Season’s greetings everyone. I hope that you’re Christmas holiday, whether you observe it or not was an opportunity to spend some time with your family. For young kids, its usually all about the gifts. The anxious expectation of running to the family living room to see a tree stocked full of presents that taunt for you to open them. I have to admit, I was the kind of kid that was pretty good at guessing what was inside each present before I even opened it. Size, shape, and weight were all factors I considered as I cross-referenced that information with my own list in my mind of what I asked for Christmas. I wasn’t right all of the time, there were always the gifts that fooled me or were no where near my list that had me asking, “when did I ever say I wanted that?” No Christmas movie I’ve ever seen before or since summed up my feelings quite the way A Christmas Story did starring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie. As a kid I sort of resembled Ralphie minus the glasses, but his character’s active imagination is something I completely connected with. Admit it, you watch A Christmas Story a few times on TBS‘ 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon. Sure you know just about every line of the film but it still makes us laugh and for those of us who do not rush to the tree looking for gifts like so many kids do we do re-connect with those emotions. We may not all have been pining for a Red Rider BB gun, but we can probably name one gift that we obsessed over like Ralphie did. We didn’t always get that one gift we dreamed about but it didn’t ruin our lives. I know beggars can’t be choosers, and I must say I am extremely fortunate to be unable to ever remember a Christmas where I ended up truly disappointed. I must thank my parents for that and I know that there are lots of people out there that can’t say they never had a disappointing Christmas; yet to sound a little sappy if the true social part of Christmas is simply to bring families together for the celebration of giving (even if its simply their presence) then can we ever be totally disappointed? I am not afraid to admit that I’m 33 years old and I still look forward to this time of year; as a person who lives a fair distance from most of his family its time to catch up and spend valuable moments with family and friends I do not get to see nearly enough. The Christmas holiday provides me with this rare window of opportunity to go back home in the State of Hockey and I take full advantage of it. For NHL’ers its a rare season-wide respite where they get to celebrate the holidays with their family and since 1972, the NHL has not had games on Christmas or Christmas Eve out of respect for the players who spend so much the year away from their families.
The reason I chose the Avalanche / Wild picture was because this was a moment where you saw a dramatic change of direction for an NHL team. At the time, with the Avalanche embarrassing the Wild on at Pepsi Center, their top sniper Chris Stewart decided to drop the gloves with Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak was completely over matched in the fight, but he’d inadvertently help tank the Avalanche’s season when Stewart broke his hand in the scrap. Stewart was lost for a few weeks and the Avalanche went into a tail slide. Sort of like when Ralphie fought the local bully Scut Farkas. Unlike Ralphie who enjoyed the praise of his peers the fight did not really help the Wild at all, but ultimately it sent Colorado to the bottom of the Western Conference. Perhaps out of disappointment or perhaps a little desperation the Avalanche made a deal that sent Stewart and promising defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis for former 1st Overall pick Erik Johnson and Jay McClement. If Stewart keeps his wits about himself and doesn’t make the selfish decision to fight perhaps he’s still playing for the Avalanche. So what gifts will the Wild find in its stocking after the short Christmas hiatus. Will it be a return to its November self or will it find coal or plaid socks instead?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota looked a little sluggish to start the game, but they would get lucky as Shane O’Brien would help the Wild’s cause by taking a foolish interference penalty when he got in the way of a forechecking Cal Clutterbuck. On the power play the Wild were pretty disorganized, winning the faceoffs but then being unable to complete more than a single pass before the aggressive Avalanche penalty kill was able to deflect the puck away and clear the zone forcing Minnesota to reset. It took nearly a minute and a half before the Wild were finally able to even generate a scoring chance on the power play as Mikko Koivu raced in off the rush and made a perfect backhand saucer pass to Dany Heatley who fanned on the shot. The power play was emblematic of the last few games where the man advantage was a practice in futility. A few minutes later, the power play would have more time to practice as the Avalanche’s toothless enforcer Cody McLeod erased Jared Spurgeon with a vicious hit from behind along the boards behind the Wild goal. McLeod immediately found himself being tangled up with Marco Scandella, while Spurgeon laid on the ice in considerable pain. As Wild Head Athletic Trainer Don Fuller went out to check on Spurgeon it was obvious this could be a pretty significant injury. Fuller and another member of the training staff took an arm as Spurgeon was on just one skate as he left the ice putting no weight on his left leg at all. Spurgeon was immediately placed on a stretcher where you could see the nervous anxiety on his face, not good. Meanwhile the officials did not hesitate at all to give McLeod a 5:00 boarding major plus a game misconduct. McLeod’s ejection did little to help the Wild as they were now without one of their top defenseman; and it was clear they missed him quite a bit on the power play as Minnesota bungled its way through the first few minutes of the 5:00 power play. Making matters worse, the Wild almost gave up a shorthanded goal as Kevin Porter stole a lazy pass from Marco Scandella near his blueline and raced in on a break away only to be bailed out by Niklas Backstrom. The Wild were not able to really get set up in the Avalanche zone until the final minute of the man advantage. Luckily for Minnesota, they’d strike as Dany Heatley delivered a nice cross-ice pass to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who one-timed a shot that just snuck underneath the arm of Semyon Varlamov to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. Minnesota had nearly another minute of power play time to work with but was unable to create much of anything. The Avalanche was very efficient in the offensive zone, with quick passes and good puck movement but Backstrom was seeing the puck well. The Wild had a few more near-miss chances as Kyle Brodziak found himself int he slot and he backhanded a shot square off the crossbar and out. Minnesota would have another power play late in the period as Jan Hejda was tagged for holding but the Wild’s power play was again pretty discombobulated. The Wild were dumping the puck deep into Colorado’s zone but were unable to get to the puck fast enough in order to set up the power play and the result were weak giveaways. Minnesota would end the period holding a 1-0 lead, and an 8-7 shot advantage. It wasn’t a great period since the Wild had so much of it on the man-advantage but so far they were hustling just enough and their hard work was creating opportunities.
