New Year's Eve makes one reflect on the year that was 2013. There were certainly a lot of memories from the year; some of them good and some of them bad. Let's take a look at the Top 5 Memories of 2013.
1. NHL lockout ends, teams play a shortened 48-game season: This was the biggest event of 2013 as the league salvages a shortened season after tons of annoying bickering over the particulars of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. NHL owners demand and get a bigger share of the league revenues proving that despite all the hatred surrounding him from fans, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman still manages to get the owners what they want. The 48-game season was a crazy race for the playoffs but most agree it was better than no hockey at all. The fans did not lash out against their teams as some expected them too, and attendance was tremendous giving the league and the NHLPA all the more reason to continue to take fans for granted.
2. Minnesota Wild make the playoffs after missing the post-season the previous 5 years: Yes, it occurred in a shortened season but Minnesota managed to make the playoffs by slimmest of margins possible as they edge out the Todd Richards-led Columbus Blue Jackets by a tie-breaker. The Wild stumbled their way into the playoffs only to earn a match up against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild were overmatched, but managed to earn its first playoff victory since 2008. Considering the fact ownership really had opened up the wallet big time, the 1 playoff win and an 8th place seed appeared to be a minimal payoff for Wild majority owner Craig Leipold.
3. Minnesota Wild makes major splash at trade deadline with the Sabres for Jason Pominville: Normally the trade deadline is a time of disappointment and shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic for the Wild but not this time. If anyone wanted to know whether team ownership wanted to win now, the team made a bold move by dispatching promising youngsters Johan Larsson, goaltender Matt Hackett and a 1st round pick for sniper and Sabres team captain Jason Pominville. Pominville did provide a bit of a boost after the deal was made but a vicious Dustin Brown elbow basically knocked him out of the majority of Minnesota's playoff games. The Wild wanted to avoid making Pominville a rental player so they gave him a generous 5-year contract extension paying him an average of $5.6 million per season. To Minnesota's credit, Pominville has been the Wild's leading goal scorer so far for the 2013-14 season.
4. Wild trade fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck for Nino Niederreiter: Fans have their favorites and sometimes its for scoring goals and other times its for intangibles that are not best described with statistics. Cal Clutterbuck was one of the latter who was best known for his hits, but also his attitude and swagger on a team that is often reserved and downright timid. All one had to do was go to a Wild game and you'd see a lot of #22 Clutterbuck sweaters in the stands, so it was a bit of a risk, PR-wise, to deal him away in the summer for an enigmatic prospect from the New York Islanders in Nino Niederreiter. Niederreter, the former 4th Overall pick in 2010 arrived and played all over the Wild's Top 9 and has delivered (so far) the offense Clutterbuck did not. In a simple statistical comparison although its a bit like comparing apples to oranges when you consider the roles the two players have, Neiderreiter's 19 points are superior to Clutterbucks' modest 7 points with the Isles. His future looks bright, his potential seems to be impressive making it a good deal for the Wild.
5. Mikael Granlund's improvement: A major concern amongst fans were the struggles of the team's most high-profile prospect Mikael Granlund. In the shortened season the youngster had great difficulty adjusting to the speed and lack of time and space on NHL ice. Granlund was written in to anchor the team's 2nd line but after disappointing production he was sent down to the minors to try to re-establish his game. I for one was one of the fans that thought the Wild had drafted a dry well of a prospect. However, Granlund took his rough first half of an NHL season as a learning experience and he'd dedicate himself that much more vigorously to improving his skating and quickness and the results have been considerable. Granlund has the jump in his skates to dash away from opposing skaters and the strength in his lower body to win battles for the puck along the boards so now he's able to put his terrific vision and playmaking ability to good use. He established some definite chemistry with Jason Pominville and the team's slide after Granlund suffered a concussion was proof of how important he had become to the Wild's attack.
I hope you enjoyed the little trip down memory lane. What would your Top 5 Wild memories of 2013 be?
Would it be the Wild's epic failure from its last game against the New York Islanders on Sunday night? The Wild lost 5-4 to the 2nd worst team in the Eastern Conference playing the 2nd game of a back-to-back that was using its back up goaltender. Ouch huh? The Wild has lost its last 5 games in a row and you have to wonder if the team is really on the verge of a massive collapse. Defensively, where the Wild have historically taken pride in has been guilty of some atrocious breakdowns and with its downward spiral in the standings will they be able to stop the free fall? Or will the Blues just make Wild fans want to forget 2013 as a whole?
