In keeping with the North Stars theme that has permeated this week, I would like to take a moment to talk rivalries. Rivalries are a big part of what make sports great. The most intense of which can bring out both the best and worst of the respective clubs involved. Whether its Yankees vs. Red Sox (I hate them both), Bears vs. Packers, Michigan vs. Ohio State the list goes on and on but rivalries usually intensify the level of competition. Bragging rights are at stake, and the hostile / spirited crowd add to the drama of it all. There was no bigger rivalry for the Minnesota North Stars than the Chicago Blackhawks. These clubs hated each other, the fans of each team hated the other and each time the clubs met it was a war. No lives were lost, but blood was certainly spilt and often this bloodletting drew the cheers of the fans in the stands. For North Star fans, there was no more hated player than Chicago’s Al Secord. What is often lost in the hate for Secord is that he was actually a pretty damn good player. A power forward of his day who had the toughness and grit to punish opponents but also had good hands and could score goals. In 1982-83, Secord scored 54 goals, 86 points to go along with 180 penalty minutes. I realize the 1980′s were a time where 50-goal scorers were fairly common, but even amongst tough guys back then, to score 50 goals and also be a fighter was a rare combination. Rivalries often become personal between specific players and their disagreements only add to the spectacle. As if the Blackhawks / North Stars rivalry needed any help it got from the pre-existing rivalry between former London Knights’ star Dino Ciccarelli and the former Hamilton Fincups stud Al Secord. These two players hated one another and the bigger and more powerful Secord took every opportunity to try to run Ciccarelli which drew the ire of the North Stars’ collection of tough guys like Willi Plett, and Gordie Roberts. Ciccarelli, the diminutive, skilled and feisty forward was a natural agitator and he would get into it with the Blackhawks’ leading scorer Denis Savard. Savard was also quite fiery and the two would be a central part of this 1985 bench clearing brawl at Met Center.
Wouldn’t it be cool to see this rivalry rekindled by being placed in the same division as one another? That certainly was perhaps a part of the reason the NHL proposed re-alignment to bring back some of those regional rivalries that had been lost in the league’s current configuration. Unfortunately the NHLPA put the kibosh on that. However, the Minnesota Wild have been relishing the role of spoiler. The Wild defeated Florida and Los Angeles, two clubs fighting for their playoff lives in games where Minnesota was forced to pull off a comeback. Can the Wild do it again, against a Chicago Blackhawks club trying to keep pace in the Western Conference’s playoff picture or will Chicago steamroll the Wild the way they did against Nashville the night before?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Blackhawks were buzzing early as they tried to work the puck deep into the Wild zone as Nick Leddy skated it in and he tried to set up Patrick Sharp for a quick shot that was swept aside by Devin Setoguchi. After a few minutes, the Wild finally was able to work the puck into the Chicago zone as Cody Almond pushed the puck down along the boards and then won a battle and worked a quick shot on goal that was stopped by Ray Emery. As the Blackhawks’ counter attacked, Patrick Kane was skating up through center ice and he was slashed viciously by Dany Heatley to no call and Kane would return to his bench clearly in pain. This seemed to spark a little animosity between the two clubs as Justin Falk got into it with Jimmy Hayes and they’d drop the gloves. Neither player was that great of a fighter and Hayes through a few jabs as Falk responded with a few weak punches of his own before Hayes lost his balance and fell to the ice. It was more or less a draw. Minnesota would set up one of its better scoring chances early in the game as Marco Scandella blistered a shot that reached Emery that he was able to direct wide and the Blackhawks counter attacked and Viktor Stalberg got a step on the Wild defensemen and he nearly moved in for a breakaway before being knocked down by Nate Prosser that probably should’ve been a penalty. After the failed breakaway there was a little pushing and shoving and this would lead to more fireworks on the ensuing faceoff. The Blackhawks Brandon Bollig was chirping with Dany Heatley and there was some pushing and shoving between the two before face off. What happened next was no surprise as Clayton Stoner dropped the gloves with Bollig, and Stoner was catching Bollig early with some vicious punches that caused the Blackhawks tough guy