The monotone voice, the blazing speed, the lack of variety in his one on one moves, and the glass groin he possessed dazzled and frustrated Wild fans for years. He teased you with his skill, a streaky player who in certain moments could look like one of the most gifted players in the league and at other times a player who was disconnected and genuinely didn't want to be there. Then of course there was the man who brought him here, Doug Risebrough. The former Wild general manager who did about all that he could to try to assist the Trencin, Slovakia-native's health but in the end couldn't get a deal done and the Minnesota Wild were forced to watch the most talented player they have ever drafted walk away for nothing in return. The void left by Marian Gaborik's departure hurt the team for years (as well as poor drafting) and ultimately it cost Risebrough his job. Now Gaborik has been traded for the first time in his career, in a deadline day deal by the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets who have been scratching and clawing their way towards the Western Conference playoff picture under new GM Jarmo Kekalainen and Team President John Davidson. Former Wild coach Todd Richards has managed to spark his bizarre collection of veterans and youngsters into being one of the most successful teams in the league through the month of March. There is as much hope in Columbus now as there has been since the team hired Ken Hitchcock as coach and who led the team to its first and only ever run to the playoffs. The playoff 'run' was a 1st round sweep at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, and the team spiraled downward ever since. The red-headed stepchild of the NHL has had plenty of bad luck along the way, including losing its franchise player Rick Nash in summer trade and the disastisfaction of Jeff Carter to stay with the Blue Jackets who was dealt to Los Angeles at last year's deadline. The Blue Jackets faithful, the few that are left, feel their team has paid its dues and taken its lumps and now its time for its fortunes to turn around and Gaborik is supposed to push them over that last hurdle. Wild fans can tell any Columbus fan what happens when you rely on Marian Gaborik. You end up disappointed.
However the Wild as of late haven't had much more success than its expansion cousin. So the Wild probably shouldn't be talking too much trash when they venture to Nationwide Arena Sunday night, an arena where they've typically struggled to win games. The Blue Jackets will be hungry and motivated and hoping to extend the Wild's 3-game losing streak. Can the Wild dig deep and stem the tide with a crucial win in Columbus or will the Blue Jackets and Marian Gaborik have the last laugh?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Blue Jackets were focused and aggressive to start the period as Marian Gaborik fired a quick shot from the high slot that was directed aside by Niklas Backstrom. Columbus was moving its feet well while the Wild seemed a little sluggish early on. The Wild would get their first shot on goal as Torrey Mitchell used his speed to drive the Blue Jackets defense off before turning back and feeding a quick pass to Mike Rupp waiting in the slot and he blasted a shot on goal that was denied by Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets went right back on the attack and aplay of the puck by Niklas Backstrom was intercepted by Cam Atkinson who tried to jam it to the right post but Backstrom was able to get back just in time. The Wild countered with a fine pass by Jared Spurgeon which found Kyle Brodziak who split the defense but the puck would start rolling and he'd turn and drop a pass back to Charlie Coyle who wasn't ready but the puck was swept up by Spurgeon who wound up and fired a slap shot that was steered away by Bobrovsky. Minnesota started to get its legs moving where it tried to establish the forecheck and despite some good hustle it was not yielding much in the way of shots on goal. Gaborik would exhibit his great speed when he got a step on Ryan Suter as he ripped a shot off the rush that was kicked away by Backstrom. The Blue Jackets tried to intensify their physical game as they started to dish out more hits as former Wild draft pick Colton Gillies delivered a big hit to Spurgeon. After a few minutes where Columbus was swarming around the Wild end Minnesota would finally sustain some offensive pressure thanks to the skills of the 'captain line' of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville as they cycled the puck very effectively. The 'captain line' moved the puck very well but were not able to create anything more than a solitary shooting opportunity Zach Parise and then Koivu tried to set up Pominville on a backdoor play but the pass was deflected a bit and the Wild would come up empty. Zenon Konopka would trip up Columbus' Matt Calvert giving the Blue Jackets a late power play. The Blue Jackets tried to move the puck down low where they hoped to jam it near the post and Backstrom was just about tackled by Vaclav Prospal to no call but the Wild's penalty killers did a good job of keeping Columbus to the perimeter. The period would end with both teams knotted at 0-0 and it was an 'ok' period for the Wild. At times I thought the Wild were guilty of trying to be a bit fancy with the puck instead of just peppering Bobrovsky with shots on goal. The 2nd line really is M.I.A. without Matt Cullen, and the line of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mikael Granlund and Devin Setoguchi are barely visible out there. This team needs Setoguchi to be a factor but without Cullen it doesn't seem likely that he can do just that. Charlie Coyle also seems a bit lost on the 3rd line too.