2nd Period Thoughts: The period had a much different feel to it. As if the Wild slowed down a bit. The Avalanche were winning the races to the loose pucks and the ice would tilt in favor of Colorado. A lazy hooking penalty by Nick Schultz gave Colorado a power play and it was obvious to see why the Avalanche are so lethal on the man advantage. Their puck movement is absolutely superb, quick and without hesitation as they move the puck both with accuracy and purpose. In addition all 5 of the Avalanche’s skaters are moving all over the place making it very difficult for the Wild to position themselves in a way that will deny Colorado of its options to either shoot or pass the puck. As Minnesota’s penalty killers started to become a bit more mesmerized and focused on the movement of the puck you could see the backside holes beginning to form and that is precisely where the Avalanche chose to strike; as Matt Duchene wound up and hammered a slap pass wide of the goal to a waiting Ryan O’Reilly who just redirected it just beyond the outstretched leg pad of Backstrom to tie the game. The goal really took the crowd out of the game. Minnesota would answer back just 2 minutes later as Dany Heatley chased a puck deep into the Avalanche zone, forcing a turnover that was swept up by a supporting Mikko Koivu who quickly found a crashing Cal Clutterbuck who snapped home a one-timer by Varlamov to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. At this point, you had to feel perhaps this was a game where Minnesota was going to stop its slide as the goal was the result of hustle and its top scorers were finding their way onto the score sheet. But it wasn’t meant to be. A bit later in the period, some lethargic play by Mike Lundin who didn’t really move his feet as he turned and reached with his stick allowed Colorado to move the puck deep into the Wild zone. Even as Marco Scandella fell to the ice battling for a puck behind the goal, Lundin moved for the puck but instead of taking it out of danger he attempted to make a fancy move a long the goal and the puck was knocked away from him by David Van Der Gulik and he pushed the puck out front where it was jammed in by an alert Gabriel Landeskog to tie the game at 2-2. It was simply an incredibly lazy shift by Lundin to not pounce on the puck when he had the chance (even before Scandella fell down) and then not sweeping it out of danger compounded the original mistake. The goal again sapped all the momentum created from Clutterbuck’s goal. It was an ugly period, where Minnesota was out worked and out hustled and it did not shock anyone to see that the Wild were out shot 12-5. Going into the 3rd tied was not a good omen for a team that seemed a bit disconnected at times.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period was more or less a train wreck. Despite some good flashes of individual effort by Nick Johnson, Mikko Koivu and especially Cal Clutterbuck the period personified precisely why the team had dropped its previous 6 games. Pathetic defensive play, most notably veterans Nick Schultz who I think has lost a step and seems to be far weaker than in previous seasons and the reliably awful Marek Zidlicky really were at their finest (meaning worst) form. The Avalanche would take the lead after some awful play in its own end where failed clearing attempts were rampant and an inability to out work Colorado for the puck came back to haunt them as Ryan O’Reilly out battled Schultz for the puck and dished a pass to a crashing Jan Hejda who was left unaccounted for as he fired home an easy goal to give the visitors a 3-2 lead. The goal scored just past the mid-way portion of the 3rd was a back breaker and you could sense the fans pondering whether they should head for their cars. Minnesota had its chance to get the go ahead goal of its own when Matt Hunwick was sent to the box for hooking. However, you could hardly tell it was a Minnesota power play as the Avalanche embarrassed the Wild’s power play by preventing it from even getting set up to register a shot on goal and on one occasion there were 5 Wild defenders retreating to their own end and still T.J. Galiardi would get off a shot that had to be steered aside by Backstrom. Galiardi’s hustle would be repaid later in the 3rd, as he out legged Nick Schultz who was leaning and looking a full step too slow all night long as he fired a shot that eluded a well screened Niklas Backstrom who had Gabriel Landeskog in his face because veteran Marek Zidlicky lacked the intestinal fortitude to knock down an 18-year old kid screening his goalie. After Galiardi’s goal, the Wild would take two costly penalties from Brodziak and Cullen respectively which more or less conspired to deprive the Wild of the time necessary for a comeback. It was fitting that even after the Wild pulled Niklas Backstrom for an extra attacker they were unable to put a shot on goal as the Avalanche again out hustled Minnesota as they withered and died in pathetic fashion, 4-2.