to pull the Wild defenseman close to him so he could no longer throw the big bombs. The two would wrestle a bit before they finally separated again, and the big punches again ensued before Stoner finally lost his balance. A good fight, and I think a slight edge to Stoner. It was at this point the officials decided they needed to take control of the game so on the next faceoff they called Cody Almond for a very minor slash to the back of Patrick Kane’s leg. With Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo was giving his patented death stare at the officials after what was a pretty soft call. Yet the officials were not done yet as the chirping and pushing continued before the next faceoff between Andrew Shaw and Darroll Powe and the officials were going to cite them both for delay of game. Shaw was clearly unhappy with the call and he made a gesture at the official and they tossed him from the game. With the penalty boxes filled, the Blackhawks would still have a power play. Minnesota’s penalty killers did a fine job of keeping the Blackhawks power play to the perimeter and Josh Harding was more than able to make the stops and the Wild came away unscathed. Just after the penalty expired, Dany Heatley found Devin Setoguchi on a long pass that set him up behind the defense and he’d race in and make a quick forehand to backhand move where he tried to sneak it through 5-hole that Emery didn’t quite stop and Setoguchi shoveled home his own rebound to make it 1-0 Wild. The Blackhawks answered back just 34 seconds later as Nick Leddy again sped into the Wild zone, drawing the defense towards him before swining a pass back into the slot that caromed off the skate of Erik Christensen and right to the stick of Patrick Sharp who fired it by Harding, 1-1. The ornery play continued as David Bolland shoved Nate Prosser into Josh Harding for a penalty and his lack of discipline would prove costly for the Blackhawks. Minnesota moved the puck very effectively on the power play as Devin Setoguchi worked the puck to Mikko Koivu who threaded a quick pass to Heatley at the top of the crease for an easy tap in, 2-1 Wild. The Blackhawks tried to respond as Stalberg found a little space after pass by Kane and his shot missed wide of the mark. Chicago kept pressing for the equalizer and Marian Hossa got a quick backhander that was stopped by Harding and it was swept aside by Prosser. The game would kind of quiet down over the next few minutes until Darroll Powe was hit up high by Dylan Olsen and this did cause a little bit of a meeting between Olsen and Kyle Brodziak along the glass and Olsen would be sent to the sin bin giving Minnesota a power play. The Wild’s power play was calm and calculated and Mikko Koivu surprised just about everyone when he spun and fired a wrist shot from the wall that caught the crossbar behind Emery and out. Minnesota continued to move the puck well and a long shot caromed off a Blackhawks defender onto the stick of Christensen who directed a shot wide of the mark and the period would end with the Wild holding a 2-1 lead. Chicago was out shooting the Wild 10-9, but Minnesota was matching the Blackhawks in quality scoring chances. I like the hustle and feisty play I’m seeing thus far. Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi are playing very assertively tonight, a good sign.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild started the period with a power play and Minnesota was able to create a few nice opportunities early. The first came off a diagonal pass by Heatley that conneted with Setoguchi that he just directed wide of the goal. Minnesota came up empty but it was a good start for the Wild. The Blackhawks would get a power play of their own as Darroll Powe was tagged with a weak tripping penalty as Sean O’Donnell backed over his skate. Minnesota’s penalty kill was very sharp, anticipating the play well and disrupting passing and shooting lanes. The Blackhawks were not able to get much of anything going, even as Patrick Kane tried to carry the puck and start something the Wild shadowed him perfectly without over committing and Minnesota was able to get the big kill. Minnesota would go on the attack and it was Jason Zucker finding a little space and he’d rip a wrist shot that was fought off by Emery and Zucker followed up his shot where he stole the puck behind the goal and swung a pass into the slot that connected with no one and Brent Seabrook started the counter attack for the Blackhawks. Seabrook dished the puck up to Stalberg who flew by Christensen and then moved in on goal where he caught Harding at an awkward angle where he wrapped a backhander by him to tie the game at 2-2. Minnesota answered right back as Setoguchi passed the puck back to Koivu who then dished it