How much longer will NHL hockey be in the Arizona desert? After selling out opening night the Phoenix Coyotes played before a crowd of less than 9,000 people. In a butts in the seats league, that's a huge problem. The Phoenix Coyotes have one of the league's newest arenas that is on par with just about anyone in the league; including the Minnesota Wild. Yet people don't show up; they don't want to make the 30-minute commute outside of Phoenix to Glendale to watch them play. The Coyotes in many ways are about being guilty of bad timing. After relocating from Winnipeg, the team did have some good initial success. But then the drop off came and the team went nearly a decade before making the post season under current Coach Dave Tippett. Yet despite the Coyotes success under Tippett the crowds have been fleeting at best. The seemingly never ending drama over the fact the team continously finds ways not to be sold. The latest is the failed attempt by Greg Jamison to buy the club from the National Hockey League who has now owned and operated the team since 2009. Some believe this failure mean the team almost has no choice but to relocate. While I sympathize with the Coyotes fans over losing a team, the league has given the City of Glendale more than enough time to get its act together as well as courting a variety of owners and ownership groups to no avail. I think its time to move on, literally and figuratively.
Speaking of moving on, the Wild are taking their game on the road for a two-game road trip starting tonight in Phoenix and then on Friday against a surging Anaheim Ducks squad. The Wild are going to have to dig deep if they expect to even split this two-game road trip and that is not even taking into account this team's woes away from the Xcel Energy Center. Do the Wild have enough momentum to earn a win against the Desert Dogs this evening?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota started out a little passive at the start with its 4th line of Mike Rupp, Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Brodziak. The line would sit back into a defensive posture right away; going to a passive 1-2-2 as they attempted to create some early turnovers. After this initial passive shift, the Wild would go on the attack and Devin Setoguchi swung a wide pass just in front of Matt Cullen who tracked it down and directed a pass towards the slot where it was redirected perfectly by Jason Zucker that beat Mike Smith and it was 1-0 Wild. A rare early lead for Minnesota. A few mintues after the Wild's goal, Minnesota would give Phoenix the first power play of the game as Mitchell held up Kyle Chipchura. On the power play the Coyotes got a quality chance early as a deflected pass went onto the stick of cagey veteran Steve Sullivan who lifted a shot off the arm of Niklas Backstrom. The Wild's penalty killers were scrambling a bit as Oliver Ekman-Larsson was set up to blister shots on goal but luckily they were off the mark. Minnesota's PK would rally back and control the rest of the Coyotes' power play and the Wild would get the big kill. Perhaps sensing his team needed a spark, Twitter phenom Paul Bissonnette would drop the gloves with Mike Rupp. Mike Rupp would methodically take Bissonette apart with a few well placed jabs before landing a great punch that caught Bissonette on the nose that had him reeling a bit in a clear victory for the Wild tough guy. Minnesota's 2nd line would go back on the attack and they'd race into the Coyotes' zone as Cullen again set up a terrific scoring chance off the rush as his pass connected with Setoguchi who rang a shot off the right post. The Wild were attacking well with speed and finding ways to draw the defense and then release the puck to give them a prime scoring opportunity as Zach Parise set up Brodziak for an opportunity and his wrist shot nearly found a little space underneath the arm of the Coyotes goalie but Smith would clamp down and keep his club down by one. The Wild were persistent as Pierre-Marc Bouchard gave a nice little pass from along the boards to a racing Dany Heatley (much like the play that freed up Brodziak) and the big winger moved in and rifled a shot top left corner to make it 2-0 Wild. The Coyotes tried to assert their forecheck more and this did cause the Wild a few problems, but none too serious as Minnesota's defenseman did a nice job not getting carried away and they were able to make the short accurate passes to elude pressure. Phoenix started to really pour it on and thanks to the Wild going away from the short passes and attempting the blind 'area' passes it allowed the Coyotes to control the zone and get Minnesota scrambling in its own end. Sullivan, Antoine Vermette and Lauri Korpikoski were really buzzing in the Wild zone and Niklas Backstrom was forced to come up with some big saves. The Wild finally would break out with its top line and a fairly soft shot by Parise gave Mike Smith some trouble as he let a rebound go right in front his his crease that was shoveled on goal by Charlie Coyle but he'd come up empty as the Coyotes goaltender made the save. Zach Parise was not happy with the officiating and he'd get sent to the penalty box for unsportsmanlike conduct with just 8 seconds left in the period. Pretty good start for the Wild who finally was able to create some offense off the rush which had been non-existant most of the season. The Wild were being outshot 8-11 but they had at least as many quality scoring chances. Mikael Granlund looked lost and was getting in the way in the defensive zone.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Coyotes would start the 2nd period with nearly a full power play to work with. Minnesota's penalty killers did a nice job of challenging the puck carrier and making it diifficult for the Coyotes to get set up in the offensive zone. Phoenix got nothing going on the power play and Minnesota got another big kill. A few minutes later the Wild would get its first power play as Vermette tripped up Mikko Koivu. The Wild's power play struggled a bit to create time and space against the Coyotes' penalty kill but for the most part it was bad decisions with the puck as solid defensive play from Phoenix that caused Minnesota to have some problems. Just as the power play expired, some great work along the boards by Devin Setoguchi freed up the puck where it was swept up by Matt Cullen who wasted little time before setting up Heatley for a one timer from the slot that found the back of the net to make it 3-0 Wild. Great play and good to see Heatley getting involved offensively. The Coyotes tried to rally back but in their effort to create a scoring chance Raffi Torres inadvertently struck Jared Spurgeon in the mouth giving the Wild its 2nd power play of the game. Minnesota did little on the power play. A little too much handling of the puck and the Wild would come up empty. The Coyotes would strike back off the rush as Rostislav Klesla would pinch and chip a shot off the stick of Tom Gilbert and by Backstrom to make it 3-1. After a few minutes where the Wild tried to re-establish its hustle game, its effort would be rewarded with another power play as Raffi Torres tripped up Dany Heatley. I thought it was a marginal call and another play where Torres was guilty more of his reputation than a real trip. Either way, the penalty would prove costly for Phoenix as Minnesota's power play played with a purpose and was crashing the crease and their persistence was rewarded with a goal for Jared Spurgeon who had pinched down low. With the Wild now leading 4-1, Minnesota continued to carry the play offensively as the period came to a close. The Wild outshot Phoenix 11-4 and most importantly managed to register 2 more goals to give themselves a comfortable 3-goal lead. I was glad to see the Wild coaching staff finally give up on the Granlund experiment on the power play.