A week or so ago I was reading a column by the Hockey News' Ken Campbell talking up the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins as the perfect Stanley Cup matchup. While I'd agree with Campbell (and I don't often do so) that St. Louis and Boston both have the covetable mix of skill, size, speed, and grit to likely be a strong recipe for success I have to say what struck me most were the idiotic comments being lobbed by insecure fans. Most of these people were fans of Eastern Conference clubs. There were Pittsburgh fans calling Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup a faux championship because they did not face a single Eastern Conference foe during the regular season. Please allow yourself a few seconds just to laugh at such a preposterous statement, one worthy of the KFAN Preposterous statement of the year award given out by the 'Common Man" (Dan Cole) Progrum. So the Blackhawks Stanley Cup is a farce because they didn't play Eastern Conference clubs? Really? I would say without an ounce of hesitation that the Chicago Blackhawks were not only deserving champions but last season you could argue the road was far tougher for them than it was its Stanley Cup Finals opponent the Boston Bruins. Chicago battled through a far tougher Western Conference to earn the most points 77 than anyone in the NHL and then steamrolled through the playoffs before mowing down the Bruins in 6 hard fought games. The Blackhawks are proving last season's unreal 36-7-5 record in a 48 games season was no fluke as they again sit atop the NHL standings with 44 points in 29 games compared to just 39 points in 29 games for the East's top dog, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Western Conference clubs have absolutely dominated their Eastern Conference foes 102-61 in 163 games played between the two this season so far. Want a little more proof? The New York Rangers are sitting in 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division with 28 points. 28 points would have you in 7th place in the Central and 6th in the Pacific respectively. Who has the easy road Eastern Conference fans?
Both the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks have enjoyed a fair amount of success at the expense of Eastern Conference opponents with the Wild sporting an impressive 9-3-2 record and the Blackhawks at 7-0-2. Minnesota and Chicago are 1-1 so far in the season series. A series which promises to get more heated with each game as the old rivalry rekindles itself almost like a phoenix out of the ashes. The Blackhawks are a very formidable opponent no matter what Conference your team resides in, and the Wild are going to have to play at their very best just to have a chance. So can the Wild take a step closer to Chicago in the standings with a victory tonight or will the Blackhawks make Minnesota take a step back?
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1st Period Thoughts: Good first period for the Wild. Minnesota had good energy, but most importantly was playing smart and handling Chicago's attempts at the forecheck. The Wild was not allowing Chicago to bottle them in their own end and just dictate the pace of play. Minnesota was taking its chances to put pucks on net, forcing Corey Crawford to make some saves early. The result of doing these things well the Wild would be rewarded on the scoreboard as Erik Haula chased down a puck, which was swept up by a supporting Torrey Mitchell who turned and swung a quick pass over to Matt Cooke who unleashed a one-timer that beat Crawford. It was the kind of bang-bang play that has eluded the Wild for much of the season. A quick shot, giving the goaltender little time to react. Too many times the Wild will settle the puck and shoot it allowing the goaltender to get set and square and then the shooter often misses high as he tries to shoot it with the little open space left. Chicago didn't look nearly as tough without Wild killer Bryan Bickell and their super pest Andrew Shaw. Yet it wasn't all sunshine and roses for the Wild. Just moments after Cooke's goal, the Wild defense would get caught pinching and a long pass found Patrick Sharp for a breakaway but Josh Harding came up with a huge save by doing the splits and keeping the puck from crossing the goal line. It was a clutch play by a goaltender who has delivered many saves like that throughout the season (knock on wood). Throughout the period the Wild defense was getting caught and Chicago was getting behind Minnnesota's D and they were having quality chances and while Harding was shutting them down it was not a good practice to continue to allow the Blackhawks such an easy time at creating shooting opportunities. But let's not be a Debbie Downer, the Wild still controlled the play with good puck control and avoiding the panic type plays of just throwing away possession by overusing the boards and glass. Minnesota was winning the battles for the puck along the boards and those subtle plays were making a huge difference in terms of who seemed to be in control of this game. I liked what I was seeing out of Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley. The line was playing assertively, and I like how they used their big bodies to protect the puck and work it into the scoring areas of the ice. I think they're going to light the lamp in this game.