back to Setoguchi who drove the net and his shot was stopped by Emery but Clayton Stoner moved in and threaded as shot through the legs of Leddy and into the back of the Chicago goal to put the Wild back ahead 3-2. The Wild wasn’t done there, as Minnesota would add another goal just over a minute later as a shot from the point by Tom Gilbert reached Emery and drew a rebound that was tapped out of mid air by Brodziak and in to give the State of Hockey a 4-2 lead. The Blackhawks would go back to work to where Nick Leddy again played a role in setting up the chance as he dished it to Hossa who passed it over to Patrick Kane who was all alone and he fired a shot that went right underneath the arm of Harding and between the post and in to make it 4-3. Off the ensuing faceoff, Cody Almond would drop the gloves with Andrew Shaw and the two would circle a bit in front of the team benches. Almond would take control early as he stunned Shaw with a few quick right handed hooks as Shaw tried to fire a few jabs. The Wild tough guy was having nothing of it and he started to throw punches to a variety of locations to the back of the head as well as number of body shots. Shaw tried to grapple a bit to neutralize Almond’s superior reach but Almond pushed away and kept firing before they both tired out which ended the fight. It was a clear cut victory for Almond. Perhaps a little inspired by the fight the Wild went back on the attack and their forechecking caused the Blackhawks some problems as a big check by Cal Clutterbuck caused a turnover that became a scoring chance for Setoguchi that Emery was just able to close down. Chicago tried to respond with a quality scoring chance of their own as Stalberg put on a dangling exhibition in the Wild zone before freeing himself up enough for a quick shot that was knocked down by Harding and frozen against the side of the goal for a whistle. A few minutes later it was Kane moving his way towards the Wild goal where he had Falk hacking away before he fired a shot that just missed wide. The Blackhawks started to dominate the play and even at even strength they looked like they were on the power play as the moved the puck with great efficiency setting up a number of dangerous shooting opportunities. Minnesota attempted to provide a little pressure of their own as faceoff in the Chicago zone was won and Devin Setoguchi spun and fired a shot on goal that was denied by Emery. The last few seconds would evaporate and the Wild carried a 4-3 lead going into the 2nd intermission. A not bad period, but they have let the Blackhawks sort of take over the momentum battle towards the end of the 2nd. The Wild would be well served to going back on the attack instead of sitting back and just trying to defend their lead. Minnesota was out shot 12-16 in the 2nd.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period had good pace but it also started with both clubs being a bit more cautious. Both clubs were content to battle along the walls, but Chicago was able to create a scoring chance off the rush as Jamal Mayers tried to set up Stalberg but he missed the puck still reached Harding. Chicago would get a fortunate power play opportunity as Jed Ortmeyer tripped up Kane. The Blackhawks moved the puck well to set up a few shots from long range from Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy. The Wild’s penalty killers scrambled when they needed to prevent Chicago from having 2nd chance opportunities as Tom Gilbert batted a puck out of mid air. Minnesota got the big penalty kill and the Wild caught Ray Emery way out of his crease as his pass into center ice was intercepted by Mikko Koivu who tried to gun a shot by him as he was nearly 40 feet from the blue paint but he was able to come up with the save. A few minutes later the Wild’s top line sustained some offensive pressure with some great puck movement and crisp, accurate passes which set up a shot for Mikko Koivu that never reached Emery. The Blackhawks started to go back on the attack but Minnesota did a fine job of getting in front of shots, never allowing them to reach Harding. Chicago was just directing pucks towards the Wild crease and hoping to get a lucky bounce of carom off a skate. The Blackhawks continued to attack and Stalberg again had an excellent opportunity as he moved in off the rush but Harding stopped his backhand chance as he ran out of real estate. Minnesota was doing a good job to get sticks on loose pucks and sweep them out of danger. Mikko Koivu would give the Blackhawks a gift late in the game as he hauled down David Bolland who fell down pretty easily and the Wild captain protested the call but to no avail and Chicago would go on the power play with 3:01 left in regulation. Koivu’s mistake would prove to be very costly