Tradition, a word that is often spoken with great reverence to recognizing past glory. No team in the NHL has a more storied or successful 'tradition' as does the Montreal Canadiens. Sorry Toronto Maple Leafs fans, but you don't hold a candle to the bleu, blanc et rouge! Montreal has won more Stanley Cups than any franchise in NHL history with 24 championships to their credit. The names of Montreal's past are filled with legends of the game. From Howie Morenz, Doug Harvey, Guy Lafleur and of course the great Maurice "Rocket" Richard. The Canadiens could field a team of Hall of Famers and still leave some great players to act as a reserve. They are the pride of Quebec and as much a cultural symbol as they are a professional hockey team. The Minnesota Wild started out by trying to connect itself to the great 'tradition' of the Canadiens by hiring former Habs Doug Risebrough as General Manager, Mario Tremblay as an assistant coach and Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire as Head Coach in addition to fellow HOF'er Guy LaPointe as the team's Chief Amateur Scout a few years later which is a position he still holds today. The addition of these former Montreal players was meant to bring instant credibility to the new franchise and by most accounts they did a pretty good job given the circumstances.
Fast forward 13 years later, and most of that Montreal pedigree is no longer here where its been replaced by more of a Pittsburgh Penguins collection in recent years. The Wild are hoping to continue from the solid tradition created by the Montreal group and bring it forward by becoming a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup. Minnesota may not be at that level yet, but there are promising signs the best days lie ahead of this franchise. Montreal is trying to re-establish its 'tradition' with a team it built largely through the draft with the hope to earn its first Stanley Cup since 1993 which is the longest Stanley Cup drought ever for the storied franchise. Can the Wild's new tradition outlast Montreal tonight?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Wild started out a little slow to start the game as the new line comibinations were having mixed results. Minnesota started the game with a line of Kyle Brodziak, Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter. This line was not all that effective, especially on the forecheck as Niederreiter was the only one that seemed to really want to move deep into the Montreal zone to do his job. Brodziak and Koivu both seemed to want to wait for Nino to tie up his man and only then would they move in and then try to cherry pick the puck along the wall. Fortunately not all of the new line combinations were this aloof. The line of Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund and Justin Fontaine or Matt Cooke was by far the best line at creating offense all night long. At first it was Fontaine getting involved by using his speed and taking his opportunities to shoot and it should be noted his shots were forcing Carey Price to make saves. Yet it was still pretty slow the first 5-7 minutes of the game. Montreal wasn't doing much either, but at times they were causing the Wild to scramble in its own end as Lars Eller, Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher were able to bottle Minnesota up in its own end on a few occasions. Defensively the Wild were guilty of being a little impatient with the puck and blindly chipping it off the boards instead of looking to make a tape-to-tape pass and its one thing if you're really under a lot pressure but in most cases they were not it was simply as though they were playing hot potato with the puck. Those chips off the boards and glass turned into easy turnovers and the Wild got caught in super long shifts where it was Josh Harding that was forced to come up with a save and then freeze the puck just to give his teammates a rest. Intially the Wild's best line was its 4th line of Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell and Justin Fontaine. This group moved its feet well and made good passes to control the possession and then work the puck out to the point where Keith Ballard stepped into a slap shot that was deflected by Fontaine and by Price to give the Wild an early 1-0 lead. The good feelings were dashed pretty fast as Montreal answered back about 35 seconds later as Jonas Brodin would get caught flat footed as Alex Galchenyuk would turn on the jets and fly by him before swinging a pass towards the crease that glanced off the skate of Brendan Gallagher and in behind Harding to tie the game. There was a brief review, but Gallagher had turned his skates to stop and there was no kicking motion made so it was good goal. The rest of the period was really a showcase of sloppy play by the Minnesota Wild. Inaccurate passes to the back skate or simple mishandling of the puck thwarted potential rushes before they ever really got started. The Wild found themselves trying to figure out what was working, and very little was. Minnesota had one real quality scoring chance late in the period as Zach Parise set up Charlie Coyle on a feed from down low behind the Montreal goal and Coyle one-timed a hard shot that was stopped by the shoulder of Carey Price. So the period would end with both clubs tied at a goal apiece, with Minnesota outshooting Montreal by a 7-6 margin. The players back from injury, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin looked rusty out there and seemed to have difficulty with the speed of the game a bit. Keith Ballard seemed to have less of a problem with it. Dany Heatley looked and played like a slug on the ice, as he was two or three strides away from doing much of anything on any shift he had. More on Heatley later in this article.
