In the course of an NHL season, rarely do players get that many breaks in the schedule. Especially last season, where the season was compressed and you had a 48-game race to playoffs. I am sure the Minnesota Wild are appreciating the time off but was that really the best thing for this club right now? For the most part, injuries hadn't been a major issue for the team (knock on wood) and if anything the team was playing some of its best hockey of the season. Offense had finally arrived, the power play was still (knock on wood) red hot and the team had also become made steady improvements on the penalty kill (knock on wood). In the past, the Wild have not dealt with a long break all that well. The team has a bit of a reputation from coming back from a long break a little lethargic and more than a little rusty. The last time the Wild played Toronto it was trying to find ways to score and despite controlling most of the game they ended up getting beat by a better than average Maple Leafs club. In the uber tight Western Conference, every point is precious.
That in itself shouldn't be a surprise for the Wild who made the playoffs last season on a tie breaker as they just edged out Columbus. Columbus is having another ugly season in a division that is far weaker than the one it came from. The Wild so far haven't had that many games in their division but so far are holding their own pretty well. However, non-Conference games are games the team needs to win. Western Conference clubs are feasting on their Eastern Conference foes; so Minnesota can ill-afford to lose ground. Will the Wild come out of its break with looking refreshed and full of energy or will they be a club that will look sleepy and fatigued?
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1st Period Thoughts: Both clubs had good energy and pace as one might expect from two teams who had a few days to rest up. The Maple Leafs were trying to get on the forecheck early and did cause Minnesota a few minor problems but to the Wild's credit, they didn't panic and often stayed patient and waited for the right opportunity to move the puck out of the offensive zone. Minnesota's best line at the start was the 2nd line of Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. This line had good speed, and seemed to be real hungry as they created some chances in its first few shifts. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle also started out strong. With Parise and Coyle making some noise early. On one such play, it was Parise feeding Coyle with a cross-ice pass off the rush and the youngster made a nifty toe drag move around a defender to move on goal but unfortunately the puck left his stick before he could pull the trigger on what should've been a prime scoring chance. Niklas Backstrom would also come up with a big save early on a nice stop with the leg pad as he stonewalled Carter Ashton from close in. Backstrom wasn't done with providing some drama as he got steamrolled by Nazem Kadri who skated through the crease and gave the Wild goaltender an elbow to head hit. I do not think Kadri was trying to run the goaltender, and I think Backstrom was partly guilty for trying to play up the contact as he laid motionless on the ice for a bit. I think Backstrom sort of threw his head back playing up that contact and ended up hitting the back of his head on the ice. Although a few minutes later he'd leave the game and be replaced by Josh Harding. Wild Athletic Trainer Don Fuller came out on the ice to talk to Backstrom who seemed a bit stunned but ok and he'd stay out there as the Wild got the first power play of the game. On the power play the Maple Leafs made it very difficult for the Wild to enter the offensive zone utilizing one forechecker who challenged the rush through neutral zone and then stacking three players along the blue line. The Wild struggled to adjust and it wouldn't be until about 1:20 into the man advantage before they finally established themselves in the offensive zone. The best chance came off a Mikael Granlund feed to Dany Heatley for a wicked one timer that was snagged out of the air by Jonathan Bernier. With the Wild coming up short on the power play, Backstrom apparently was not feeling well and he'd head for the locker room so a sick Josh Harding had to replace him. Minnesota was retreating well defensively to stymie Toronto's chances and the Wild went back to work offensively. But in the meantime the game would get a bit chippy. Charlie Coyle would get into a shoving match with Joffrey Lupul and both would sit 5 minutes for fighting. Then on the very next shift Nino Niederreiter would get into a scrum of his own with Paul Ranger and a few other Maple Leafs. They had a few 'close' chances as Zach Parise got a great pass from Koivu but unfortunately he couldn't get the puck to settle to chip a shot by Bernier which gave time to Carl Gunnarsson to skate over and deflect the chance up and over the goal instead. A few minutes after that, Justin Fontaine found himself in a 2-on-1 with Kyle Brodziak and he'd outwait Cody Franson's attempt to block the shot but as he went to unleash a wrist shot he fanned on it and then reloaded and fired again and just pushed it wide of the left post. Mikael Granlund would earn a minor for hooking Kadri and the Leafs had a late-period power play. The Maple Leafs power play was very sharp, moving the puck with great efficiency and setting up a number of quality chances. Phil Kessel's backhand bid early just missed wide as he had Harding going the opposite direction. Moments after that it was Kessel again with the puck from in close and Harding was able to come up with a big save to keep the game scoreless going into the 1st intermission. Not too bad 1st period for the WIld, but they'd be well served to be a bit more greedy and take their chances to shoot since Bernier was fighting the puck at times. It will be interesting to see if the chippiness continues throughout the game. I thought Minnesota's blueline had a great period, clearing the puck and making smart little passes to break out of the zone. Shots were hard to come by, with the Leafs outshooting the Wild 7-6.