as the Blackhawks score almost immediately as Kane buries an easy shot from up close to tie the game at 4-4 as the Wild captain makes his skate of shame back to the bench. Minnesota would draw a penalty later as Jed Ortmeyer’s hustle caused a turnover and then a trip by Marcus Kruger to give the Wild a crucial power play with 1:44 left in regulation. The Wild were very patient on the power play, moving the puck from D to D and back down to the half wall where Setoguchi fired a shot that was knocked down and covered up by Emery. Minnesota would take a timeout with 49 seconds left to talk things over. The talk did not help as the Wild won the draw but Kurtis Foster wasn’t ready and the puck cleared the zone and Minnesota struggled to get set up and we’d go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: The Wild had just 16 seconds of power play time to start overtime, and Minnesota wasn’t able to do anything with it as Koivu foolishly chose to make a move just before he crossed the blueline for an offsides call. One Wild player who was playing like a man possessed was Devin Setoguchi who turned on the jets and powered his way to the goal where it was poked away by the stick of Emery but he continued to hound the Blackhawks on the forecheck. The Blackhawks would work the puck deep and then find Bolland for an open shot that nearly handcuffed Harding but he was able to hold on. Nate Prosser would get into a chirping match with Marian Hossa but cooler heads would prevail. Ray Emery would then help the Wild with another misplay of the puck that was stolen by Kyle Brodziak which turned into some pressure for Minnesota as Clayton Stoner hammered a few shots that Emery struggled to stop. Yet this one would go to a shootout.
Shootout Summary: The Blackhawks would elect to shoot first as Patrick Kane would be the first to go for Chicago. He’d take a fairly slow approach then change speeds where he went from forehand to backhand and he lifted a puck over Harding who was sliding into the back of his net. Minnesota’s first shooter was Erik Christensen, and he made Emery look ridiculous as he swept and then dangled a shot around the Blackhawks goalie Peter Forsberg style to tie it up 1-1. Chicago’s next shooter was Patrick Sharp who moved in and he fired a wrist shot that was blocked up and over by Harding. Minnesota’s next shooter was Mikko Koivu who tried to go backhand to forehand but he’d lose the puck as he stopped and it’d stay 1-1. The Blackhawks next shooter was David Bolland who moved in who tried to go backhand to forehand but he couldn’t lift the shot over the outstretched leg pad off Harding giving Minnesota a chance to win the game. The Wild’s 3rd shooter was Devin Setoguchi, who moved up the ice where he fired a shot that Emery got a piece of but it trickled in to give Minnesota a 5-4 shootout victory.
Josh Harding had a reasonable game, stopping 31 shots as well as 2 of 3 in the shootout for the victory. I thought he did a nice job of placing his rebounds in places where the Blackhawks couldn’t pounce on 2nd chances. I liked how the defense played very well near the crease, sweeping away loose pucks and overall I thought the Wild’s blueline was solid. Nate Prosser, Justin Falk and Tom Gilbert had a great game. I liked the edge Stoner brought to the game and the team got some points from its defense which usually leads to good things when they manage to be on the score sheet.
Offensively, the top line really came to play. Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley and especially Devin Setoguchi were a factor all night long. They were creating scoring chances and taking their opportunities to shoot the puck. I was very impressed with their assertiveness which had been lacking the night before. I really liked their puck movement and they got this team rolling by scoring the first two goals of the game for Minnesota. It was a very forgettable game for Jason Zucker who finished the night a -1, and wasn’t getting nearly the ice time he did a night ago.
The intangible for tonight’s game was the tenacity the Wild showed in the 3 fights. The Wild did not back down and answered the bell very well against Chicago who can be known to try to intimidate their opponents. Minnesota has been standing up for itself consistently down the stretch and that is indicative of a locker room that still has a lot of pride. The points continue to annoy those fans hoping for a better 1st round pick but the Wild are playing well and like it or not you want to play your best regardless. The Blackhawks desperately wanted that second point and we denied them that. I can live with pride, because the Wild are playing the right way. It could make for a very interesting match up when these two teams meet again on Thursday.