2nd Period Thoughts: An ok period, but one where the Wild went away from a lot of the little things that served it so well in the 1st. Minnesota went from passing the puck, tape to tape and avoiding the dumb turnovers to being a club that chipped the puck off the glass and boards even when there was little pressure prompting them to do so. The result was a lot of needless giveaways and this meant Minnesota spent far less time in the offensive zone dictating the pace of play and Chicago started to tilt the play into the Wild zone. Even though the Wild were being a bit more careless with the puck; often just chipping it off the glass to no one Minnesota was retreating to help out Josh Harding as much as they could. A good example of this was on the Blackhawks power play. Minnesota allowed the Blackhawks to create a few shots, but the Wild's defense did a good job at shrinking the passing and shooting lanes and when the puck did reach Harding they were quick to sweep away the loose pucks before Chicago could pounce on them. I thought Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner really stood tall in this period. They were physical when they had to be without being reckless or selfish. Ryan Suter again made some plays under pressure that I feel are the kind of plays that are too ignored when the league's writers go to vote on the Norris trophy. As a Wild power play expired, a blocked shot on Jonas Brodin allowed Duncan Keith to race down the ice on what he thought was a breakaway. Suter didn't panic, quickly sized up the situation took a few quick strides to get back in front of Keith and here is a common place you'll see a defenseman panic and drop to the ice to try to knock the puck away but instead Suter just lifts the stick and takes the puck away and Keith gives up on it without a battle. His potential scoring chance was gone as fast as it materialized. Minnesota would finally strike on the power play although I still think the puck and player movement on the man advantage leaves a lot to be desired. They'd finally take a quick shot from the point by Jason Pominville that struck Dany Heatley and roll out to Zach Parise who shoveled it home. Notice a trend. Quick shots on Crawford were leading to good things and the Wild must continue to work those kinds of chances. Minnesota would relax a bit in the closing minutes and that would come back to bite them as Chicago scored with just 16 seconds left as Jeremy Morin banged home a rebound chance of a Joakim Nordstrom shot. It was the kind of goal that basically erased the good things the Wild did during the period as now it was another one-shot hockey game. Coyle had another great period.
3rd Period Thoughts: Some teams can just flip a switch and dominate in an instant. I used to feel the Detroit Red Wings were like that during their heyday, where they could just take over after being a little indifferent through the first two periods. Chicago would strike twice in the first half of the period to tie the game and register the go-ahead marker. First one was a Brandon Saad snipe where he outmuscled Suter for a puck and then fired a laser of a wrist shot over the shoulder of Harding. Then after a lazy penalty by Suter, the Wild did a pretty good job at being aggressive on the penalty kill but Chicago would take the lead off a Marian Hossa snipe off the rush. Its the kind of goal the Wild seem incapable of scoring themselves, a quick wrist shot that beat Harding top corner to make it 3-2. Hossa's goal finally forced Minnesota to start skating with a sense of urgency. Minnesota started to be less picky and were firing shots whenever the opportunity presented itself. The Wild's top line really started to cause some trouble with an outstanding cycling game and their effort would help draw a power play. Because the top line worked so hard during the shift Minnesota had to use its 2nd power play unit at the start. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the youngsters moved the puck quicker on the umbrella before it ultimately led to a Jonas Brodin one-timer that would be deflected partially by Oduya which ahd the puck bounce off the ice and by Crawford to tie the game at 3-3. Chicago tried to re-take the lead and they stormed Minnesota's zone that had the Wild chasing as they set up Patrick Kane for a big slap shot on a back door play that he blasted wide. Minnesota would go back on the attack and doing the right things, like taking a quick shot would be rewarded. This time it was a snap shot by Marco Scandella off a Jared Spurgeon feed that beat Crawford who did not seem to track the puck very well to give the Wild a 4-3 lead with under two mintues to play. Chicago would push hard for the equalizer but the Wild would circle the wagons around Josh Harding and Minnesota would skate away with a big 4-3 win.