2nd Period Thoughts: The 2nd period was kind of similar to the first. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo started to juggle the lines a little bit, working Dany Heatley onto a line with Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle. Heatley was again laboring heavily to get moving and be quick enough to be in just about any play on the ice. He was standing straight legged, not a recipe for great quickness in any sport and would sort of reach and turn but the feet didn't really move to get him anywhere. Parise would try to work the puck deep to start the forecheck and as he chased it down, he'd have to wait for Heatley and Coyle to arrive but even as he did they were often too late as the Canadiens defense would pick up the puck and start the breakout the other way. It wasn't much better for the Mikko Koivu, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter line. Mikko Koivu's predictable puck movement and lack of initiative to shoot when he had the chance, and it should be noted that Montreal was giving him lots of space and time to work with which is indicative of a team understanding he isn't much of a scoring threat was also making it very easy for the Canadiens to shut it down. Shadow Brodziak and Niederreiter and Koivu will look and wait and wait and then make a low-percentage pass instead of taking the chance to fire it on goal himself. Fortunately, Yeo was smart enough to keep one tandem together for most of the game. Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville have really developed some outstanding chemistry and they'd give a great example of it midway through the period as Granlund threaded a long stretch pass through the middle of the ice to Jason Pominville who got behind the Canadiens defense for a breakaway and the former Sabre made no mistake as he fired a wrist shot by Price to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. It was a beauty of a pass, threading the needle as it eluded two would-be Montreal defenders right onto the tape of Pominville. Charlie Coyle would get tagged with a penalty for hooking Alex Galchenyuk and the Canadiens went on the power play. Minnesota's penalty kill stood tall and played aggressively, denying time and space and when the Habs did manage to get set up Harding made some quality saves with a little traffic in front of the blue paint. It was another 'ok' period for the Wild, where Minnesota still wasn't getting that great of an effort out of some of its key vets (Heatley and Koivu) but they had just enough to get out of the period unscathed. Harding came up big on a few close in chances and on a few occasions when it appeared he was down and out the Habs just couldn't seem to finish. The Wild were outshot 13-6 in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period was a roller coaster of emotion and kind of a microcosm of the Wild's season to this point. Minnesota would get an early goal to extend its lead as Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville spearheaded a rush where Granlund got the puck and as he raced towards the corner he made a great pass to the crease where Nino Niederreiter simply chipped the puck up and over Price and just inside the crossbar to make it 3-1. It was another smart, yet simple play by Granlund to set up El Nino. Yet at this point the Wild decided to sit back and defend its lead and predictably that is when everything would start to go horribly wrong. Right after Niderreiter's goal, the Wild put out Zach Parise, Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle and the result was an awful shift where Heatley tried to forecheck but in the process held up P.K. Subban and would end up in the sin bin. Montreal would take full advantage of the power play and after a simple win of the draw P.K. Subban blistered a slap shot that Harding never appeared to see before it was in the back of the net and now it was a 3-2 game and the Canadiens and the 500-600 Habs fans in attendance were very much alive. A few minutes later, with the Wild still trying to play rope-a-dope in its own end and giving the Canadiens' point men lots of time and space because were collapsing so quickly around Harding, Montreal would strike again on sort of a similar play. This time it was Andrei Markov uncorking a slap shot / pass that went wide right onto the stick of Brian Gionta who redirected it by Harding who had no chance to tie the game at 3-3. At this point, Mike Yeo called a timeout to discuss the momentum change of the game with his team and it was pretty obvious he was animated and not in a real friendly way. Nor should he be, the team had decided to coast and now found itself just one shot away from possibly losing the game. The 'pep talk' seemed to pay dividends as the Wild started to go on the attack as they battled for the go-ahead goal. With some more line shuffling, Minnesota would strike again as a smart play by Keith Ballard to not only hold the zone but hammer a slap shot on goal that was defelected by Parise and stopped by Price but Jason Pominville was there to bury the rebound to give the Wild a 4-3 advantage. From here the Wild played a more aggressive style of defense, challenging the Habs all over the ice and they'd skate away with an important 4-3 victory.
