One of my favorite broadcasters is ESPN's Chris Berman. Berman has always seemed like a guy who just loves his job and he has kept the same sometimes corny style throughout his career which is both shameless and often chuckle worthy. While I wouldn't say Berman is a great play-by-play man but I think he's great as a studio host where he consistently finds ways to add an element of levity to contrast against the big egos and opinions of retired professional athletes and coaches. One element of Berman's old school approach to sports is the nicknames he gives players. Instead of the boring shortening of names like A-Rod, RG3, or hockey's compulsion with adding a y to a player's first name or some condensed last name Berman opted to play on words. Eric "sleeping with" Bienemy or Ben "Technicolor dream" Coates and during the Wild's improbable playoff run in 2003 he even chimed in with a few including Andrei "suddenly" Zyuzin. He doesn't give out those kinds of nicknames as frequently anymore, but I think one axiom of his stays with me more than anything else. When he goes through highlights, and he's talking about a game that from the outset seems like an obvious shutout he prefaces it with "that's why they play the games" to foreshadow the outcome may not match what you think. I think that applies perfectly for the WCHA teams playing in the NCAA tournament. No conference had more teams in the tournament than the WCHA which was a tip of the hat to the 'strength' of the conference and the NCAA may be questioning that decision a bit after what has been lousy weekend. For Minnesota, Wisconsin, Denver, North Dakota, and Minnesota State they all went to the tournament feeling pretty confident and of those clubs on North Dakota managed to advance beyond the first game. St. Cloud State, a 4th seed in their respective region was the only WCHA team to advance to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh next weekend. Good for the Huskies, well deserved, but overall a pretty dismal performance for the WCHA as a whole.
Last year, the Blues were like a steamroller in the Western Conference after the arrival of Ken Hitchcock as coach. A super stingy defense and plethora of big bodied, gritty forwards with a dash of skill made for a killer combination in the regular season. The Wild were not able to match that level of intensity, but things are different. The Wild are demonstrating they can play with anyone and the once super stingy defense of the Blues isn't quite so air tight. Can the Wild earn another home victory against a strong opponent like the Blues or will St. Louis give Minnesota a few sour notes?
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1st Period Thoughts: Neither club was flying out of the gate to start the game which is appropriate for two clubs known more for their defense than an explosive attack. Charlie Coyle would make his presence felt as he was left standing after the stocky Roman Polak tried to light him up only to find himself being leveled in the collision. Minnesota was patient, waiting for the right opportunity and the 2nd line thought they had caught the Blues flat footed as Devin Setoguchi threaded a pass to a streaking Pierre-Marc Bouchard was denied by Jaroslav Halak. The Blues tried to counter and former Colorado College star Jaden Schwartz would come dangerously close to giving St. Louis the lead as he directed a close-range shot just wide of the mark. Moments later, Mikko Koivu would get a stick right up underneath the visor by Chris Stewart even though two officials had a clear view of it. Koivu clearly was cut from the stick and he immediately headed for the Wild bench and without delay was sent to the locker room but no call was made. With the video replay showing indisputable evidence of Stewart's crime, Wild head coach Mike Yeo gave the officials an earful but to no avail. Just minutes after this terrible non call, the Wild would give St. Louis a power play as Ryan Suter took a hit fom behind by Kevin Porter and he aired his displeasure over the non-call with NHL referee Kelly Sutherland who tagged Suter with an unsportsmanlike minor penalty. On the power play the Blues moved the puck well setting up a few blasts from the point for Alex Steen that were steered aside by Niklas Backstrom who was seeing the puck well despite having some traffic near the blu paint. The Wild's penalty killers did not give St. Louis' power play a lot of time and space and they did a fine job of sweeping away rebounds and they were able to get the kill but the good feelings didn't last. The puck would be dumped deep and as Tom Gilbert and Matt Cullen tried to dig it out for a clear the puck would get caught up with the official who fell to the ice to cheers but as the puck rolled out towards the blueline it was swept up by Schwartz who moved in and he ripped a wrist shot by Backstrom, stick side to make it 1-0 Blues to a chorus of boo's from the angry crowd. So again an official played a role in trying to hurt the Wild's chances. With the crowd already pretty angry with the officials a few more non-calls on some blatant trips continued to bring up the anger towards the guys in stripes to fever pitch. The crowd would give an appreciative cheer to the return of Koivu to the ice. Koivu also made himself heard as the gave the officials an earful as well as Dany Heatley but it didn't garner the team much sympathy. Minnesota would get a slight break late in the period as a shot from the point by Jared Spurgeon caused Halak to stretch to try to direct it away and as he did so he appeared to tweak his groin and he'd stay down on the ice as the Blues training staff moved out to attend to their goalie with about 12 seconds left. St. Louis had no choice but to send out Brian Elliott to relieve Halak. Not a bad period for the Wild, and losing Koivu for as long as they did really sort of deprived the team's ability to create much offensively and thus they were outshot 12-5 in the period. The Wild also need to be a little more selfish with the puck and take their opportunities to shoot, especially now with Elliott, who is fresh of a conditioning stint in the AHL.