Normally I am not so terse, but considering the Wild had a break and was playing in front of a full crowd at home perhaps I expected more. This was another absentee effort; and this time they did not have the excuse that they were without team captain Mikko Koivu. Koivu was there and he didn’t play too bad. Defensively, the Wild were a mess. Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky and Mike Lundin were the Wild’s worst defenders but Marco Scandella had his gaffes as well. Zidlicky and Schultz are particularly frustrating considering the fact they have the most experience by far of the Wild’s defense, but they were big time liabilities on the ice. When you consider the fact that Zidlicky ($4 million per season) and Schultz ($3.5 million per season) make up well over half of the payroll of the entire blueline it is embarrassing that they can be so terrible night in and out. They are not physical, they are slow, indecisive and contribute little at either end of the ice. Zidlicky especially, was supposed to be the team’s offense from the blueline but still has not registered a single goal on the season as he has just 6 helpers in 23 games.
The team missed the physicality that Clayton Stoner provides on the blueline, and I’d be happy to see both Schultz and Zidlicky sit for a few games. Unfortunately, the Wild likely lost Jared Spurgeon for a while after the hit he took from Cody McLeod. You would think that McLeod’s history and the fact Spurgeon was injured in the hit would make it a slam dunk for a suspension but its tough to tell these days. The last two times Wild players got lit up in dangerous hits, NHL safety czar Brendan Shanahan did nothing at all. I think its obvious he should get a few games. One person who was pretty worked up was KFAN’s Bob Kurtz who suggested the league put repeat offenders like McLeod on suspension for 20 games or more to get the message across. Perhaps he’s on to something. Check out the hit for yourself.
Offensively, where has Matt Cullen gone? Cullen started the season as the surprise go-to leader for clutch goals, but he has disappeared and his game has not only been erratic but undisciplined at times. The Wild got some contributions from its top lines but nothing from any of the other lines and this team simply does not get enough production from that top unit to make secondary contributions unnecessary. Simply put this team needs to find itself, and in a hurry. On Wednesday the team travels to Nashville. The Predators always work hard, and if Minnesota puts out anything less than 100% they will be hearing Tim McGraw‘s “I like it I love it, I want some more of it” a lot! I hate that song, and the Wild should not need to hear it a ton on Wednesday to learn that lesson. Wake up Wild!
~ The Wild roster this late afternoon was the following: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Warren Peters, Jarod Palmer, Brad Staubitz, Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies, Darroll Powe, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky, Mike Lundin, Justin Falk, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon. Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom. Greg Zanon and Clayton Stoner were the ‘healthy’ scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Gabriel Landeskog, 2nd Star Cal Clutterbuck, 3rd Star Ryan O’Reilly
~ Attendance was 19,290 at Xcel Energy Center.
Under-20 World Junior Championships Update:
Canada 8, Finland 1 ~ It was not a good day for top Wild prospect Mikael Granlund who finished an ugly -5 in an 8-1 thrashing at the hands of tournament host Canada. While some may say that is to be expected, Granlund is considered by many to be the best player playing outside of the NHL right now and this is not the sort of World Junior Championships debut he probably had in mind. Granlund did show of his skill and perhaps experience playing against men in his native-Finland as he went 7-for-12 (58.3%) on his draws.
Sweden 9, Latvia 4 ~ It was a strange game for a fairly talented Swedish squad as they rolled to a 9-4 win but not in the way they expected to do so. Wild prospect goaltender Johan Gustafsson had a very rough start, giving up 2 goals on the first two shots he faced. Gustafsson gave up 4 goals and had just made 9 saves in the victory, for an atrocious .692% save percentage. Minnesota had a better showing from Sweden’s team captain and Wild prospect forward Johan Larsson who had an assist and finished the game with an even rating. Meanwhile, last summer’s top pick defenseman Jonas Brodin had 2 assists but was tossed from the game early in the 3rd period for checking from behind so he had 12 penalty minutes for his effort.
USA 11, Denmark 3 ~ The games played today already featured a number of one-sided blowouts, but Team USA decided to make a statement of its own that its going to be a force to be reckoned with after obliterating Denmark 11-3. It was another fantastic game for Wild prospects as Charlie Coyle led Team USA with a hat trick (who was also voted the team’s best player by the media), and team captain Jason Zucker had a goal and 2 assists. Minnesota was also well represented as Golden Gophers (both Florida prospects) Nick Bjugstad had a goal while Eden Prairie’s Kyle Rau had two goals of his own. Former Duluth East stand out and current North Dakota blueliner Derek Forbort had two helpers. Minnesota-born defenseman (son of former North Stars defenseman Mark Tinordi) Jerred Tinordi scored a goal as well.