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Blue Jackets would start the period with about 40 seconds left on the power play. This is where I really felt the Wild took over this game from an effort and momentum stand point. It didn't come from simply being more skilled than the Blue Jackets, it came from outworking Columbus. Minnesota got it started with a good effort on the penalty kill where Cal Clutterbuck forced a pass over to Kyle Brodziak who took it to the Columbus net for a backhand that was fought off by Bobrovsky. The hard work that paid off on the penalty kill translated to the next shift by the 4th line as Blake Comeau tripped up Torrey Mitchell. The Wild wasted little time on the power play as Mikko Koivu carried it into the Columbus zone before passing it over to Jared Spurgeon at the point who found Jason Pominville with a pass into the high slot and he swung a pass back to Ryan Suter who flung a wrist shot by a well-screened Bobrovsky to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. Minnesota did give the Blue Jackets a few power plays but the penalty kill did a great job of sweeping away rebounds given up by Backstrom and making Columbus one and done if it did manage to get a shot on goal. Even as Columbus tried to intensify their physical game as Colton Gillies and Derek McKenzie but the Wild would counterpunch with the 'captain line' and the 3rd line of Brodziak, Clutterbuck and Coyle. Coyle would go into beast mode and make some huge plays for the club late in the period. The first was a play where he outmuscled Columbus along the boards and then moved the puck into the Blue Jackets' zone where he tried tracking it down only to be hooked by Vinny Prospal. Prospal tried to raise his arms but the stick was clearly around Coyle's mid-section for an obvious penalty. The Wild's power play did a fine job of moving the puck around as they tried to set up Jason Pominville in the slot for a one-timer and they managed to do so once and he ripped a rising shot that caught Bobrovsky's shoulder. The Wild would send out its 2nd power play unit and again it was Coyle raising his game to make a big play for his team. It started with Coyle chasing down a puck in the Columbus zone where he worked it back to the point where Spurgeon stepped into a slap shot that was stopped by Bobrovsky who gave up a rebound that went out to Setoguchi who passed it out to the point where Granlund wasted no time in making a perfect back door feed back to Coyle for an easy goal, 2-0 Wild. It was a beautiful pass by Granlund and nice to see Coyle rewarded for his hard work. The Wild had to feel pretty confident going into the 2nd intermission leading by two as Coyle's goal seemed to deflate the home crowd but more importantly the Blue Jackets themselves.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would go into lockdown mode in the 3rd period. Straightforward, defensive hockey as they moved the puck deep and keeping shifts short. The Blue Jackets tried in vain to get something going offensively, but Minnesota's defenseman did a nice job of tracking pucks down and never allowing Columbus to get its forecheck going. Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter were particularly effective at frustrating Columbus' attempts to bottle up the Wild in its own end. The Blue Jackets' pressure would yield two power plays but the Wild never gave up much more than a few shots from the perimeter that were easily stopped by Niklas Backstrom. The Wild got the icing on the cake on a late goal set up by the 'captain line' as Zach Parise delivered a perfect cross-ice pass to Jason Pominville who tapped it home on a pretty bang-bang play.
Backstrom had a tremendous game, earning his 2nd shutout of the season as he stopped all 24 shots he faced. This also continues Backstrom's remarkable trend of great efforts after games in which he's been pulled, going 17-0-2 in those games. His rebound control was much better overall and when he did yield a few rebounds his defenseman were there to sweep dangerous pucks away. The penalty kill was again terrific for the Wild. I thought Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter really stood out for me. For whatever reason the team seemed to perform better defensively with Nate Prosser in the lineup whether that's a coincidence or not the team seems to win when he plays. I would expect him and Falk to be in the Wild's lineup again Tuesday night against Chicago.
Offensively the Wild took advantage of its power play opportunities cashing in twice. The 'captain line' of Pominville, Parise and Koivu was very impressive once again, cycling the puck effectively and really was the only line that was able to sustain offensive pressure on a consistent basis. I thought the 2nd line of Bouchard, Granlund and Setoguchi did show a little improvement but still Setoguchi is a shadow of what he was when he was on a line with Matt Cullen. Charlie Coyle really is starting to show what he learned from being the top line with Parise and Koivu and if he can become a secondary scoring option that can be huge in the homestretch for the playoffs. I thought the 4th line of Rupp, Konopka and Mitchell had a better game as well and the Wild will need them to be a source of strength against Chicago.
