As the NFL Playoffs begin, for the fans of Minnesota they find themselves out in the cold and in the land of uncertainty. Brett Favre is effectively finished and I think even Minnesota fans would be shocked if he returned for another season with the Vikings let alone anyone else in the NFL. Now for the uncertainty, first is at quarterback where many doubt Tavaris Jackson, the man once thought to be the future starting QB for the Vikings and he is a free agent this upcoming offseason. So who will be the Vikings quarterback? Joe Webb, the fantastic athlete from the University of Alabama-Birmingham who dazzled with his running ability and surprised many with his throwing skill. However, is he really the kind of quarterback that new head coach Leslie Frazier wants to start next season with or should the Vikings be looking at drafting a quarterback in the 1st round? However the biggest uncertainty surrounds whether the Vikings will be playing after next season and I’m not talking about their road schedule. The Vikings have just one more year on their lease at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, and for over a decade have been pining for a new stadium where they have insisted is necessary in order to make money. State and County lawmakers have hemmed and hawed and still no resolution is in sight. In the meantime the Metropolitan Sports Commission is going ahead with the plan to fix the Metrodome’s deflated roof, but could next year be the last year for the Vikings in Minnesota. The NFL has stated several times it wants a team in Los Angeles, and while I’ve heard Vikings fans say “it will never happen” all I’d ask them to take a look at is the Wild’s opponent today, the Dallas Stars.
Back in the early 1990′s many were indignant about the possibility of the Minnesota North Stars leaving but in 1993 it happened. Then North Stars owner Norm Green became an instant pariah and hasn’t returned to the State of Hockey since. Any professional sports team can move and while I am not saying that fans must always lobby for wealthy owners to get whatever they want, they should at least understand that these people are in business to make money and they’ll do whatever they can to keep making money even if it means ripping out the hearts of long-time fans in the process. Will Zygi Wilf do that to Minnesota fans, I doubt its something he wants to do but if it protects his investment I think he’ll do whatever it takes even if it means becoming the Los Angeles Vikings. If NHL hockey can be ripped from us, football certainly can as well. The Wild are not in any kind of danger of that taking place but they too are battling a level of uncertainty as they are trying to ride a wave of success that it hasn’t had all season that has gotten it near the precipice of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. Will the Wild take another step forward or a step back after a great road trip?
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The Wild had a good shift from its energy line to start the game as Eric Nystrom carried the puck down low where he left it for John Madden who held onto the puck behind the Dallas goal for a few moments before trying to dish it into the slot where Nystrom fanned on the shot. The Stars were trying to counter attack but Minnesota was skating well and staying with Dallas’ speedy forwards early on. Dallas would race up the ice where they went on a 4-on-2 and it was Brad Richards threading a cross-ice pass to a crashing Trevor Daley for an easy tap in goal, giving the Stars a 1-0 lead. The Wild did not help their cause by taking an early penalty as On the penalty kill Minnesota would have an early scoring chance as Richards stumbled as he was handling the puck near the point and Nystrom took off for the Dallas end and he’d try to beat Andrew Raycroft with a backhander but he’d hold on for the save on the shorthanded bid. The Stars were still threatening as Richards stepped around a Wild defenseman for a chance that was directed away by the paddle of Jose Theodore. Minnesota would get the big penalty kill, limiting Dallas to just 2 shots on goal with the man advantage. The Stars were skating very well making it tough for the Wild to have time or space on the ice, as they were forced to settle for an unscreened shot from the high slot by Matt Cullen. Dallas was really flying, as they raced in and Steve Ott and Adam Burish had opportunities that forced two quick saves by Theodore. Moments later the Stars would take a point shot from Niklas Grossman and Adam Burish would charge the crease charging through Theodore to push the puck in the net that was immediately waived off. Burish would earn a goaltender interference penalty. The Wild would go on the power play and the Wild moved the puck quickly from the wall back out to the point where Pierre-Marc Bouchard stepped into a shot that hit the right post and out. Dallas was very aggressive on the penalty kill, not giving Wild an easy route to get set up on the power play and Minnesota was not able to create much offensive pressure on the man advantage. The Stars were also asserting themselves physically as Krys Barch was throwing his body around, but he’d be countered by a few hard hits by the Wild’s Brad Staubitz. Minnesota tried to counter attack against the aggressive