Wednesday October 17th, 2007

The NHL is, and always has been, a league of copycats.

When the Sabres cut a ruthless swath through the circuit in 2005-06, their core of small, speedy forwards became the model of hope for the downtrodden. After the Ducks captured the Stanley Cup last season with their modernized take on the Broad Street Bullies, team toughness became the flavor of the summer.

In the quest to mimic success, some teams assume, and shake off, identities faster than Lon Chaney.

But not the Minnesota Wild, a team whose strict adherence to the disciplined rule of Jacques Lemaire is an approach you can set your watch by. Like a military man who maintains the buzz cut long after he's hung up the dress blues, the Wild eschew trends and maintain a cult-like commitment to team defense.

Every team talks that line of course (hello, Toronto), but none walk it as resolutely as the Wild. And it's clearly working. Going into last night's contest against the Kings, goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding had three shutouts between them and were averaging less than a goal-against per game, while leading Minnesota to a 5-0 mark. Even after a 4-3 shoot-out loss, the team's GAA was a miserly 1.17, best in the league by far.

Despite what those numbers may suggest, these Wild men aren't the trappists of old. Lemaire's no more ready to embrace the run-and-gun any more than he is the Ice Girls, but he's smart enough to take advantage of his team's strengths. And blessed with a roster loaded with high-end skaters adept at the transition game, Lemaire has crafted an approach that's far more dynamic, and more aggressive, than the Wild teams of old.

"They're one of the fastest teams in the league," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said after his team dropped a game to the Wild despite dominating the play for the better part of 50 minutes. "And they're very disciplined. It makes them incredibly tough to play against."

Grabbing 11 of 12 possible points has put the typically low-key Wild squarely in the national spotlight. Our own Power Rankings have them settled in the No. 2 spot, right behind the equally torrid Ottawa Senators.

But it isn't the Wild's record that sets them up as a contender in the West. It's that they've found a way to rack up the wins without playing their best hockey.

The truth is that their devotion to defense covers up a lot of blemishes. A team with just 14 goals through its first six games, one with just a single lit lamp to show for its first 22 power play opportunities, really has no right running up the best start in the NHL.

They're still brutal on faceoffs -- only Mikko Koivu has demonstrated himself to be reliable in the circle -- and, the hulking presence of Derek Boogaard notwithstanding, they aren't a particularly physical team.

But thanks to the genius of Lemaire -- a man Gretzky called one of the greatest ever to coach the game -- the Wild have found a way. In a league where the power play is supposed to be the great decider, Minnesota has succeeded by being the ultimate five-on-five squad. It has given up just two even-strength goals against through six games, while scoring 12 of its own.

And as bad as their power play has been, their superb penalty kill, led by Kim Johnsson, Nick Schultz and the turnaround player of the month, Martin Skoula, consistently posts its bail. Proof positive of Lemaire's growth, it's an aggressive system, with the forwards pushing hard on the opposing point men, taking away the ability of the opposition to set up at the blueline and allowing Minnesota's defense to collapse on the attacking forwards. It was one of the bright spots in Tuesday night's loss in L.A. -- gumming up a pair of two-man advantages for the Kings and guiding the Wild through an overtime period that saw them short for four minutes.

Despite the flaws, there's a lot to like about this team, and reason to believe that it has the potential to build on last season's franchise-record 104 points. The goal-scoring and the power play seem likely to find a groove sooner rather than later. The offense boasts a true game-breaker in Marian Gaborik, veteran presence in Pavol Demitra, Brian Rolston and Mark Parrish, and a potential breakout star in Koivu, whose consistency has made him Lemaire's go-to guy.

Games like Tuesday night's loss will happen. But even on an uncharacteristically loose night, the Wild still managed to steal a point. That's what good teams do. They find a way. And even with the 82-0 dream gone, the Wild look like a very, very good team.

Maybe even one worth copying.

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