2nd Period Thoughts: The 2nd period had a similar start to the 1st. Two clubs flying around the ice with oodles of energy. Minnesota would draw a penalty early as Nazem Kadri was given a hooking penalty as he tried to sell that he was tripped by falling to the ice. The officials did not give him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to go along with his hooking minor. Minnesota's power play again had difficulty with the aggressiveness of Toronto's penaly kill, yet even when they did manage to get set in the offensive zone a lack of initiative to shoot the puck also conspired to keep the Wild off the scoreboard. Mikko Koivu continues to pass up chances to shoot the puck and continues to attempt passes that are likely to be intercepted but even if they make it through those he's passing to are not likely going to capitalize either. So what's the point? Towards the end of the power play, the 2nd unit would work the puck down low near the end man advantage but Bernier was able to come up with the saves. Toronto would counter attack and draw a hooking call of their own on Coyle. The Maple Leafs' power play had a tougher time moving the puck as the Wild were a bit more active at taking away passing and shooting lanes. However they still got some good shots on goal and Harding came up with some big saves. Unfortunately the Wild would not escape this power play unscathed as a point shot from Morgan Reilly would be knocked down by Harding but as the puck fell down into the blue paint it was swept up by Mason Raymond and shoveled home to make it 1-0 Toronto. The Wild tried to answer back and they had some terrific chances as Jason Pominville set up Mikael Granlund on a backdoor pass but he let the puck settle ever so briefly before firing a shot that was deflected by Jay McClement up and over the goal. Granlund stayed involved as he'd set up Dany Heatley for a wicked shot off the rush but Bernier was there to shut the door. The Wild would again find itself in penalty trouble as Zach Parise was given 2-minutes for holding. On the penalty kill the Wild were very aggressive and they were able steal a few passes and keep Toronto chasing them around their end of the ice. The Maple Leafs would continue to take their chances to rough up Wild players whenever they got the chance. The result was the team looked a little intimidated and hesitant to shoot the puck drawing the ire of the home crowd. A classic example was when the Leafs' Mark Fraser who sent Nino Niederreiter flying with a big hit near his crease and El Nino would get up and move towards the big defenseman who wanted to throw down, but he was interrupted by Kyle Brodziak who stepped in to tie him up before punches were thrown. Yet not a peep from Wild enforcer Zenon Konopka. Why dress him if he's not going to settle the score when the Leafs take liberties like that? Minnesota outshot the Leafs 14-6 in the period. Ok chances but they need to show a bit more fire in an around the Toronto crease.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild would earn an early power play as Jay McClement tripped up Jared Spurgeon. On the power play the top unit stayed on the ice (almost exclusively in the Toronto end) for 1:48 and while they moved the puck around the perimeter the best chance came off a wrist shot by Koivu that hit the crossbar and out. Yet there was still too much passing and not enough shots were being directed on goal. The Leafs were content to work the puck deep and force the Wild to carry up the length of the ice. Minnesota would witness another ugly hit by Kadri who got his arms up high and hit Granlund in the end as he crunched him into the boards and then hit him on the top of the head with his stick for good measure. The home crowd was outraged, but much to my surprise no one went after Kadri's for his 2nd blatant dirty hit of the game. Kadri would get the gate, as he was tagged with a match penalty for the clear hit to the head and the result was a 5-minute Wild power play. What would seem like a major opportunity for the Wild was more buzzkill than anything else. Minnesota's power play had great difficulty entering the offensive zone as Toronto continued to post itself on the blueline daring the Wild to chip it in. As the time on the power play ticked by as the Wild power play looked disorganized and between errant passes and poor decisions the home crowd was getting anxious as anxiety was soon replaced by agitation at the poor execution. Minnesota started to hear boo's from the home crowd, deservedly so as they only managed a single shot on goal during the 5-minute man advantage. The Wild would regroup and re-double their efforts to notch the equalizer and they'd be rewarded as Charlie Coyle carried the puck in deep and he'd work it in close where it set up Koivu for a quick pass that went off the skate of Parise who got a little help from the skate of Toronto's Phil Kessel. In the closing minutes of the period the Wild really poured it on, flying into the Toronto zone and would have a few close chances. The best one coming off the stick of Nino Niederreiter who seemed to have gotten underneath the skin of Toronto all night as he used his strength to work a puck out front where he got off a quick shot that was stopped by Bernier and he'd turn and attempt a no-look pass that nearly curled into the gaping net. Matt Cooke would sting Dion Phaneuf big hit that left the big defenseman hobbled and struggling to move on the ice. WIth the Wild still swarming around the Maple Leafs' zone we'd go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: Overtime was a mess as both teams were playing very stingy defensively and the result was basically 5 minutes of chasing the puck around the ice and few if any shots being directed on goal. Neither club was able to get any kind of concerted attack going and the game would go to a shootout. I am still not sure why the Wild put Mikko Koivu on the ice in a 4-on-4, he's slow and won't shoot even if he's wide open. Why not give a better skater a chance to operate with more ice. I'd rather see Matt Cooke or Torrey Mitchell out there than the team's captain.