approach of the Stars and they nearly cashed in as a quick shot by Cullen was nearly created a rebound that was almost tapped in by Patrick O’Sullivan. The Wild’s 2nd line would finally create some sustained offensive pressure that got the crowd cheering in appreciation as they made some nice little passes before Brent Burns stepped up and carried the puck down behind the Stars goal before turning and zipping a pass to Bouchard on the back door and his one timer struck the right post again. Minnesota was starting to adjust to the Stars speed and they were beginning to create more offensive chances as a long range wrist shot by O’Sullivan created a rebound that Cal Clutterbuck just failed to pounce on. Dallas was still threatening, as Trevor Daley was pinching with great frequency and he gunned a shot from the slot that was steered away by Theodore. Newest member of the Dallas Stars, Jamie Langenbrunner would rip a shot from the high slot that was knocked down by Theodore and the Wild would try to carry it out of harm’s way. The Stars would strike with just 48 seconds left as the game opened up a bit, and Jamie Benn took flight, stepping right around Cam Barker and beating Theodore top shelf to give Dallas a 2-0 lead. Minnesota would challenge in the closing seconds as Martin Havlat took a chance and put a wrist shot on goal that wasn’t contained as he followed up for the loose puck it would end up on the stick of Nystrom who tried to carry it out front but he’d be tied up before he could pull the trigger on a shot and Havlat tried to move in for a rebound but his shot went to the side of the goal and the Wild would trail by two going into the 2nd period.
The Wild were trying to get something positive going at the start of the 2nd period as Cal Clutterbuck tracked down a puck deep into the Stars zone before flinging a shot from beneath the goal line towards Raycroft but he was smart to hold the post and make the save. Minnesota was moving well, and chipping the puck deep and then cycling but while it was good for time of possession it wasn’t leading to many shots on goal. The Stars were going to try to go on the attack themselves and their superior speed allowed them to find a little space and Jamie Benn had an open lane through the slot where he steamed a wrist shot that was held onto by Theodore. Minnesota was starting to ramp up its physical game as Nystrom rocked Grossman with a huge hit that earned a few cheers from the hometown crowd. The Wild were trying to create some speed through the neutral zone and Bouchard worked a give and go with Havlat as the Czech forward dished it back to Bouchard who zoomed around from behind the Dallas goal before feeding a pass back Marco Scandella that did not have a lot of velocity on it. The puck just wasn’t settling for the Wild when they seemed to find time and space as the team continued to work in the Stars’ zone, but Dallas was quick to counter with offensive chances of their own. Minnesota finally got a little space on an area pass to Clutterbuck who dropped it back to O’Sullivan who ripped a shot into the crest of Raycroft for an easy save as O’Sullivan banged his elbow against the glass in frustration. The Wild were starting to draw some turnovers and Mikko Koivu managed to steal a puck in the Stars’ zone where he tried to set up Chuck Kobasew but he was tied up before he could pull the trigger but Minnesota would draw a tripping penalty on Daley. The Stars penalty kill played very well positionally not giving Minnesota much to look at and when they tried to move near the goal and work a quick bang-bang play Dallas would intercept and clear the zone. Minnesota was far too static on the power play as the Stars were content to stay in a tight box near their crease not giving the Wild anything up the middle of the ice. Dallas would try to answer back with some pressure of its own and Richards would steal a puck in the Wild zone where he’d slide it over to Loui Eriksson who fired a shot that was stopped by Theodore. Minnesota would go on the penalty kill as Bouchard was tagged with a high sticking call. The Stars moved the puck very efficiently from out high to down to the half wall where they set up a one-timer for Jamie Langenbrunner that missed high over the goal when he had Theodore sprawling. Minnesota’s penalty kill could best be described as exhausted and scrambling and they would take another penalty after killing off Bouchard’s infraction. Clayton Stoner would go to the box for hooking and Minnesota would go shorthanded once again. The Stars were not moving the puck as efficiently as they had on the previous power play as Minnesota was providing a little more pressure on the puck carrier. Dallas would try to crowd the crease as James Neal was shut down by Theodore as he skated into the blue paint. Minnesota would get the big penalty kill and the Wild would try to re-group. The Stars nearly put the dagger into the game as Langenbrunner nearly had a chance to dangle it around a sprawling Theodore but the Wild’s defense came to his rescue and Greg Zanon was able to get the puck out of the zone. The Wild were trying to go on the attack but when players like Martin Havlat would take off they’d be closely shadowed by the Stars and they’d hold onto their 2-goal lead going into the 3rd period.