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild seemed a bit sluggish to start the 2nd period as St. Louis had more jump in their skates. Minnesota was being caught standing around a little bit and the Blues were starting to throw their weight around as Porter and big Ryan Reaves were distributing hits. The Wild would draw their first power play Roman Polak held up Torrey Mitchell thru the neutral zone. Minnesota's power play struggled against a very aggressive Blues' penalty kill and they were able to force a few quick turnovers and the Wild would send out its 2nd unit. It wasn't much better as Minnesota struggled to make plays in the offensive zone and the Wild seemed to want to ready its 4th line for a shift as Mitchell carried the puck into the Blues' zone. Mitchell ould pass it off to Jonas Brodin who moved towards the middle before winding up and uncorking a wrist shot that Elliott stopped but Heatley was waiting to stuff home the rebound to tie the game at 1-1. The goal did not seem to give the Wild any extra jump in its skates and the physical play of St. Louis seemed to make the Wild a bit skittish. The Blues' pressure would wear them down as Andy McDonald would move in and snake his way through the Wild's zone as he fired a quick shot that was stopped by Backstrom but he'd gather up his rebound and patiently wait for Backstrom to sprawl before firing a shot by him to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead. The goal hurt, but the pain would be felt again just 2 minutes after that as they got caught watching the Blues work in their zone and a bomb from the point by Kevin Shattenkirk eluded Backstrom to make it 3-1. St. Louis was pressing for the nail in the coffin but a dangerous hit from behind by David Backes on Jonas Brodin would send the frail defenseman careening into the boards and give the Wild a power play. On the man advantage the Wild were moving the puck from the half wall and out to the point but getting precious little in the way of pucks being directed on goal. The overly selective process of the Wild's power play was raising the home crowd's anxiety and they'd come up empty on the man advantage. The Wild would draw another penalty with just over 2 minutes left to play in the period as Zenon Konopka was shoved in the goal by Vladimir Sobotka earning the Wild another power play. Again, Minnesota was hesitant to fire the biscuit and despite moving the puck fairly well no one seemed willing to pull the trigger. Kyle Brodziak would get stonewalled from point blank range after a little feed by Zach Parise, but the crowd clearly was not happy with the Wild being so picky on the power play and a few boo's could be heard as the 2nd period concluded. KFAN radio analyst Tom Reid felt the boo's were undeserved but I disagree. The team is facing a goaltender coming off a conditioning stint and when it took its chance to shoot it drew a rebound and got its only goal. This team needs to be taking every opportunity to fire the puck on a goaltender trying to get back into a groove. But passing up opportunities to shoot we are only helping a strong defensive team. The Blues were winning the races to the puck and while they may be tired that's part of life in a condensed season.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild would finally get its forecheck going a little as the top line got the cycle going and Koivu would take his chances by bringing the puck to the blue paint where he tried to backhand a puck through Elliott who knocked down the shot and then covered it up while no one from Minnesota was able to pounce on the rebound. The modified line of Coyle, Bouchard and Konopka caused a little havoc down low with some strong play along the wall and a nice back door pass to Brett Clark who who couldn't get there for a one timer but he'd swing a pass near the crease as Konopka tried to jam it thrugh Elliott but he couldn't make it happen. Minnesota followed it up with its 3rd line of Brodziak, Heatley and Cal Clutterbuck. This line would apply excellent pressure with great hustle and a dose of physicality as Brodziak outbattled two Blues defenders for a pass out front that was shot on goal by Heatley that Elliott just got a piece of to keep it out of his net. The Wild's pressure was beginning to tell as St. Louis started to ice the puck repeatly. The pressure prompted Blues' Head Coach Ken Hitchcock to call a timeout to talk things over and try to refocus the team. Minnesota kept carrying the play, attacking with more speed as Sprgeon joined the rush and he'd race in and fire off a quick shot that was stopped by Elliott. The Wild would draw another penalty as David Perron had to sit for boarding. The Wild were a bit more assertive on the power play as they were taking their chances to shoot the puck but it was always a one-and-done situation as the Blues defense did a nice job of keeping Minnesota from getting to rebounds. After the failed power play the Blues made it togh for the Wild to move the puck through the neutral zone. Minnesota didn't seem to have any answer for it either. Even in the last minute as the Wild wanted pull Backstrom for an extra attacker but they couldn't because St. Louis was clogging up the neutral zone so effectively. The Blues would score once more as Barret Jackman lit the lamp on a point shot to seal a 4-1 victory.