~ Wild roster this early evening is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Cody Almond, Jed Ortmeyer, Erik Christensen, Jason Zucker, Darroll Powe, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Nick Johnson, Kurtis Foster, Justin Falk, Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Steven Kampfer, Warren Peters, Matt Kassian, Jared Spuregeon, and Matt Cullen were the ‘healthy’ scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Devin Setoguchi, 2nd Star Dany Heatley, 3rd Star Nick Leddy
~ Attendance was 21,576 at United Center.
Houston Aeros Report:
Record: (32-23-5-10) 79pts 7th Western Conference
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #14 Jon DiSalvatore ~ 26G 31A = 57pts
2. #37 Justin Fontaine ~ 15G 35A = 50pts
3. #22 Jeff Taffe ~ 17G 32A = 49pts
4. #20 Chad Rau ~ 12G 21A = 33pts
5. #39 Chay Genoway ~ 7G 24A = 31pts
Top 3 PIM’s:
1. #4 Drew Bagnall ~ 93 PIM’s
2. #12 Cody Almond ~ 83 PIM’s
3. #26 David McIntyre ~ 71 PIM’s
1. #31 Matt Hackett (17-15-5) 2.45GAA .915%SP
2. #35 Scott Greenham (0-2-0) 3.05GAA .915%SP
The Houston Aeros are on life support as far as the AHL playoffs go. The Aeros have gone winless in their last 6 games but they’ve managed to pick up a few mercy points along the way which is really what is buoying them from falling completely out of the Western Conference playoff picture. Houston’s struggles can be summed up rather easily, a lack of offense. Like the Wild, Houston is not blessed with a tremendous amount of firepower but goals have been very hard to come by lately. Nick Palmieri has chipped in a few goals but beyond that the team has muddled its way along with 1 and 2 goal efforts. The Aeros cannot blame injuries on their struggles, since they have virtually all of their key players healthy and playing; including Matt Hackett between the pipes. If that isn’t enough, hopefully the Aeros can get an offensive boost from Brett Bulmer who has been sent to Houston after his Kelowna Rockets were eliminated in the WHL playoffs. Bulmer had 34 goals, 62 points and 93 penalty minutes in 53 games with the Rockets this season. He brings skill, size (6’3″, 190lbs) and an edgy game at perhaps the perfect time for the Aeros who could use an injection of scoring to their lineup. Houston currently sits in 7th place in the Western Conference, with one more game played than most other teams. Its 32 wins and 79 points places it 3 ahead of 8th place Rochester, Peoria and Lake Erie. Aeros’ radio play-by-play man Joe O’Donnell figures the team needs to win 5 more games in order to make the playoffs. The Aeros’ will have to wait a bit before their next game; as its Friday against the Chicago Wolves.
Wild Prospect Report:
Penticton Vees’ Mario Lucia
F – Mario Lucia (Penticton, BCHL) ~ Lucia went scoreless but his Penticton Vees’ have the Merritt Centennials on the ropes as they hold a 3-1 series lead after a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory Saturday night. The Vees are like a Minnesota All Star team with Mario Lucia (Wayzata), Joey Benik (St. Francis), Connor Reilly (Chanhassen), Mike Reilly (Chanhassen), Chad Bannor (Hermantown), and Steven Fogarty (Edina) leading the way. Lucia leads the Vees in playoff scoring with 6 goals, 13 points and 2 penalty minutes in 10 games. The Vees look to clinch the series and advance to the BCHL Fred Page Cup Finals on Monday.
F – Johan Larsson (Brynas, Eliteserien) ~ The Lau, Sweden-native continues to have a strong season as he was a +2 in Brynas’ 3-0 victory over Farjestads earlier today. Larsson has 1 goal and 4 points, is even +/- and 4 penalty minutes in 10 playoff games. The strong two-way forward was rated as the 38th best prospect by the Hockey News in their Future Watch issue.
D – Jonas Brodin (Farjestads, Eliteserien) ~ The Karlstad, Sweden-native is finding his team on the ropes against Brynas in the Swedish Elite League playoffs. Brodin was scoreless and a -2 in their 3-0 loss earlier today. He has a goal, is a -1 and 2 penalty minutes in 10 playoff games. The smooth skating blueliner was rated 12th best prospect the Hockey News in their Future Watch issue.