The Stars still had that extra step in their skates that the Wild just could not match to start the 3rd period as Daley again joined the rush and he fired a snap shot that was steered aside by Theodore. Minnesota’s 2nd line tried to get their feet going and Pierre-Marc Bouchard cycled the puck to Kyle Brodziak who passed it back out to Nick Schultz who dished it over to Burns who gunned a shot on goal that was deflected into the netting by Brodziak. Clutterbuck was flying all over the ice trying to get things going with a few hits as he gave a little punishment to Jeff Woywitka and Marc Fistric. The Wild were working hard, the Stars were just a little faster. Minnesota was passing the puck well, with nice crisp passes even setting up some awesome chances as Havlat had a quick redirect in the slot that was turned away by Raycroft. Clutterbuck would again deliver a thundering hit to Stephan Robidas that had him getting up slowly and the crowd’s anxiety was building as Minnesota was ramping up the intensity. The Stars tried to go on the attack and Theodore would deliver an incredible save from his own goal as he lifted up his glove to stop Langenbrunner. The crowd would get on its feet to appreciate the hard work of the 2nd line as they battled ferociously along the boards setting up Marco Scandella who found a little space and he rifled a shot from the point that was kicked aside by Raycroft. The Stars would keep counter punching and James Neal would turn and fire a shot that trickled underneath the arm of Theodore an the puck would roll over the goal line before he could stop it and suddenly they were down 3-0. Dallas was doing a superb job of denying shooting lanes and getting sticks on Wild shots forcing them wide of the goal time after time. Minnesota kept taking their chances as a long range shot from the point for Burns and Clutterbuck chipped a rebound on goal that was just directed aside by Raycroft. Dallas would put the nail in the coffin after a small battle won along the boards in the Wild zone where Jamie Benn zipped a laser of a wrister by Theodore to give Dallas a 4-0 lead. The Wild would try for the pride goal to break the shut out, but the story remained the same even as they’d get a shot through that created a rebound they were unable to get sticks on those loose pucks. Minnesota was really turning the Dallas zone into a shooting gallery, peppering Raycroft with all kinds of shots, mostly from the perimeter as the final seconds evaporated from the clock as they fell 4-0.
Theodore made 24 saves in the loss. You couldn’t really blame Theodore for the outcome of the game. Without question Theodore would want those last two goals back, but he kept Minnesota in the game long enough to have had a chance. Defensively the Wild really did not play that bad. The Stars took full advantage of their chances and played far more of a finesse game than did any of the other teams in their 4 previous games. On the bright side, the Wild were again perfect on the penalty kill and while it may not have been pretty they forced the Stars to go 0-for-3.
Offensively the Stars did a terrific job at disrupting 2nd chance opportunities all game long. Minnesota very rarely had a clean look to shoot the puck and thus Dallas was able to put sticks on Wild shots and preventing multiple chances from ever even reaching Raycroft. Minnesota struggled against the more aggressive penalty kill, but they adjusted and at times were victims of their own patience. With a team playing so aggressive the Wild had to take one timers and if Bouchard gets either one or both of his two post-shots in the 1st period this game could’ve turned out very differently.
You certainly cannot criticize the effort the Wild put forth in this game. From start to finish, the Wild battled all game long. They hit, they shot, they persisted and you have to admire the effort they had considering coming off a great road trip. Its too bad this effort wasn’t rewarded, but give the Stars credit they kept the pace of the game up-tempo and not allowing Minnesota to slow it down and playing to its strengths. One player who personified this tireless effort was Cal Clutterbuck who registered 9 hits on the evening. The Wild have another tough one on Tuesday when they go to Nashville but the effort gives fans a lot to be happy about.
