In a college or high school sports season, the start of it is normally the place for what you call your non-Conference schedule. The games do count towards your overall record, but since so much is tied to your success within your conference at times teams will have a laissez-faire attitude about them. In fact, at teams will simply see those non-Conference games as a warm up for the grind that is Conference play. The Wild must be feeling kind of like that right now, having played so few Western Conference foes through its first 20 games. Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, Calgary, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and today's opponent Winnipeg as Western Conference opponents we've faced thus far. That leaves out a fair portion of the Pacific and even the Wild's own Central division opponents yet to be played. So even though much has been made of the Wild's terrific start, much of it has come at the expense of Eastern Conference opponents and not the more difficult Western Conference clubs. Do we really know where the Wild stand at this point?
As the Wild transition away from the Eastern Conference teams towards the latter half of November we'll start to get an idea how well (or not so well, knock on wood) the Wild stack up. Many fans are still irritated over the club's lack of response against Toronto and are worried the team may be exposed for a lack of true toughness as the games become more physical as they most likely will in frequent divisional play. So can the Wild shoot down the Jets tonight or will Winnipeg fly by the Wild making fans wonder what their club is really made of?
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1st Period Thoughts: With the building just full of energy, tension and that feeling of 'rivalry' that hasn't been heard since the playoffs the game would start with the visiting horde of Jets fans trying to get things going with a Harding chant in an effort to take him off his game. However, as loud and obnoxious as the Jets fans wanted to be, the Wild would control most of the play early. The Wild were moving their feet very well and working the puck deep to work their cycle game. Minnesota had that extra step and even when Winnipeg did manage to get the puck out of their zone the Wild were quick to chase and track them down before they could get anything going offensively. Minnesota got a great momentum-building shift from a hybrid line of Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville as they controlled the zone with great hard work along the wall while Winnipeg's defense did all they could to try to get it away fromo them. Marco Scandella did a great job of providing good puck support as he'd step into a slap shot that just missed wide of Ondrej Pavelec. Winnipeg was really scrambling around their own zone as the Wild were simply better at supporting the play. Minnesota would again storm their way into the Jets' zone as Charlie Coyle found a little space towards the slot and he fired a shot just wide as Mikko Koivu and Parise patroled nearby but the whistle would blow on an interference penalty on Wild assistant captain. On the power play, the Wild were assertive and they harassed the puck carrier well never allowing Winnipeg to get too comfortable and the best they could manage was a slap pass by Dustin Byfuglien that failed to connect with Bryan Little. With no shots taken on the man advantage, the Wild would try to go back on the attack. Winnipeg was a little careless in their own zone as a deep dump in by Marco Scandella was picked up by Parise who tried to stuff it in near the left post and the puck would bounce back out to the slot that was pounced on by Koivu who moved the puck from his backhand to his forehand and ripped it by Pavelec 5-hole and just like that it was 1-0 Wild. Minnesota was showing a willingness to step up and play with some edge as Clayton Stoner was throwing his body around early and often. The Wild continued to apply pressure and the top line again was causing the Jets some problems as some terrific hustle by Zach Parise resulted in him getting tripped up by Mark Scheifele. On the power play the Wild were a bit static, but they still controlled the zone as they patiently tried to set up a shot from the point. The Wild didn't create as much pressure as one would hope on the man advantage as the Jets kept good active sticks to disrupt Minnesota's attempts to move the puck into the slot. Evander Kane would get an opportunity shorthanded and his long shot was blocked aside by Josh Harding who didn't have much work at all and I wasn't sure if Harding got cheers or if it was Jets fans giving their team a Bronx cheer for registerting just their 2nd shot on goal. Minnesota ended the period outshooting the Jets 9-2, and more importantly 1-0 on the scoreboard. I liked the way the Wild were keeping Winnipeg bottled up in their own end with a great cycling game. I thought Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter and Scandella had a great period; poised controlled and they really helped support the play in the offensive zone. Pominville was a bit lost out there, hopefully the 2nd line gets a bit more active as the game goes on.
