Murphy’s law is an old addage that states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is something the Minnesota Wild appear to becoming more and more familiar with. ‘Snakebitten’, ‘in a rut’, or more simply ‘unlucky’ are all euphemisms to describe teams or players that can’t seem to get away from unfortunate circumstances. As the Wild stumble through the pre-season, going 0-3-2 at this point its hard to ignore some of the other losses the team has felt during that span. Losing backup goaltender and prime tradeable asset in Josh Harding to a season-ending knee injury certainly stings. His injury could mean the Wild have to lose what’s left of its cap space unless they really believe Anton Khudobin is the player fit to be Niklas Backstrom‘s backup. Harding’s loss alone has some dire consequences if Backstrom were to (knock on wood) be saddled with an injury of his own, and in itself is a significant hit to the Wild’s chances for the 2010-11 season. But that is not the only loss the Wild have faced this pre-season. Tonight, the Wild will be without two of its defenseman in Cam Barker (hip flexor) and Marek Zidlicky (Charley Horse) as well as its top goal scorer from last season in Guillaume Latendresse who is also out with a hip flexor issue. If any of these injuries continue for the Wild, it could find itself with another slow start like the one that plagued it last season when the team went 3-8 through its first 11 games. That may sound like something of an alarmist but the Wild’s starters were not able to overcome the Columbus Blue Jackets’ ‘B-squad’ in their last game against each other. So without these key components, what makes you think they’ll fare any better?
St. Paul could also find itself to be a loser if the team’s fortunes turn sour. It was no big secret by the 409-consecutive sellout streak is a thing of the past now, and while some may say that takes the pressure off the Wild I think anyone could learn to handle the pressure of having 409-consecutive sellouts, afterall that’s normally what you want from a business perspective. Lastly there is the news that current Wild majority owner Craig Leipold has lost $10 million dollars since he’s owned the team. That would include managing to lose money despite selling out all of the games the last two years? If you can’t turn a profit and your filling most or all of the seats, how could any owner keep an NHL team afloat?
The Wild’s struggles with adversity aside, this game has some major ramifications for many of the team’s younger players hoping to earn a spot with the big club. Jobs and possibly NHL careers are on the line. For youngsters like Justin Falk, Marco Scandella and American Hockey League journeyman Drew Bagnall the battle for the last spot on the Wild’s blueline is at stake. With Zidlicky and Barker out, these players will all get a quality opportunity to prove themselves this evening. So will Minnesota avoid going winless in pre-season play or will it have a small positive note before it heads off to Finland for its first two games of the 2010-11 regular season?
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Minnesota was on its heels right from the start of the game as the Blue Jackets appeared to have the extra gear whenever there was a race for the loose puck. The Wild looked to be chasing and out of sync as the Blue Jackets looked like a team ready to start the regular season. A lazy high sticking penalty by Brent Burns would prove to be costly. On the power play the Blue Jackets moved the puck around the perimeter with nice, crisp passes while the Wild penalty kill was scrambling to deny shooting lanes but it wasn’t enough as Fedor Tyutin would rifle a heavy wrist shot that Minnesota hopeful Drew Bagnall decided wasn’t worth losing teeth for and he’d move his head out of the way and it beat Niklas Backstrom high glove side. 1-0 Columbus. Just a few minutes later, some more sloppy play in the Wild’s zone as the Blue Jackets were quick to apply pressure to Minnesota’s young defenseman and former Oiler captain Ethan Moreau found some space and he unleashed a wrist shot that eluded Backstrom to put Columbus up 2-0. The Wild attempted to answer back with its “Grind” line of Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck and John Madden and with some good work down low along the boards, Madden would dish a puck back to Nystrom who tried to beat Steve Mason with a quick wrap around but the Blue Jackets goaltender would hold the left post well and thwart the opportunity. Minnesota tried to continue to counter attack, pressing the attack with some speed but Columbus did a nice job of neutralizing the pressure by being physical with the onrushing Wild forwards. The Wild was taking every opportunity to go on the rush, and even the top line of Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen which is not known for showing a whole lot of finesse created a nice scoring chance on the fly as Bruno found Koivu with a great cross-ice pass and he ripped a wrist shot that missed wide right by about a foot. Columbus would re-assert itself as it seemed to throw out its top line whenever the Wild had young or inexperienced defenseman on the ice and this was fairly effective at creating sustained offensive pressure. Minnesota would earn its first power play of the game when Columbus defenseman Grant Clitsome cross-checked Martin Havlat to the ice. On the man-advantage, a group that had gone just 1-for-24 thus far this pre-season did not get off to a good start as the Blue Jackets had the first quality scoring chance as Matt MacKenzie would race into the Wild zone and he’d hammer a heavy snap shot that Backstrom had to fight off. The lone quality scoring chance the Wild’s power play unit would create came off a sharp angled shot taken from the left faceoff circle that Mason stopped but lost track of the rebound but he manged to get his leg pads down to deny Kyle Brodziak‘s attempts to stuff the puck in behind him. Disappointing, but you wouldn’t know it by the near silence from the far less than a sellout crowd at Xcel Energy Center as Minnesota trailed 2-0 going into the 2nd period.