~ The Wild roster this afternoon is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Chuck Kobasew, John Madden, Kyle Brodziak, Brad Staubitz, Patrick O’Sullivan, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Martin Havlat, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker and Brent Burns. Anton Khudobin backed up Jose Theodore. Jared Spurgeon was the lone healthy scratch. Antti Miettinen is out of the lineup with the flu, while Marek Zidlicky is struggling with an upper body injury. Niklas Backstrom will be going to Vail, Colorado to see a hip specialist on what is believed to be a groin injury and Guillaume Latendresse is still rehabbing from November surgery.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Trevor Daley, 2nd Star Jamie Benn, 3rd Star Cal Clutterbuck
~ Attendance this afternoon was 18,082 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The Houston Aeros avenged a 4-0 loss the previous night against in-state rival San Antonio Rampage as they had a solid effort beating the Rampage 3-1 this afternoon. The Rampage got off to a 1-0 lead on a goal from Ryan Hollweg, but the Aeros answered quickly as Jed Ortmeyer battled along the wall to push it back out to the point where Kris Friedheim blasted a shot on by Al Montoya to tie the game at 1-1. After a scoreless 2nd period where both teams traded a few power plays that amounted to nothing the Aeros would get the go ahead goal on a pretty play by Chad Rau who fired a shot that was knocked down by Montoya and Jean-Michel Daoust was there to bury the rebound. Colton Gillies would seal the victory with an empty netter as the Aeros take away a 3-1 victory. Ortmeyer continues to be productive for Houston, tallying 2 assists and Matthew Hackett had another terrific start making 28 saves in the victory.
WCHA Men’s Hockey Rundown:
Robert Morris vs. North Dakota (North Dakota sweeps series 2-0) – Game 1 of the series was an extremely one sided affair as the Colonials looked totally overwhelmed against the Fighting Sioux in their first ever meeting between the two teams. The superior speed, skill and size of the Sioux made Robert Morris play with hesitation and that spelled disaster as they were crushed 8-0 in front of a packed crowd at Ralph Englestadt Arena in Grand Forks. New York Islanders’ 1st rounder Brock Nelson scored twice, while the Sioux’s top scorer Matt Frattin fired home his 19th goal of the season as North Dakota dominated game 1. Saturday’s match up was much different with the Fighting Sioux playing a bit more relaxed and Robert Morris playing more responsible defensively. Robert Morris was also standing up for themselves and not allowing the Fighting Sioux to push them around as both teams shared a number of coincidental roughing minors throughout the game. The game stayed knotted at 0-0 until just beyond 4 minutes left in the 3rd period when Frattin scored. The Colonials would pull Eric Levine for an extra attacker and Hastings, Minnesota native Danny Kristo would tally the empty net goal, but Robert Morris wasn’t about to be shutout twice. They poured it on in the final minute where they finally registered a goal when Nathan Longpre found the twine behind Aaron Dell as the Colonials fell 2-1.
American International vs. Minnesota State (Minnesota State sweeps series 2-0) – In game 1, the Mavericks stormed out of the gate by putting tons of pressure on American International and its goaltender Ben Meisner. The Mavericks would score on the power play, when Rylan Galiardi took a pass from Kurt Davis and he ripped a one-timer by Meisner. Little did anyone know that would be the only goal of the game as the Mavericks continued to dominate the play. Maverick’s goaltender Phil Cook was pretty bored forced to make just 17 saves all game long, while Meisner was busy stopping 50 out of the 51 he faced as Minnesota State prevailed 1-0. In game 2, the game had a more normal pace as American International was able to better handle the Maverick’s speed, but it was Minnesota State jumping out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Cloquet’s Justin Jokinen and Kurt Davis. American International would strike back as Blake Peake beat Austin Lee on a long range shot. Maverick’s 4th liner John McInnis would score his first goal of the season to give Minnesota State a 3-1 lead going into the 2nd period. The Yellow Jackets would cut the Maverick’s lead back to one, when Jeff Ceccacci‘s point shot found its way behind Lee to put the game within American International’s reach at 3-2 going into the 3rd. The comeback bid would come up short as the Mavericks added two more goals from Chase Grant and St. Paul Johnson’s Michael Dorr to give Minnesota State a 5-2 victoy and a series sweep.
