The NHL playoffs begin today, but the Minnesota Wild and their fan base probably wish it were still February. Back then, the Wild had the second-most points in the NHL, they’d scored the fourth-most goals in the NHL, goalie Devan Dubnyk was the clear favorite for the Vezina trophy (given to the league’s top goaltender), and they were generally considered to be among the favorites to emerge out of the perennially competitive Western Conference. But once the calendar flipped to March, Minnesota headed in a decidedly different direction.
In their 16 games last month, the Wild earned just 10 out of a possible 32 points. Only three teams collected fewer points than the Wild during March — two of those being the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, each of whom owns the worst record in its respective conference. Although the Wild partially righted the ship with four straight victories to close the regular season, Minnesotans still have to be wondering what the heck went wrong for the team down the stretch — and whether it means the Wild are headed for a second-consecutive first-round playoff exit.
One of the biggest factors behind the Wild’s March struggles was that they stopped scoring. Before their horrid stretch of play, the Wild were averaging 3.3 goals per game, second only to the Penguins (who on Feb. 28 were scoring 3.5 goals per game for the season). By contrast, the Wild scored just 2.5 goals per game during March.
Scoring downturns like that don’t happen without a good reason, and for the Wild that reason involves shooting the puck. Through February, the Wild were scoring on 11 percent of the shots they took. During March, they scored on just 7.7 percent of the shots they took. Shooting percentage tends to regress to the mean, and so fluctuations can be expected, but Minnesota’s shooting percentage tanked precipitously last month.
The Wild also got poor production from their power play in March: In 48 opportunities, they scored just five goals (12.5 percent), tying them for the fifth-worst scoring rate in the league with the man advantage for the month. On Feb. 28, the Wild had the third-best power play in the NHL, scoring on 22.6 percent of their opportunities. By the end of March, they’d fallen all the way to 10th.
Minnesota’s suddenly anemic attack wouldn’t be as big a deal if they were still getting dominant play between the pipes, but like the skaters in front of him, Dubnyk’s numbers also regressed badly last month. In 14 appearances during March, he gave up 36 goals on 325 shots, good for a save percentage of .889 and a goals against average of 2.94. That’s pretty awful: If a qualified goalie had produced those numbers for the entire 2016-17 season, he’d rank 60th in save percentage and 51st in goals against average out of 62 netminders. (For reference’s sake, Dubnyk had a save percentage of .931 and a goals against average of 2.05 entering March, numbers that ranked first and second in the league, respectively, among goalies who’d played in 20 or more games.)
Not all of Minnesota’s goaltending woes can be blamed on Dubnyk; he hasn’t gotten much help from backup Darcy Kuemper. Among goalies with at least 10 games played, Kuemper’s .902 save percentage and 3.13 goals against average rank 55th and 58th in the league. In his three appearances this March, Kuemper has a .870 save percentage and a 3.50 goals against average. Even for a No. 2 goalie, these are not numbers that inspire confidence, and Dubnyk has been forced to play more games than he might have if the Wild had a decent backup.
Before last season, Dubnyk had never started more than 42 games. This season will mark the second-consecutive season he’s played in more than 60 games. Goaltender fatigue is hard to prove or disprove, but anecdotally speaking, it seems it may have hit Dubnyk hard this March — and a tired goalie is the last thing any team wants heading into the postseason. Last year, the Wild were bounced by the Dallas Stars in the first round in six games, giving up 3.5 goals a game over the course of the series. If Dubnyk is unable to recover from his current streak of poor play, it could mean more of the same for Minnesota come playoff time.
In truth, Minnesota’s hot early-season play was also probably a mirage, to some degree or another. The Wild’s stellar shooting (11.1) and save (.925) percentages through the end of February added up to a ludicrous PDO of 103.6, which was tracking to be the second-highest single-season mark since PDO was first recorded in 2008 (trailing only this year’s Washington Capitals). That wasn’t sustainable, and their March skid just reinforces the maxim that PDO is unstable. Last month, the Wild posted a 7.7 shooting percentage and an .882 save percentage, good for a PDO of 95.9. (This is a very, very bad PDO; for reference, the worst PDO in the NHL this year belongs to Colorado, at 96.6.) Minnesota’s puck luck has morphed into some serious puck misfortune.
Despite their very bad stretch run, the Wild still managed to finish second overall in the West. But in the post-lockout NHL, no Stanley Cup-winning team has collected less than 53 percent of available points over their final 20 regular-season games. By contrast, the Wild went just 8-10-2 in their final 20 games, collecting just 45 percent of the possible points on the table.
A couple good analogues for this year’s Wild team are the 2013-14 St. Louis Blues and the 2014-15 Nashville Predators, both of whom finished third in the Western Conference, but also suffered disastrous stretch runs much like the Wild had this season. In the playoffs, each was bounced in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
Unlike those teams, the Wild won’t have to face Chicago in the first round. (They play St. Louis starting on Wednesday.) But if the fates of those Blues and Predators teams tell us anything, it’s that the Wild might not be able to escape the first round. To avoid that fate, they’re going to need Dubnyk to return to his spectacular midseason form. But he will also need some help: The other players most responsible for Minnesota’s March slump (Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Chris Stewart) must take some of the scoring burden from the few who didn’t decline (Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund). Otherwise, the Wild’s great early-season play will have all been for naught.