesn't matter what's happened the one before, the next one is going to be the most important."