Canisius vs. Wisconsin (Wisconsin sweeps series 2-0) – In the first game, the Badgers and Griffins had a quiet start as both teams were playing good disciplined hockey. Yet it was only a matter of time before the Badgers’ superior talent began to make a difference and Wisconsin would get on the scoreboard when its talented blueliner Justin Schultz cannonaded a shot from the point that beat Tony Capobianco to get the Kohl Center crowd on its feet. The Badgers would add two more goals in the 3rd, as Nashville prospect Craig Smith and Jordy Murray lit the lamp to seal a 3-0 victory. Scott Gudmanson earned the shutout after making just 18 saves. The second game would be a barn burner. It would start out quietly enough with a scoreless first period but then erupt into a thriller. The Badgers would jump out to a 3-0 lead early in the 2nd period on goals from Craig Johnson, Minnetonka’s Jake Gardiner, and Craig Smith. The Griffins would strike back, as Taylor Law and Scott Jenks would cut Wisconsin’s lead to one by the end of the 2nd period. Early in the 3rd period, Ryan Bohrer tied up the game at 3-3. The Badgers would strike back with a goal of their own when Keegan Meuer scored his first goal of the season but the Griffins responded with two goals of its own from Preston Shupe and Law to take the lead for the first time 5-4. With the Badgers trailing for the first time all game and the anxiety level so thick you could cut it with a knife Wisconsin began to pour it on and Dan Morrison quickly found himself under siege. Smith would tie the game at 5-5 with just under 4 minutes left in the game sending it to overtime. A costly interference penalty on Canisius’ Phil Rauch gave the Badgers the window of opportunity they were looking for when Schultz blasted home the game winner to earn the series sweep.
Bemidji State vs. Alabama-Huntsville (Series split at 1-1) – Just last year, the University of Alabama-Huntsville and Bemidji State were rivals in the defunct Men’s side of College Hockey America Conference. In the first game it was Bemidji State welcoming its former conference mate harshly as the Beavers responded to an early Chargers 1-0 lead with three unanswered goals of their own; two of which from Wild prospect camp tryout Matt Read as they cruised to a 3-1 victory. In the 2nd game, the Chargers would again jump out to an early lead on goals from Matt Baxter and Mac Roy. The Beavers would try to answer back with a goal from Emil Billberg, but the Chargers lit the lamp two more times on goals from Baxter and Keenan Desmet to take a commanding 4-1 lead. Bemidji State attempted to comeback with a goal from Aaron McLeod and a shorthanded tally from Read but couldn’t get the equalizer by the Chargers’ Clarke Saunders and the series would be split.
Michigan Tech vs. St. Cloud State (St. Cloud State sweeps series 2-0) – In the lone WCHA match up of the weekend, Michigan Tech and host St. Cloud State battled it out at the National Sport Center in St. Cloud. St. Cloud State would find the back of the net first on a goal from Jared Festler, and then added two more goals from Pittsburgh Penguins’ prospect Ben Hanowski and Cam Reid. The game would get very chippy after Reid’s goal as both teams exchanged a pair of roughing minors late in the 2nd period. St. Cloud was able to prevail, 3-0. In the second game, Michigan Tech would jump out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Deron Cousens, but it was all St. Cloud State after that as they blitzed Michigan Tech with 5 goals to cruise to a 5-1 rout and a series sweep.
U.S Under-18 National Development Program 0, Minnesota 9 – The Golden Gophers returned from the holidays with an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 National Development program Friday night at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers dominated the youthful American squad, scoring 3 goals in the first from Mike Hoeffel, Tom Serratore and Joe Miller. Minnesota continued to rack up the goals with four more in the second from Jay Bariball, Max Gardiner, Nick Bjugstad, and Jacob Cepis. The U.S. Under-18 squad would give up 2 more in the 3rd period from Cepis and Hoeffel as they were crushed 9-0. Bjugstad, the Florida Panthers’ prospect had a nice return from the World Junior Championships as he scored a goal and 3 assists.
U.S. Under-18 National Development Program 1, University of Minnesota-Duluth 4 – The next night, the U.S. Under-18 team traveled to Duluth to battle UMD and the result was only mildly better than it was against the Gophers. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals from White Bear Lake’s David Grun and former Duluth Marshall Hilltopper Jack Connolly. Team USA finally got on the score board when Rocco Grimaldi ripped a wrist shot by Kenny Reiter. The Bulldogs would score two more times as Keegan Flaherty and Jake Hendrickson scored in the 3rd period for UMD to cruise to a 4-1 victory.