SI Vault
Daniel G. Habib
November 11, 2002
Neutral-Zone RapThe slick-skating Wild is winning games and fans by defying the notion that a trapping team has to be dull
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November 11, 2002

The Nhl

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Neutral-Zone Rap
The slick-skating Wild is winning games and fans by defying the notion that a trapping team has to be dull

To hear players on the Wild tell it, one of the hottest teams in hockey is misunderstood. Minnesota's reputation as a bear-hugging, holding, bore-you-to-death trapping bunch is exaggerated. "People see that we trap, and they think we clutch and grab," says winger Andrew Brunette. "We're the furthest thing from that. We play a tight defensive game, we're positionally smart and our speed surprises teams."

If the Wild's speed surprises, its record shocks. Minnesota, which was 26-35-12-9 last season, had the best record in the Western Conference (8-2-2-0) through Sunday. The team's speed has made coach Jacques Lemaire's neutral-zone trap highly effective. By stocking its forward lines with shifty, fast (albeit smaller) skaters, the Wild is playing cagey defense, generating scoring chances off turnovers and capitalizing on its power play (18.7%, ninth in the league) to increase the team's scoring by almost a goal per game (to 3-3) from last year.

Although the hot starts of explosive 20-year-old winger Marian Gaborik (seven goals) and resurgent goalie Manny Fernandez (1.84 goals-against average) are the most obvious factors in Minnesota's rise, the happy marriage of skaters and system is the secret of its success. The Wild applies pressure with a 1-2-2 forecheck, which requires the forwards to skate smoothly and change directions rapidly to pressure the puck carrier and steer him to the perimeter of the neutral zone. But contrary to popular perception, Minnesota doesn't obstruct through the neutral zone. Instead, the Wild uses speed and positioning to disrupt the offensive rhythm.

Skating ability has been a primary consideration in G.M. Doug Risebrough's assembling of the third-year expansion team, whose $21 million payroll is the NHL's lowest. Forwards Bill Muckalt, Cliff Ronning and Sergei Zholtok, all acquired over the past two off-seasons, are able skaters and responsible two-way players. They have jelled with Minnesota's young core under the tutelage of Lemaire, the league's best X's and O's coach. "Jacques made me into a checker when six years ago I couldn't check my coat," says journeyman center Wes Walz. "He can teach you so much about positioning."

Says Red Wings associate coach Barry Smith, "They play so well collectively. They don't go outside the system."

That success notwithstanding, Lemaire has been almost fatalistic in stressing the inevitability of a downturn—"Who knows where we'll end up, maybe in a ditch?" he mused after last Thursday's 2-1 overtime win over the Sharks—the better to tamp mounting expectations for an inexperienced team with seven regulars 25 or younger. "When you have young guys who have spent four or five years with an organization, you get a solid foundation," he says. "Then, when you start to win, you'll be there every year. We're still missing that."

The Bruins' Blueliners
Offense from The Defense

Despite 11 stitches in his chin, Boston defenseman Bryan Berard stood in the home dressing room last Saturday night with a grin on his face. A nasty first-period high-stick couldn't bring down Berard, whose wrister from the left point struck the stick of New York winger Pavel Bure, squirted through traffic and went into the net with 38.8 seconds remaining to give the Bruins a 3-2 win.

Berard, who had three goals and five points through Sunday, is the centerpiece of the club's blue line makeover. After losing 41-goal winger Bill Guerin to free agency last summer, Boston attempted to fill the scoring void by getting its defensemen, who combined for just 18 of the team's 236 goals last season, to increase their production. Spots belonging to Kyle McLaren (who is sitting out because of a contract disagreement) and Jamie Rivers (released) went to Berard, a free-agent signee, and 22-year-old Jonathan Girard, promoted from the AHL. Second-year defenseman Nick Boynton has been given additional ice time, and all three have been urged to look for opportunities to join the rush as well as pepper the net with pucks.

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