Niklas Backstrom played well enough for the Wild to win, making 20 saves in the loss but having to fight a lot of company near his crease all game long. I thought he made some fine saves and I felt he was reading the puck pretty well with the lone exception of Jackman's goal in the waning moments of the game. Defensively it was not pretty. Brett Clark was guessing a lot out there and I thought Tom Gilbert and Clayton Stoner were not much better. The only defensemen that I felt played reasonably well were Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. Even Brodin was guilty of holding onto the puck a little too long but he made a fine play to set up the Wild's 1st goal. Minnesota kept the Blues potent power play off the board which was a good sign after giving up so many power play goals the last few games.
Offensively the Wild really were not generating nearly enough shots. Losing Koivu for a good portion of the 1st period, certainly hurt the team's mojo as the team was forced to shuffle lines. The 1st line was effectively neutralized by the strength of Jackman and Alex Pietrangelo and so the Wild seemed to wait for someone else to step up. The 3rd line made a nice attempt in the 3rd period but it wasn't enough. Losing Matt Cullen due to a lower body injury also deprived the team of a critical source of offense late. The team needs to get back to funneling pucks on goal, and crashing the net hard. Cullen's injury situation could very well dictate whether this team makes a trade in the next few days. Right now the team does have a roster spot open so it would not necessarily mean someone else would have to be sent down. Ryane Clowe is a player the team is said to have interest in as do the Boston Bruins.
The Wild played like a team that was a little intimidated and a little fatigued. The ream will have to dig deep to put this behind them as they go on a togh two-game road trip against a surging San Jose team and an equally dangerous Los Angeles squad. It is a setback, but I think this team can bounce back.
~ Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Zach Parise, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Dany Heatley, Zenon Konopka, Mike Rupp, Torrey Mitchell, Brett Clark, Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Ryan Suter. Matt Hackett backed up Niklas Backstrom. Nate Prosser and Justin Falk were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Jaden Schwartz, 2nd Star Kevin Shattenkirk, Jonas Brodin
~ Attendance was 18,786 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The State of Hockey News would like to say Happy Birthday to 'Mr. Hockey' Gordie Howe on his 85th birthday as well as long-time hockey writer 'The Maven' Stan Fischler who turned 80. In addition it should be noted that Wild Assistant Equipment Manager Rick Bronwell also celebrated a birthday this weekend! Happy Birthday to you all!
Houston Aeros Report:
Record: 33-23-5-5 76pts 3rd in the South Division
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #37 Justin Fontaine ~ 18G 28A = 46pts
2. #16 Jason Zucker ~ 20G 23A = 43pts
3. #22 Johan Larsson ~ 15G 22A = 37pts
4. #10 Brian Connelly ~ 5G 26A = 31pts
5. #64 Mikael Granlund ~ 10G 18A = 28pts
Top 3 PIM's:
1. #4 Drew Bagnall ~ 84 PIM's
2. #2 Paul Mara ~ 60 PIM's
3. #52 Ryley Grantham ~ 47 PIM's
Next Game: vs. Grand Rapids 4/2/2013 @ 7:00PM at Toyota Center
After a ridiculously long road trip, 17 games the Aeros are back at home and hoping to solidify their spot in the AHL playoffs. This season has been far easier for the Aeros personnel-wise than a season ago when the team raided ECHL clubs for players almost every week as the Wild's injury woes as well as their own necessitated the moves. The Aeros have struggled a bit lately, and one could say in part it is due to roster moves. For the most part the lineup has stayed consistent except for one crucial area, goaltending. The Wild's uncertainty with the health of Josh Harding has trickled down to the Aeros and Minnesota has been forced to call up Darcy Kuemper and Matt Hackett where for most part they've just sat on the bench. Because the Wild want Kuemper and Hackett playing the club has shuffled between them but in the meantime the Aeros have had soldier on with former University of Miami (OH) star Cody Reichard. Offensively the Aeros have benefited from the return of Jason Zucker to the lineup and he's working well with leading scorer Justin Fontaine. Mikael Granlund has also helped a little, but not as much as one may expect, albeit in more of a playmaking role. Zack Phillips has also been more of a regular contributor as of late while Johan Larsson has cooled down a bit. ECHL'er Nick Petersen has been a blessing for the Aeros and keeps plugging away and manages to chip in points. Defensively, the return of Brian Connelly has been a significant boost of offense. Marco Scandella has battled with injuries and Steven Kampfer is playing with a bit more consistency. The Aeros need to start making more of its home games count and they can climb the ladder from their precarious current spot in the Western Conference standings which is 6th.