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Coyotes would switch goaltenders to start the 3rd period, by placing Jason LaBarbera between the pipes. The Wild were staying pretty passive which was no real surprise but they were collapsing well in their own zone and just trying to work the puck deep and keep their shifts short. The Wild's keep away style was at times a bit risky with the puck and Spurgeon would draw a tripping call on Matt Lombardi. Minnesota was a little too fancy in their puck movement as they didn't to take any real foolish risks and just simply tried to control the offensive zone but not many shots were being taken. The Wild came up empty on the power play but it killed some valuable time off the clock. Minnesota would soon have to go on the penalty kill as Clayton Stoner was called for interference when he gave a good forearm shiver to Oliver Ekman-Larsson who played up the hit pretty well; so much so he probably deserved an unsportsmanlike call for embellishment but with the Wild holding a 3-goal lead that wasn't going to happen. The Wild's penalty kill was again stout, playing aggressively on the puck carrier and giving Phoenix fits at setting up in the offensive zone and Minnesota got another kill without too much trouble. Bouchard would set up Heatley for a big one timer from the high slot that was gloved by LaBarbera. The Wild would get a little lucky late in the period as Mitchell got a tripping call but as he did so it was Sullivan's attempt to sell it a bit more would give him a diving call. It was a nice catch by the officials and the Wild would relish the opportunity to play 4-on-4 for the next two minutes. Phoenix would get some new life off a strange play where Keith Yandle shot puck fof the glass where it hit a stanchion and the puck bounced a long the ice and through the Wild goalie to make it 4-2. The Coyotes would predictably start to pour it on with an inspired forecheck. Minnesota weather the storm and as Phoenix pulled LaBarbera for an extra attacker with nearly 2 minutes left. The Wild's Zach Parise seemed to be on his way to earning an empty netter but he was held up by Keith Yandle as his shot was blocked by Mikkel Boedker. This put the Coyotes on the penalty kill and the Wild on the power play but Minnesota would give up the man advantage as Cullen was given a holding call. The Coyotes would take advantage of their opportunity as Shane Doan moved into the slot and he ripped a shot by Backstrom to cut the Wild lead to one. This would make the last moments of the game interesting but a blocked shot by Spurgeon sealed a Minnesota victory.
Niklas Backstrom was solid through 55 minutes of play but he allowed the game to get a little more interesting than it should have been. The flukey goal by Yandle was possible in part due to Backstrom's lack of focus. Yes it was a strange carom, but he's paying attention he can hold that post and make a save. Doan's goal was also not the best as it was an unscreened shot. While Doan certainly wired it, it was a goal that nearly allowed the Coyotes to steal the game. Backstrom had 25 saves in the win. I thought Jonas Brodin was superb, and getting more comfortable with each game. The penalty kill was again fantastic for the Wild and they will need it tomorrow night in Anaheim. Jared Spurgeon also had a very solid game and seems to be taking on heavier workload.
Offensively the Wild started the game with the right attitude. They didn't just get shots on goal, but they found ways to enter the offensive zone with speed and make it count. Jason Zucker, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi were all terrific and Dany Heatley also benefitted from that approach and the hustle of his linemates. I like Heatley working with Bouchard, but Granlund is a complete non-factor as he looks slow and is atrocious in the defensive zone as he bumped into his linemates and nearly allowing Phoenix to get a goal in the 1st period due to his bumbling play. The first line wasn't as noticeable, but Charlie Coyle had a tremendous game along the boards, winning battles for the puck and working the puck back to the points and showing good confidence.
The ending was not all that great. And if you gave Phoenix one more minute I think they would've tied this game but fortunately the Wild's good start offensively was enough to give them enough of a cushion for a victory. Minnesota really will have its work cut out for them tomorrow night in Anaheim when they face a fast and explosive Ducks squad. Last time the Wild played in Anaheim they were absolutely embarassed and dominated. Can the Wild earn another two points tomorrow night?
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Zach Parise, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Charlie Coyle, Mike Rupp, Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert, Justin Falk, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Nate Prosser and Zenon Konopka were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Dany Heatley, 2nd Star Niklas Backstrom, 3rd Star Matt Cullen
~ Attendance was 11,547 at Jobing.com Arena.
Wild Prospect Report:
C – Tyler Graovac (Belleville, OHL) ~ The 6'4" center continues to pile up points for the Bulls this season as he added two more assists in a 4-0 victory over Brampton Wednesday night, giving him 29 helpers on the season to go along with 35 goals. Graovac has been the go-to offensive threat the Bulls wanted him to be when they traded for him a little over a month ago. Since joining Belleville, Graovac has 15 goals, 29 points and equally impressive +24 in 21 games.
RW – Raphael Bussieres (Baie-Comeau, QMJHL) ~ In a Thursday night game, Bussieres lit the lamp in Baie-Comeau's 3-2 loss to Blainville-Boisbriand. The goal was Bussieres' 25th of the season, but his contributions were not limited to just the scoreboard as the got involved physically by doling out 2 hits as well.