As hockey season moves into full swing, with the NHL, AHL, college and now boys and girls high school hockey seasons rolling along it means there are a plethora of options for puck fans like myself. It means any fan can easily fill their game watching any of those levels of hockey. Normally that means an NHL game caps off your evening, but not today as the Wild play a rare early afternoon game in the wind-swept city of Winnipeg. The Jets are trying to cope with life no longer in the Southleast, and dealing with the reality of the challenge of the Central Division. The Central Division and the Western Conference is a whole other animal. Just to put it in perspective. If Atlantic and Metropolitan leading Division leading Boston and Pittsburgh respectively were in the Central or Pacific Divisions they'd be in 5th! Is that story being getting a lot of air time on the NHL Network? Nope. If Winnipeg played in the new Southleast, i.e. the Metropolitan Division they'd in 3rd place. Instead they're in 7th in the Central.
I remember going to a Manitoba Moose game at MTS Centre a few years back. Those were times when the thought of the NHL returning to Winnipeg seemed somewhat remote. A dysfunctional ownership in Atlanta provided an opportunity and a resurgent Winnipeg pounced on the opportunity. Fans in Canada's prairie jewel were exuberant, but the happy honeymoon is showing signs of wearing a bit. Having NHL hockey back is good, but they want to see a winner. Instead they've seen an organization that has mostly spun its wheels the way it did when It was in Atlanta. Can the Jets demonstrate they can truly compete in the Central by being one of the most hostile road stops their opponents could imagine? Will that be enough or will the Jets get another harsh dose of reality this afternoon?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota would get an early power play as Devin Setoguchi tripped up Ryan Suter as he chased down a puck deep in the Wild zone. The power play did not start out well, mainly due to hesitation and poor execution made it easy for the Jets to get a kill. I understand that the loss of Mikael Granlund forces the Wild to make some adjustments to their power play, but it doesn't mean you forget everything. The Wild had difficulty with even the most simplest of plays and the power play was more akin to 2-minutes of futility. After the failed power play the Wild would dominate the play a bit, mainly with their lower lines as the reformed 3rd line of Dany Heatley, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke. The line created a great opportunity as Cooke made a nice little pass from down below the goal line that went back out to the point where Jonas Brodin stepped into a slap shot that went wide and the puck caromed off the boards that just missed the stick of Heatley. Winnipeg would counter attack and started to swarm a bit in the Minnesota zone forcing Niklas Backstrom to make some nice saves. The Wild were would scrambling in their zone, helping their goaltender by sweeping away dangerous pucks but the pressure would draw a Minnesota penalty as Brodin sent a puck up into the stands for a delay of game call. Minnesota's penalty killers did an outstanding job at winning the little battles for the puck and clearing the zone and forcing the Jets to retreat and regroup. As the power play expired the Jets had their best chance of the period as a point shot was stopped by Backstrom and then the Wild veteran goalie was sharp as he denied Mark Scheifele on his rebound bid. While Minnesota was inconsistent with the way they tried to exit the zone, but they would recover quickly and were able to keep it from becoming too dangerous. There would be some good fortune too as a fanned Clayton Stoner pass went to the stick of Scheiefele but the puck would bounce over his stick before he could pull the trigger as Mathew Dumba moved in to take the biscuit away. A minute or two later, Evander Kane found himself all alone in the slot for a one timer that was knocked up into the air by the glove of Backstrom and luckily for him the puck didn't have quite enough momentum to trickle into his goal and instead fall back into the blue paint where it was swept out of danger by Marco Scandella. The Jets kept pressing the attack as Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler were trying to work the puck near the blue paint but Minnesota's defense got tough when they needed to keep Backstrom from having to struggle too much with the traffic near his crease. The Wild would escape the first period, where they were sloppy but surviving after being outshot 14-4. Not acceptable.