Josh Harding came up with some big saves at the right time to give his team another victory. Harding had 16 saves in the victory. While Minnesota did a good job at limiting the amount of shots reaching their goaltender, the goals he did give up were on high quality shots. Saad and Hossa's wrist shots were absolutely wicked top shelf snipes that would've beaten any goaltender. Defensively I thought the Wild did a nice job of being physical at the right times and not allowing Chicago to really push them around. Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard were the Wild's best defenseman this evening. They moved the puck well, supported the play in the offensive zone well and were responsible in their own end. Ryan Suter had an up and down game. His 2nd period was good, but his 3rd period was a bit sketchy.
Offensively the Wild got a nice bonus from its blueline tonight, as Brodin and Scandella lit the lamp in the 3rd to give Minnesota the win. I thought Brodin was looking hungry, offensively all game long as he was taking his chances to jump up when he could to help out his forwards. Charlie Coyle had a tremendous game; exhibiting good speed, solid puck protection and sublime strength. The 4th line of Matt Cooke, Torrey Mitchell and Erik Haula had a very good night as well; being pesky at both ends of the ice and getting the game going in the right direction on Cooke's goal. The power play helped lift the Wild to a win with two goals, and while I wouldn't say their puck movement was anything special I really hope they continue to use the quick shot to either beat goaltender out right or to set up secondary chances.
This was a quality victory against a slightly depleted Chicago team. The Blackhawks still had a formidable group of weapons, and it was nice to see the Wild dig in and rally back after a set back early in the 3rd period. Minnesota played smarter early on, adhering to a puck possession style we haven't seen in quite a while. I really hope we see more of that because I think this team now can score plus playing this stifling style of hockey. A victory always feels good, but now they have to refocus to play a motivated and desperate Columbus Blue Jackets team tomorrow night.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Matt Cooke, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak, Justin Fontaine, Mike Rupp, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Zenon Konopka and Nate Prosser were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game according to wild.com were: 1st Star Marco Scandella, 2nd Star Zach Parise, 3rd Star Jonas Brodin
~ Attendance was 18,852 at Xcel Energy Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Iowa won a huge 5-4 shootout victory on Wednesday night in San Antonio against its former in-state rival when the club was the Houston Aeros. It was a crazy back and forth game where both clubs were taking advantage of power plays. The San Antonio Rampage would start off the scoring as Vincent Trocheck scored on a 5-on-3 power play early in the 1st period. The Wild would answer back as Jonathon Blum stepped into a slap shot that beat Jacob Markstrom on a power play of their own to tie the game. The Rampage would score late in the period as Colby Robak ripped a shot that beat a well-screened Darcy Kuemper to make it 2-1 going into the 1st intermission. Iowa would answer with the equalizer as Steven Kampfer fired a bullet that beat Markstrom off a nice drop pass by Carson McMillan. San Antonio would again gouge the Wild on the power play as Ryan Whitney flung a shot on goal that Kuemper did not see until it was behind him to make it 3-2. Iowa kept persisting and they would use the power play to knot the game up again as Jason Zucker blistered a one-timer to the back of the Rampage goal to make it 3 goals apiece. However the good feelings did not last long as the Rampage scored just 14 seconds later as a bouncing puck led to a rebound that was pounced upon by Steve Pinozotto who tapped it by a sprawling Kuemper to give San Antonio a 4-3 lead going into the 3rd. Iowa would spend the majority of the 3rd period trying to work for the game-tying goal and their persistance would be rewarded as Brian Connelly scored his first goal of the season sending the game to overtime. After a back and forth overtime where both clubs traded long range shots that didn't really threaten Markstrom or Kuemper all that much the game was to be decided in a shootout. In the shootout, it was a night for the goaltenders as both Kuemper and Markstrom allowed just one goal with the first 5 shooters as two former Denver Pioneers scored in Jason Zucker for the Wild and Drew Shore for the Rampage. It all came down to rookie Tyler Graovac who beat Markstrom to give Iowa a huge 5-4 shootout victory. Darcy Kuemper had 44 saves in the victory. The Aeros next game is on Friday against Texas.
Wild Prospect Report:
D – Nolan DeJong (Michigan, Big 10) ~ The Wolverines may be tied for 1st in the Big 10, but they got humbled a bit this evening by the United States National Development Team's U-18 squad as they got beat 5-4 at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor. The Wild prospect defenseman played on Michigan's 3rd pairing and had an assist and was a -1 in the exhibition game loss.