Shootout Summary: Minnesota would opt to shoot first in the power play and the first shooter was Zach Parise. The Wild assistant captain took a slow windy approach towards the Toronto goal before ripping a quick wrist shot low blocker side that beat Bernier cleanly, 1-0 Minnesota. Toronto's first shooter was Mason Raymond, and the former UMD Bulldogs' star would take a wide left approach and he'd move in and seemed to have an edge on Josh Harding who stretched big time to come up wtih a big stop with the leg pad as Raymond just couldn't quite lift the puck up enough to keep Minnesota in the lead. Minnesota's next shooter was Mikko Koivu who moved a little to the right but seemed to lose his train of thought as he moved in and attempted a half-hearted backhander that was an easy stop for Bernier. The Maple Leafs' next shooter was Phil Kessel and the Madison, Wisconsin-native would race up the ice in a wife left approach and as he moved towards the middle he'd push a wrist shot well wide of the goal. This put the game on the stick of the Wild's Jason Pominville and like Parise would take a slow winding approach and he'd make a little head fake and beat Bernier 5-hole to seal a 2-1 shootout victory. There goes the population in Pominville!
Niklas Backstrom made 3 saves before leaving the game due to Kadri's hit. Team officials were saying Backstrom's injury was an 'upper body' injury so I'm going to take a guess and say its probably some sort of concussion. Harding did a tremendous job in relief considering how he's been battling illness and not having much in the way of practice over this most recent little respite for the team. He earned his 10th win of the season, by going perfect in the shoout and making 19 saves of his own in regulation. Defensively I thought the Wild did a pretty good job of not allowing Toronto to get much of anything going offensively. I thought Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella and Clayton Stoner had a strong game.
Offensively, it was not a banner game for the Wild's power play which struggled mightily all game long against Toronto's aggressive penalty kill. I thought the Wild got good chances from its 3rd line, of Justin Fontaine, Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. Fontaine came dangerously close to adding to the 6 goals he currently has. I thought the 2nd line of Pominville, Granlund and Niederreiter was also very good and weathering the physical Maple Leafs defense. The top line was ok, and got the goal but I continue to feel its a one-man line with Parise doing all of the work and Koivu playing far too passively for a 1st line center making $6.75 million a season.
While Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said in his post-game press conference about how the Wild did not match up toughness-wise against Toronto. I agree with Yeo, but I disagree with his dismissal of the fact the team continually allowed the Maple Leafs to bully and take liberties with Wild players. If you're Zenon Konopka, what in the heck are you doing? Or in this case not doing. He didn't give even as much as a facewash to anyone or even talk to the Maple Leafs during his shifts as Kadri and others were dishing out cheap shots a fair portion of the game. If you're going to dress a guy like Konopka (I realize he's good on draws) but he's not going to do his other job which is his role as an enforcer why dress him at all? It may not seem like that big of a deal as the team is still off to its best start in franchise history (we've heard that before by the way) from a character perspective I'd like to see a little more feistiness. The Wild now must refocus and get ready to get a win against the lowly Florida Panthers.
~ The Wild roster was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Dany Heatley, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Josh Harding shared duties between the pipes with Niklas Backstrom. Keith Ballard is on injured reserve with an upper body injury and Mathew Dumba was the lone healthy scratch.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game according to Wild.com were: 1st Star Jonathan Bernier, 2nd Star Zach Parise, 3rd Star
~ Attendance was 17,897 at Xcel Energy Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
D – Nick Seeler (Nebraska-Omaha, NCHC) ~ It has been an up and down year so far for the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks as they get used to a new conference with a lot of familiar faces and some new ones too. The Mavericks fell to former WCHA rival 3-2, and the Wild prospect played on the top pairing along with Jayson Megna and had a shot on goal and was a -1 in the loss.
RW – Adam Gilmour (Boston College, H-East) ~ On Sunday, in no doubt a nod towards Veteran's Day the Eagles played Army. Boston College welcomed the cadets with an 11-0 rout. The Wild power forward prospect got involved adding a goal and two assists in the victory. Gilmour has 2 goals, 7 points in 9 games played this season.
LW – Mario Lucia (Notre Dame, H-East) ~ Son finally gets a chance to play against his father's team and he has a big game in a losing effort for the Fighting Irish. Lucia had two goals and a helper where he finished the game a +3 in Notre Dame's 5-4 loss on Saturday. Lucia has 4 goals, 6 points and 4 PIM's in 10 games this season.