2nd Period Thoughts: Backstrom again found himself making a big save as from close range as a big point shot by Dustin Byfuglien was stopped and then Backstrom stopped Kane's rebound chance and the puck would lie in the slot until it was carried away by the Charlie Coyle. Minnesota would get a few quality chances of their own as the top line of Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Zach Parise would cause havoc on the cycle in successive shifts as Winnipeg was scrambling as the Wild were firing shots from all over. The best chance came on a long wrist shot by Jared Spurgeon was redirected off the post by Pominville. You could sense the anxiety building in the MTS Centre as the top line's efforts would start to inspire some of the other lines to go on the attack as Coyle and Jason Zucker tried to work a give and go that just failed to connect. Zucker was pulling the trigger as often as he could, forcing Ondrej Pavelec to make some fine saves to keep the game knotted at 0-0. The Jets would strike first as Matt Halischuck would fire a shot that Backstrom stopped and the puck would pop up and fall back down in the blue paint where it was tapped in by Michael Frolik to make it 1-0. With the crowd chanting 'Backstrom' they renewed their assault on the Wild offensive zone and the Wild goaltender had to make a great stop on Setoguchi. Charlie Coyle would hustle through the neutral zone and drew a holding penalty on Andrew Ladd. Minnesota would create a few quality chances on the man advantage but Pavelec was able to shut the door. The Wild again came up empty on the power play, and the Jets went back on the attack. Backstrom was again coming up with some terrific saves, including a sprawling denial of Halischuk. The Wild had some opportunities, but the Jets still were able to have their way all too ofen in the Minnesota zone. Down by one, the Wild are still very much in this game and they owe that to the play of Backstrom (knock on wood). Dumba had a fairly good period.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would start the 3rd period with some more fire as the Wild put Nino Niederreiter on the top line and it would pay off as the Wild took a page out of the Winnipeg playbook as they stormed the crease after a shot from the point by Scandella and it was El Nino banging home the rebound and it was 1-1. The Jets would answer right back with some hard work of their own as Minnesota's defense couldn't track down the puck, and Mark Schieifele would set sort of a pick on Spurgeon not allowing him to track down the puck and it would be swept up by Michael Frolik who fed it out front where it was taken by Halischuk who got off a shot that was stopped by Backstrom but he couldn't stop Halischuk's rebound bid and it was 2-1 Winnipeg. Minnesota would try to respond quickly and its newly formulated 2nd line of Pominville, Zucker and Coyle just missed connecting on a few nice plays. The Jets would try to add to their lead and after Backstrom stopped Setoguchi's shot, and the play continued, Ryan Suter took exception to Setoguchi following up his shot and some facewashes were exchaged before Evander Kane took a swing at Suter who didn't seem to be interested in dropping the gloves with Winnipeg's hot head. After a lengthy discussion, the officials decided no one was going to be sent to the sin bin and play would resume. Kane clearly threw dropped the glove and threw a punch at Suter, but didn't serve even two minutes in the box, uh ok?!?! The would renew its efforts to work for the game-tying goal and the Winnipeg zone started to resemble a shooting gallery as the Wild were firing shots from all over, mostly from the perimeter, hoping for a favorable deflection but most were missing wide of the goal. Ryan Suter continued to be the focus of the play where he was all over the place, shutting them down in the defensive zone and quarterbacking the effort in the Jets' end. Unfortunately they were not able to light the lamp and as the Jets would counter attack, Marco Scandella would get tagged with a marginal hooking call. The Wild's penalty kill was especially aggressive as they were stepping up and challenging the Jets puck carriers and this was causing Winnipeg to caugh up the puck. Minnesota would attack shorthanded as Mikko Koivu set up Zach Parise on a pretty one-timer that beat Pavelec and now it was tied at 2-2. The Wild's aggressive approach was well-timed as the Jets power play was nearing about a minute in, and therefore a little tired and Koivu and Parise combined on the clutch goal. That was the Wild's 1st shorthanded tally of the season. The Jets were a little ornery after the shorthanded goal but Minnesota's penalty kill finished strong and they'd go back on the attack once they were at full strength. Both clubs were trading rushes with one another but neither was able to really create another prime scoring chance and the game would go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: As up-tempo as the end of the 3rd period was, overtime was far more cautious. Both clubs were very wary of making a big mistake. Although the Wild almost gave them one as Mathew Dumba tried to pinch to make a play in the offensive zone as he attempted a cross ice pass that was intercepted giving the Jets a 2-on-1, luckily for the rookie he had a Norris-trophy finalist as his partner and it was a great play by Suter who stymied the attempt before Evander Kane could get off a shot. The Wild would continue to be cautious and calculated as the Wild had a few nice chances as Brodin's shot from the high slot was stopped by Pavelec. The Jets would try to counter attack but Suter and Backstrom would shut the door and the game would go to a shootout. Ryan Suter is having one helluva game. A force at both ends of the ice.