After registering a mere 4 shots on goal, Minnesota looked a little angry on the power play. With the top line showing some solid chemistry as they moved the puck effectively as they set up Antti Miettinen for a wicked one-timer that just missed wide. The Wild would gather up the loose puck and continue with quick, sharp passes before moving it out to the point where Miettinen stepped into another slapper that scorched past Mason to cut the Columbus lead in half, 2-1. Columbus did its best to take advantage of the goal scoring hangover the Wild are occasionally guilty of and they nearly managed to cash in as Kristian Huselius nearly found himself all alone on Niklas Backstrom before a flailing play by Burns kept him from unloading a quality shot on goal. The Wild would generate a nice scoring chance off a steal in the neutral zone by Matt Cullen, who dished it to Havlat who hammered a shot that just trickled wide through the pads of Mason. Just moments after this quality scoring chance for the Wild, the Blue Jackets would light the lamp again thanks to some scrambling defensive play in its own zone and Sami Pahlsson would gather up a loose puck about 15-20 feet from the top of the crease and spin and let loose with a shot that beat a sprawling Niklas Backstrom to put Columbus up 3-1. A few minutes after that, a nice turnover by Jakub Voracek would have him speed around a nearly stationary Greg Zanon before beating Backstrom with a sick backhander that went top shelf to lift the Blue Jackets to a commanding 4-1 lead. At this point the Wild looked a bit punch drunk, as the team had stopped moving its feet and the Minnesota zone resembled a shooting gallery as the Blue Jackets were blasting shot after shot at Backstrom. The Blue Jackets would try to add to their lead as their 3rd line would storm the Wild crease as Backstrom was under siege but an apparent goal was waived off as the former Oiler captain Ethan Moreau kicked it into the Minnesota goal. Drew Bagnall and Columbus’ Derek Dorsett would get into a bit of a frakas after this ‘no goal’ but the gloves would stay on and both would earn roughing minors. Minnesota would earn another power play when Matt Cullen was cross-checked down near the Blue Jackets’ crease and he would make them pay moments later on a terrific set up by Andrew Brunette back to Cullen who was sneaking down low for an easy tap in goal cutting the Columbus lead to two, 4-2. The power play as well as the last four minutes of the second period were once again unimpressive. What truly makes this unacceptable, is that the Wild had three power plays in the last seven or so minutes of the period. If you have that many consecutive power plays, you absolutely must score. To not do so, demonstrates that lack of scoring will once again be an issue for Minnesota. The fans know this, and they let the Wild players know so, by a round of boo’s at the sound of the horn marking the end of the period.
Starting the third period on a power play, you would think that there would be a greater sense of urgency. However, the only person who really looked like they wanted to score in that opening minuate of the period was Cullen. But then it doesn’t help that in the final moments of said power play, that Koivu takes a penalty for tripping. What is obvious, is that Columbus plays like they greatly disliked missing the playoffs last season. It’s too bad that the same cannot be said for the Wild. I’m not sure if Columbus has all the tools they need for a playoff berth, but at least they look like they’re going to attempt it this season. In fact, in the third period if you didn’t know what the score was, you’d almost think that it was Columbus that was fighting to score some quick goals to tie up the game. You don’t see the legs motoring hard to get to the loose pucks, you don’t see the agressive and accurate passes by Minnesota players. I honestly don’t know if the planned bonding time in Finland is going to help the team. Last I looked, that was the point of training camp, to get to know your team. I’m afraid that the trip will do more harm than good, much like last season’s first road trip did more harm than good. Time will only tell.
Todd Richards was blunt and to the point after the game when he made this “Clearly our start was terrible, unacceptible, we weren’t engaged and we get behind the 8-ball but were chasing the rest of the game.” He went on to say that that the team needs to “turn the switch” now as opposed to later, mentioning that he felt some of the players seem to be “waiting” and that he felt that to wait was too late. Richards stated that individuals with the lone given exception of Casey Wellman (whom he described as playing hungry out on the ice all of the time) that the rest of the team needs to step up their game, move with greater intensity and play with a greater amount of urgency. When asked by a reporter what can he do to “jolt these guys out of this” he insisted that other than a firery pep talk every now and then, the motivation to ‘turn the switch’ has to come from the players. As a coach I agree with that and can totally relate to how you feel, especially as the losses accumulate. Changing subjects, Richards noted the time that will be taken to prepare for not only the Carolina Hurricanes to start its regular season, but also an exhibition game against Tampere Ilves of the Finnish Elite League.
When asked what he knows about the Finnish team he’s facing, Richards responded matter of factly, “Well I know they’re from Finland” to chuckles from the reporters in attendance. I personally don’t mind too much about whatever result they have against Tampere Ilves, but I think it could help the team’s confidence immensely if it were to earn a victory against them. Clearly Richards is not too happy with how the pre-season has gone thus far, and you can sense he’s worried about what he can expect when they have their first regular season game on Oct. 7th. There is no bomb raid siren going off just yet, but Richards’ is right, this team needs to turn whatever switch is necessary now. Not 10-12 games into the season because we all saw how well that turned out last season.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, Chuck Kobasew, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Casey Wellman, John Madden, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Drew Bagnall, Greg Zanon, Brent Burns, Justin Falk, Nick Schultz, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Anton Khudobin backed up Niklas Backstrom. Matt Kassian was the lone healthy scratch, Guillaume Latendresse, Marek Zidlicky and Cam Barker are all out nursing injuries.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were as selected by Doug Johnson of Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Sami Pahlsson, 2nd Star Ethan Moreau, 3rd Star Andrew Brunette
~ Announced attendance tonight was 15,554 which ironically is the about the same as the old Met Center’s capasity. No offense to those who count those numbers, but it seemed high by what I could see on TV.
~ Todd Richards announced that the team had assigned defenseman Marco Scandella to the Houston Aeros.