Josh Harding was solid, making 28 saves in the win. He made some very key stops at moments in the game where the Wild were being very lazy and careless in their own end. Defensively the Wild were kind of sloppy. I thought Jonas Brodin struggled and the lack of physcality by Ryan Suter near his crease was a bit disconcerting. The Habs tried to storm the crease a few times in the 3rd and basically Josh Harding had a host of Montreal players in his paint and there were no Wild defenseman willing to really keep them out of there. That can't happen. The crease better be owned by your goaltender and protected by his defenseman and the Wild can't let any opponent have that ice without paying some kind of physical price to do so. I thought Keith Ballard had a decent return. The penalty kill has to respect the point men, especially on a team like Montreal with such a big scoring threat from the point in P.K. Subban who has demonstrated to be a menace.
Offensively the Wild really were carried by the combination of Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville who continues to be the hot hand. Pominville now leads the team with 9 goals and Granlund has found some terrific chemistry with him. They seem to know where each other are going to be and Granlund has the skill necessary to find ways to give him the puck where Pominville can finish. It was not a great night for Zach Parise who seemed to be a bit lost out there. Mikko Koivu was again ineffective and Dany Heatley was an outright debacle on the ice. Heatley was what I would term a line killer. Meaning his play on the ice often negated the chance of his linemates being effective at either end of the ice and defensively he was a tremendous liability as he really lacked the quickness to even force the Habs to make even marginally difficult plays. Its no coincidence that in the moments where the Wild got bottled up in its own zone, Heatley was on the ice. The sooner this team benches Dany Heatley, who isn't even shooting the puck anymore the better off it will be. No shots and two penalty minutes is indicative of just how far his game has fallen off. It would be one thing if he was a player who is still registering 4-5 shots a night and just can't seem to beat the goaltender but now he's not even getting shots on goal and yet the team is still giving him power play time as well as shifts with the team's best players. I am not sure anyone would be interested in trading for Heatley but I think this team cannot afford to give such ice time to a player who has been as abysmal as Heatley as he has been this season. The only reason you play him at all is because you feel you have to justify his salary but if he's doing nothing and perhaps is even hurting your teams' chances at what point do you finally end the charade and send him out to the pasture.
It wasn't a great game. The execution was sloppy and at times the effort was questionable but in the end the Wild did enough good things to win the game. Changing up the lines certainly gave the Wild some intriguing combinations and some worked well while others did not. Granlund appears to have found his groove and along with Jason Pominville have given the Wild that alternative source of scoring it sorely needs. Minnesota will now have to regroup and be prepared to take on a well-disciplined New Jersey Devils team on Sunday. Hopefully they worked that 'rust' off and are ready to bring it.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Dany Heatley, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Mike Rupp (knee) was still out of the lineup with an injury while Nate Prosser and Mathew Dumba were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild.com were: 1st Star Jason Pominville, 2nd Star Mikael Granlund, 3rd Star Andrei Markov
~ Attendance 18,207 was at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The Iowa Wild had a big home game tonight against the Texas Stars, and the former in-state Texas rivals had quite a game where the 5,609 in attendance witnessed Iowa coming out on top 4-2. Erik Haula got things going early with a power play goal just past the 5-minute mark and then former Golden Gopher Taylor Matson buried a feed from Raphael Bussieres to make it 2-0 Wild going into the 2nd period. Haula would light the lamp again on another early power play goal to make it 3-0 Wild, but then the Stars would answer back with two goals of their own from Brendan Ranford and Chris Mueller to make it a one-goal game. Jason Zucker would then add the dagger early in the 3rd period with a power play tally to seal a 4-2 victory. Darcy Kuemper was pretty solid, stopping 32 shots in the victory. Wild defenseman Jonathon Blum had 2 assists. Iowa plays Texas again tomorrow night in a rematch.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ The rugged winger had a solid game on Wednesday night for the Attack as they defeated the Barrie Colts 5-3. Gabriel had a goal and two helpers in the victory and finished the game with a +3 rating. The Wild's 3rd round pick from 2013 (81st Overall) is off to a tremendous pace with 5 goals, 17 points and 25 PIM's with a +1 rating in 13 games this season.
G – Stephen Michalek (Harvard, ECAC) ~ After spending last season under suspension for academic fraud, Stephen Michalek is trying to re-start his prospect career for the Crimson. Michalek had 22 saves on Thursday night for the Crimson as they tied RPI 3-3.
D – Carson Soucy (Minnesota-Duluth, NCHC) ~ The big defenseman is getting prime time minutes for the Bulldogs this season as he played on UMD's top defensive pairing this evening against Ohio State. Soucy helped the Bulldogs earn a 4-3 win over the Buckeyes by chipping in an assist and registering a shot on goal.