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1st Period Thoughts: The first few minutes of the game was all about hustle and working the puck deep to get the forecheck started. Minnesota was able to earn some zone time as they used their energy to dictate the pace of play, but it was not resulting much in the way of scoring chances. The first quality 'near' chance came off some great hustle by Torrey Mitchell to outleg a Blues' defenseman for a puck and he'd push it back out to Dany Heatley who tried to thread a pass to a waiting Jason Pominville that was just thwarted by a a diving play by Kevin Shattenkirk who got just enough of the puck to change the angle on the pass to make it out of the reach of the Wild sniper. Meanwhile, defensively the Wild was showing greater awareness assertiveness as Minnesota was standing up the Blues as they tried to enter their zone in an effort to disrupt their forecheck. This tactic was working, preventing from the Blues from using their plethora of big bodied forwards to control the game on the cycle. Minnesota still had to be careful, as the Blues still were dangerous in transition as Dmitri Jaskin turned on the jets for a quick shot after he picked the pocket of Marco Scandella. Minnesota finally created a quality scoring chance as Jared Spurgeon directed a pass towards the crease that was tapped on goal by Mikko Koivu who continued to chop at the biscuit but Brian Elliott was able to sweep the puck out of danger. The Wild were content to wait for their offensive opportunities as they retreated back to their zone to help out their defenseman. Minnesota had good puck support throughout the period, and I liked how they were not being careless with their possession. The Wild were showing a williingness to pay the physical toll to make plays and while I wouldn't say they were punishing the Blues with hits they were not shying away from contact. In a scary moment, Jason Pominville tried to dump the puck deep but it would deflect off of Alex Pietrangelo's stick and hit the Blues' Chris Stewart right in the face. Stewart immediately fell to the ice, holding his face which was bleeding badly until St. Louis' training staff came to help the injured forward off the ice for treatment. It was at this moment, I joked that NHL referree Marc Joannette, the same guy who gave Minnesota a bogus double minor for a non-existant high stick on Zenon Konopka really wanted to call high sticking on Pominville. Joannette skated by the Wild bench during a stoppage in play supposedly to deliver an apology for his bullshit call. I am sure embattled Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo was 'touched' by the gesture. The 2nd line of Dany Heately, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominvile was the team's most dangerous line all period long would create the best chance of the 1st as Heatley carried it in while Granlund raced down the slot which created some space for Pominville who wound up and blasted a slap shot just wide of the mark. Minnesota continued to swarm over the closing minutes of the period as Torrey Mitchell tried to catch Elliott sleeping on a wrap around but the former Badger goalie was able to get across his crease to make the save. Good effort, and defensively responsible as the Wild outshot the Blues 9-7. Sort of a chess match so far, but a decent period against a quality opponent.
2nd Period Thoughts: Unfortunately for the Wild, the period started with a defensive breakdown as T.J. Oshie found some space behind Marco Scandella and he'd rifle a shot up high that was stopped by Josh Harding but he did not have control of the puck which deflected up into the air and then back down just in front of the Minnesota crease. Former Colorado College star Jaden Schwartz would try to race in to tap home the rebound but he would be tripped up by Jonas Brodin who came barreling in to stop before both players and an offical went crashing into the boards. Brodin was given a 'high sticking' penalty by Marc Joannette no less who seems to love making that call whether there was one or not. The end result was a Blues power play but Minnesota's penalty killers did a nice job of forcing the Blues to settle for shots from the perimeter as well as tying up St. Louis forwards in and around the blue paint to keep them from capitalizing on rebounds. Minnesota would get the big kill but the Blues would start to give the Wild some fits in its own end, and this pressure would give St. Louis its first goal. Keith Ballard would pass a puck from deep in his zone into the slot to Mikael Granlund's skates who tried to move it to this stick but he he had the puck stolen from him by Schwartz who moved it back to Oshie who moved down the slot unopposed while Ballard made a half-hearted effort to apply pressure and the former Warroad star was able to just drag the puck away from a Harding poke check to slide a shot into the back of the Wild net. 1-0 Blues. You could sense a noticeable change in the anxiety level from the crowd after Oshie's goal. A good example of this was a few minutes later as Kyle Brodziak led a 3-on-2 rush into the Blues zone and when his poor decision to pass the puck was intercepted you could hear a few boo's from the angst-ridden Wild crowd. The anxiety level continued to increase as Minnesota got a small numerical advantage in another 3-on-2 but as Koivu drove down the middle of the ice he'd turn out towards the boards and instead of directing a shot on goal as he should have or at least put the puck toward the crease he passed it back to no one drawing more jeers from the home fans. The Wild were trying to press the attack a bit more, but as Koivu finally does the right thing to direct a soft wrist shot on goal that drew a big rebound from Elliott the Wild were unable to take advantage of it was Scandella whiffed on the boucing puck and the Blues counter attacked in a 2-on-1. I think just about every Wild