This was a solid effort against a desperate team and I felt the Wild just wore them down. Goals are tougher to come by and the team found a way to get enough offense to win the game while their workhorse goaltender demonstrated great resilience. The good feelings from this victory are nice but the team will have to refocus itself for a game against the best team in the Western Conference. Chicago is back to its winning ways again after going through a bit of a rough patch and the Wild will have to play a near perfect game if it wants to come away with two points.
~ The Wild roster is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Nate Prosser, Justin Falk, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Tom Gilbert and Brett Clark were the healthy scratches while Dany Heatley and Matt Cullen are out of the lineup with injuries.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Ryan Suter, 2nd Star Niklas Backstrom, 3rd Star Charlie Coyle
~ Attendance was 15,909 at Nationwide Arena.
Wild Prospect Report:
C – Tyler Graovac (Belleville, OHL) ~ The Bulls took a 1-0 series lead after a 6-3 win over Sudbury last night. The Brampton, Ontario-native got things rolling early with a power play goal, and later in the game he added an assist as the Bulls cruised to victory. On Sunday, Belleville would add to its series lead with a 4-1 win overthe Wolves. Graovac got involved with the scoring early as he typically does as he set up Jordan Subban for the first goal of the game. The Wild's 7th round pick in 2011 (191st Overall) has 3 goals, 13 points in 8 games.
RW – Raphael Bussieres (Baie-Comeau, QMJHL) ~ Baie-Comeau takes a 1-0 lead in their 2nd round series against Victoriaville after a 5-3 win on Friday night. Bussieres had an assist and was a +3 in the victory. The Drakkar extended their series lead, 2-0 as the prevailed 6-2 over the Tigres and Bussieres again did his part to help as he chipped in two assists and was a +2 in the win. The Longuiel, Quebec-native has 3 goals, 12 points and is a +9 in 6 games.
Houston Aeros Report:
Houston 5, Chicago 2
The Aeros have started to catch fire again, earning a big win over its former IHL rival Chicago. Houston took an early lead as Zack Phillips buried a power play. Chicago answered right back as Darren Archibald scored just about 30 seconds later. The Aeros would retake the lead as Justin Fontaine found Steven Kampfer moving down the slot and he ripped a shot by Matt Climie to make it 2-1. A few minutes later Jason Zucker fired home a rebound off of a shot by Fontaine on the pwer play to make it 3-1. Shortly after that Matt Climie would get caught out of his crease and Houston's Dan DaSilva was able to score on a wrap around before Climie could get back to the blue paint making it 4-1. Wolves' Head Coach Scott Arniel had seen enough and he pulled Climie in favor of Joe Cannata. The goalie change did refocus the Wolves who swarmed in Aeros end before former Colorado College star Bill Sweatt banged home a rebound given up by Cody Reichard to make it 4-2. Houston would answer back late in the period as Jason Zucker would intercept a pass in the neutral zone and he'd turn on the jets and dangle around a Wolves defender before beating Cannata on a nifty goal 5-hole to make it 5-2 going into the 3rd. In the 3rd period, Reichard would get tangled up with Chicago's Anton Rodin and he'd leave the ice under the assistance of the Aeros' training staff. This meant Jeff Deslauriers would go between the pipes for the first tme since being part of a deadline day deal with Anaheim and he was rock solid as he stopped all 8 shots he faced to seal a 5-2 victory for the Aeros. The Aeros have won their last two games and Jason Zucker has been on fire having scored two-goals in each game as well as chipping a helper too. Houston's next game is tonight against Hamilton.
Houston 2, Hamilton 0
Houston would earn another huge win at home as Jeff Deslauriers was again perfect in stopping all 22 shots he faced. Although for the most part the Aeros strong defense kept the Bulldogs scoring chances few and far between. The Aeros would score late in the 1st period as Zack Phillips found Dan DaSilva on a nice back door pass for an easy tap in behind Robert Mayer to make it 1-0. Houston was pouring it on with an aggressive forecheck that really put Hamilton on its heels. The Aeros would get an insurance goal late in the 3rd when Nick Petersen jammed home a rebound off of a shot by Jake Dowell to make it 2-0 and Houston rolled to a victory.