Shootout Summary: The Winnipeg Jets would elect to shoot first and they would send out Blake Wheeler first. Wheeler would move very slowly up the ice, moving his shoulders and hoping Backstrom would drop but he stood tall and was able to stop his bid with ease. Minnesota's first shooter was Zach Parise who moved in and weaved and tried to fire a wrist shot high against the grain but he'd miss wide. The Jets next shooter was Andrew Ladd who would race in and and try to lift a backhand shot but was robbed by the glove of Backstrom. Minnesota's next shooter was Mikko Koivu who moved wide left and then back to the right where he dusted off his forehand to backhand shelf move to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. The Jets next shooter was Bryan Little, and the former Barrie Colts star would move in and rifle a wrister off the right post and in to tie it up at 1 goal apiece. Minnesota's next shooter was Jason Pominville and he'd move sort of slowly to the right before moving back towards the middle of the ice where he got off a weak wrist shot that was dismissed easily by Pavelec. The Jets would then go to former Wild winger Devin Setoguchi. Setoguchi would move right down the middle of the ice but he'd push a shot wide left. Minnesota's next shooter was Charlie Coyle and the youngster would move wide right and then get Pavelec to drop with a good shoulder fake before pulling the puck back for an easy forehand goal to seal a 3-2 shootout win for the Wild.
Niklas Backstrom was superb in relief of Josh Harding who hurt himself during pre-game warmups. Backstrom was giving up rebounds, but the Wild defense did a good job (for the most part) sweeping away the pucks to keep them out of the Wild net. Although when they didn't sweep them away, Backstrom had some marvelous stops on the 2nd chance opportunities too. Considering how little he's really played this season in a game where he did not expect to start he was absolutely clutch. I thought Ryan Suter had a Norris-trophy like game today. He logged 30:06 of ice time for the game. It didn't result in goals but he was a force at both ends of the ice, shutting down the Jets and helping press the attack all game long. I also thought Marco Scandella had an excellent game as well and he's really stringing together some solid performances after struggling earlier in the year. The Wild also got a good game from Mathew Dumba who still made some rookie mistakes but he also made some good plays in his own end which shows you he's learning and improving. The penalty kill was rock solid tonight.
Offensively the Wild again found a way to do enough to win. It was a scrappy effort at times, and the team continues to get contributions from guys who play all over the lineup. The top line really stepped up down the stretch to put the pressure on the Jets and eventually burying the equalizer on the penalty kill. It was good to see Nino Niederreiter respond with another goal off the rebound where he again just willed a puck into the back of the net through sheer effort.
When the game started and the Wild looked lethargic out of the gate I thought we were screwed. The team was sort of sleep walking and Backstrom was under siege. However the team woke up and started to chip away at the Jets and slowly found its puck possession game and then managed to bury a few chances to do enough to come away with 2 points. The fact the Wild didn't have to put out a perfect effort but still managed to win is a sign of a confident hockey club. While you'd like to see the team start out stronger, the team didn't give up and their resilience was rewarded. Now the Wild have to refocus and try to finish the road trip strong by beating St. Louis who is nipping at Minnesota's heels in the Central Division standings.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Zenon Konopka, Justin Fontaine, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville, Torrey Mitchell, Jason Zucker, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Josh Harding, Mikael Granlund and Torrey Mitchell are all out of the lineup with injuries.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Zach Parise, 2nd Star Matt Halischuk, 3rd Star Ryan Suter
~ Attendance was 15,004 at MTS Centre.
Wild Prospect Report:
D – John Draeger (Michigan State, Big 10) ~ After missing the first 9 games of the season, the former Shattuck-St. Mary's stud returned to the Spartans' lineup last night. Unfortunately he wasn't able to carry the team to a victory as the Spartans fell 3-0 to Western Michigan. Draeger had no shots on goal and was a -1 playing on the Spartans' top defensive pairing along with Travis Walsh.
D – Gustav Olofsson (Colorado College, NCHC) ~ The Tigers' freshman is starting to provide glimpses of his two-way ability as he tallied an assist and 2 shots on goal as Colorado College tied St. Cloud State 2-2 on Friday.
G – Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) ~ Normally, Alexandre Belanger sees a deluge of shots on goal but that didn't happen on Friday against Sherbrooke. Maybe it was the lack of activity that took Belanger off his game as he gave up 4 goals on 15 shots but was still good enough to give the Huskies a 5-4 win over the Phoenix. Certainly not good for Belanger, but still the Huskies will gladly take the victory. Belanger is 11-6 with a 3.38 goals against average and an .874% save percentage with 1 shutout this season.