fan knew what was going to happen next. The Blues moved in as Vladimir Tarasenko worked a 2-on-1 with Schwartz and Tarasenko would fire a shot that was stopped by Harding and Schwartz buried the rebound to make it 2-0. With a drawn penalty, an assist and a goal to his credit Schwartz was having a dynamite period for the Blues. Minnesota would get its first power play of the game as Barrett Jackman decided to run Dany Heatley, but be damned if the Wild would take advantage of it. I can sum up the Wild power play rather easily. The Blues could sense the Wild were playing with a little nervousness and you could see St. Louis not waiting around to intimidate the Wild as Charlie Coyle got destroyed by a big hit by Vladimir Sobotka. Lots of passing, and waiting with a little more waiting and no one seemed to want to shoot the puck. The hesitant play on the power play was drawing a growing crescendo of boo's from the crowd who were sick and tired of watching the Wild do next to nothing with the puck. As the period expired the Wild were sent to the locker room with more boo's and hostility in the crowd. The Wild were out shot 5-9 and out played in a period where Minnesota was simply too darn passive. I know they want to be more responsible defensively but that doesn't mean they have to slow the game down in the offensive zone to do so. Kick up the heat on Yeo's hot seat another notch or so. I thought Keith Ballard was terrible; making poor decisions with the puck and playing scared.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild started the period with a simple mission, the need to get at least two goals while not giving up the farm defensively. Minnesota would earn a power play as the Blues' Maxim Lapierre was given a minor for holding. There was a minor improvement as tthe Wild opted to start with its 2nd unit and they at least generated a few shots on goal. However, like you'd expect from a team suffering from a lack of confidence the Wild were trying to pick corners and missing high and wide. The Blues were not taking any unnecessary risks so they were inviting the Wild to continue to attack their zone. It was about halfway through the period, the team finally got some sustained forechecking pressure with its 3rd line of Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine. The line worked the puck into the slot for a few quick chances but couldn't get it by Elliott but their pressure yielded another power play as Patrik Berglund was sent for cross checking. On the power play the Wild were even more aggressive, taking the chance to at least send a slap shot from the point and then crashing the net and looking for a rebound to bury. Yet despite the pressure they just could get one by Elliott but the crowd appreciated the effort and gave an appreciative cheer. I like how the Wild were crashing the net and taking a simple and direct approach but it was too little too late. Minnesota kept pressing, but the chances started to degrade in quality as the Blues were blocking shots when the Wild weren't directing them wide in the first place. Finally, the Wild would break the stalemate with just 8.3 seconds left to play as Ryan Suter's blast from the point found the twine behind former Wisconsin teammate Brian Elliott. Perhaps in an attempt to show fans that he was going to take every opportunity to win as much as anything else Mike Yeo would call a timeout to talk things over. It was all for naught as the Blues would control the faceoff and dump the puck down the ice where inexplicably there was no icing call while the Wild bench chirped the officials as their losing streak extends to 6 games in 2-1 loss.
Josh Harding was again just ok, making 21 saves in the victory. Harding certainly benefitted from a more dedicated effort by the team to be defensively responsible, but I still think his rebound control isn't quite where it was before his MS treatment adjustment. Yet defensive breakdowns still haunted the Wild in the two goals they gave up. The 1st one was due to a poor decision by Keith Ballard that put Granlund in a tough situation that led to the turnover that became Oshie's goal. I thought Ryan Suter was much better, and I am not just saying that because he got his 2nd goal in as many games either. He just seemed more calm and more poised instead of just firing the puck off the glass for easy turnovers.
Offensively the Wild let up way too much in the 2nd period and that is really where the game got away from them. Minnesota was so overly conservative, passing up obvious chances to shoot the puck and the Wild played into the Blues' hands where they were content to counterpunch and wait for a Wild mistake. The Wild need to understand they can still be assertive and take shots without making themselves vulnerable defensively.
Better effort but another loss. As Minneapolis Star Tribune's Wild beat writer Michael Russo tweeted, the Wild got just 11 points out of a possible 36 available in the month of December. Ouch. Its the longest regulation losing streak in franchise history. It is actually kind of remarkable the Wild are not farther back than they currently are. Wild players certainly are feeling the pressure anxiety as Ryan Suter was quoted as saying he feels the team has hit rock bottom. What a way to end 2013, at rock bottom. Well cheer up Wild, we're undefeated in 2014! Feel better now?!?! See you next year!
~ Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mike Rupp, Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Dany Heatley, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Justin Fontaine, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard, Jared Spurgeon and Nate Prosser. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Zenon Konopka and Jonathan Blum were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild TV were: 1st Star Jaden Scwhartz, 2nd Star T.J. Oshie, 3rd Star Ryan Suter
~ Attendance was 18,919 at Xcel Energy Center.