For the Minnesota Wild, it’s more like March Sadness, am I right?
Since March 1, the Wild have won just two of eight games. Their slump includes a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on national TV, which, as you might imagine, gives Wild fans visions of another playoff defeat at the hands of Jonathan Toews.
The Wild also haven’t slumped under head coach Bruce Boudreau. In late November, they lost three in a row, but two of those were in shootouts. Dropping games on the road to Chicago, Washington and Carolina in regulation is enough to make fans wonder if the Wild will fall into an extended drought, as they did seemingly every year under Mike Yeo.
But there’s something different about this slide: By every predictive measure, the Wild have been just fine over the last eight games, they just haven’t had the shooting luck or goaltending that they were getting earlier in the season. And that should be expected on a team with so many players performing well above their career averages.
Take Mikko Koivu, for example. This year, at even strength he is scoring on 14.5% of his shots. Over the last three years, he scored on 7.6% of shots. Boudreau has a history of high shooting percentage teams, so it wouldn’t be surprising that a top center’s numbers go up, but not by double. At least not for a full season. Eric Staal is shooting 12.5%, when he scored on 8.8% of shots over the last three years.
In the last eight games, 2.5% of the Wild’s total shot attempts (on goal, missed, blocked) have gone in the net. That’s exactly half of their 5.0% season mark.
It’s like having a batter whose career average is .275, but he hits .330 for the first three months. You would expect that player to struggle at some point. Only in this case, the Wild had quite a few .330 batters.
This same concept applies to Devan Dubnyk. At the high point of the Wild season, when they won 12 in a row, Minnesota’s goaltender had the highest save percentage in NHL history. He’s an excellent goalie and has the league’s second best save percentage since he joined Minnesota, but it was pretty unlikely that he’d post a .940 save percentage for a full season.
Between his blazing-hot stint in 2014-15 and last year, Dubnyk had a Quality Start in 59.0% of his games (Quality Start is defined by allowing two goals or fewer or a .915 save percentage or higher). This year, even with some tough games recently, he’s got a 68.5% Quality Start Percentage. There was bound to be some bumps in the road.
None of this means that the castle built on unsustainable percentages is crumbling.
Your eyes weren’t fooling you when you saw the Granlund-Koivu-Zucker line flying through the neutral zone for tap-in goals or Dubnyk shutting down opponents. The Wild have consistently produced more scoring chances than their opponents, and they have done so during this bad stretch.
Over the last eight games, according to the website Corsica Hockey, Minnesota has produced 63 scoring chances at even strength since March 1, compared to just 32 for their opponents. It just so happens that a lot of those chances allowed have ended up in the back of the net.
Corsica Hockey has a metric called “Expected Goals” that uses a team’s shots to estimate what the average score would be over a season. In this eight-game stretch, the stat indicates the Wild should have out-scored opponents 3.06 to 1.91 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (almost exactly the same as their season). Instead, they have been beaten 1.59 to 2.70.
Based on those numbers, if you had to put all of your money on an outcome, you would bet that the Wild would get right back to business rather than stay down in the dumps.
Believe it or not, there is actually good news about the last eight games.
A team’s shot differential over its last 25 games has been found to be predictive of its playoff success. For example, the San Jose Sharks were a so-so team for much of 2015-16, but were the second best team in the West over the last 25 contests – not in record, in shot attempt differential.
Shot differential has been a major concern for the Wild. There has only been one team that’s made the Stanley Cup Final while being out-shot attempted during the regular season. Currently, the Wild have given up 227 more attempts than they’ve taken.
But since the start of March, they are plus-73. Some of that could be due to trailing in games, but five of their six losses have been within one or two goals.
There’s a few other factors that have played into the slide. Mumps. Illnesses that kept out Matt Dumba, then Martin Hanzal. A long road trip.
This is how it goes over 82 games. If you hunted through each Cup Finalist’s schedule and results, you would find a chunk of the season where they did not perform at their best.
So don’t press that panic button just yet. The Wild’s biggest concern down the stretch should be staying healthy because the bigger sample suggests they are a legitimate contender.