2nd Period Thoughts: The period started off kind of slow as both clubs hustled and battled for the puck through the neutral zone before finally the Wild were able to create some pressure. It all started with a nice play by Mikael Granlund to enter the zone where he'd work the puck down low to Nino Niederreiter who set up Jason Pominville for a quick shot that he didn't get much on it and Pavelec had an easy save. Just a few minutes later the 2nd line again caused the Jets some problems as Niederreiter had a quality chance from in close that Pavelec stopped and the puck would move behind the young power forward and he'd lay out and swing a no-look shot that chipped up and just over the goal that earned the cheers from the home crowd for his great effort. Winnipeg tried to counter attack and Olli Jokinen would race into the zone and he fired a heavy wrist shot that would deflect off the skate of Jonas Brodin that struck the crossbar and out. Matt Cooke would get tagged with a high stick to the face of Roseau-native Dustin Byfuglien. On the Jets power play they'd hold the zone better, moving it around the perimeter where they tried setting up Little for a one-timer. The best chance came off the rush as Blake Wheeler raced by Scandella for a chance that was stoned by Harding before being ridden into boards. The Jets were doing all they could to get the equalizer and Minnesota was playing a little rope-a-dope as they were taking every chance to shoot the puck but the Wild were doing a good job at sweeping away rebounds. Minnesota started to counter punch a bit and Kyle Brodziak would get set up on a break away and he'd move in and lift a shot way over the goal. The chance sort of energized the Wild, who went back on the attack as they swarmed in the Jets' zone, as Parise moved in and tried to move his way around a defender to get a shot on Pavelec and the puck was gathered up as Minnesota looked as though it was on the power play. A great give and go between Koivu and Jared Spurgeon resulted in Spurgeon blistering a shot just wide of the mark. The Jets kept taking their chance as a long pass would reach Wheeler as he tried to step around Brodin who did a nice job of taking the angle forcing him to shoot it wide but the former Gopher stayed with it and he'd gather up the puck and fire a quick shot but Harding was able to get across the blue paint to make a big save. Harding would come up with another wicked stop as he snared a Byfuglien shot out of the air to preserve the Wild's 1-0 lead. Grant Clitsome would trip up Charlie Coyle giving the Wild a late power play. Minnesota would go with its 2nd unit to start with Niederreiter, Heatley and Granlund up front with Spurgeon and Brodin at the points. The power play held the zone but did not generate much in the way of shots because the Jets were willing to collapse down near their goaltender forcing the Wild to settle for a shot from the point which they did not want. There was little to no creativity on the man advantage as Granlund fed the puck to the slot where Heatley was not really ready to fire the puck quickly on goal and predicably the period would end with Minnesota having accomplished little. The Jets fired 14 shots on goal that period as the Wild let up a bit and were probably fortunate to still be leading going into the 2nd intermission. I thought Mathew Dumba was a source of weakness and it was no coincidence that everytime he was on the ice the Jets were quick to dump the puck in his part of the ice because they knew he was not going to go into the corners or win the battle along the boards. They need to use their cycling game as their defense in order to limit the amount of chances Josh Harding was facing.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Jets did not waste any time to notch the equalizer as Bryan Little would skate out from beneath the goaline where he'd turn and swing a shot on goal that was tipped by Byfuglien and by Harding and it was all knotted up at 1-1. The Wild were guilty of sleepwalking through their shifts and the Jets kept firing shots on goal. Minnesota would try to answer back as Spurgeon found Cooke for a pass near the top of the crease and he'd tap a shot on goal that was covered up by Pavelec. The Wild started to raise their game as Coyle hammered a slap shot on goal where Koivu crashed the net but Pavelec was able to make the stop as the Wild was tackled to the ice and he was none too happy about it. Minnesota would set up Mikko Koivu in the slot and he'd pull the trigger that wicked kicked away by Pavelec. Then about midway through the period, a horrific non-offsides call allowed the Jets to keep Minnesota out for a mega-long shift. A few minutes later, a strange sequence where Matt Cooke directed a pass that would be bounce off the ice and and then off Brodziak and was tipped out of danger by an alert Zack Redmond and nearly by Pavelec who appeared to be just as baffled by the bouncing biscuit as anyone else. Minnesota was winning the territorial battle on the ice and their persistance would be rewarded as Charlie Coyle won the struggle for the puck along the boards near the dasher and he'd turn and swing a pass to Koivu who got off a quick shot that beat Pavelec to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead with just about 3 minutes left to play. Instead of sitting back and defending their lead, the Wild stayed on the attack and they managed to work almost another two minutes off the clock, preventing the Jets from pulling their goalie for an extra attacker. With about a minute left the Jets would use a stoppage to pull Pavelec for an extra attacker as well as call a timeout to devise a strategy. But it wouldn't matter as the Wild would circle the wagons and Koivu's hat trick bid on a weak backhand was denied but they'd earn an important 2-1 victory.
Josh Harding was again terrific, making 21 saves in the win. Harding came up with some huge stops in the 2nd period to keep the Jets at bey when they were really pouring it on. Defensively I thought the Wild got great performances from Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin but I really thought Marco Scandella was particularly solid. Stoner was making his presence felt with some big hits early on, but I thought Mathew Dumba was a turnover machine. He simply does not belong in the NHL and I don't see how this is helping the team. Everytime Dumba was on the ice, Minnesota often found itself bottled up in its own end. The penalty kill had another good night too.
Offensively the Wild were really carried by the top line and it was Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle making most of it happen. Parise was good, but tonight he was more of a passenger on the line. Coyle was doing the grunt work of digging pucks out along the boards and Koivu showed some finish for a change. He seems to play a little better when he gets a little angry, showing a little more assertiveness and willingness to shoot the puck which that line needs him to do every night. Other than some individual plays by Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter I was disappointed in the 2nd line who seemed to have just a few real good shifts all game long. The power play also still needs work, its too static and far too easy to take away the passing and shooting lanes.
Still, the team keeps finding ways to win games and its big to win games in your division. The team no doubt felt off the rivalry type atmosphere with all of the Jets fans chanting throughout good portions of the game; this helped keep the crowd into it and the Wild found a way to get it done. The team is 7-0-1 in Movember, and now they will go on another short Canadian road trip with games against Montreal (Tuesday), Ottawa (Wednesday) and then to the MTS Centre in Winnipeg on Saturday wrapping it all back up with a tough game in St. Louis. Either way you want to make the most of your home games and Minnesota has really managed to make that count so far (knock on wood) this season.
~ Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Justin Fontaine, Dany Heatley, Torrey Mitchell, Zenon Konopka, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederrieter, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Mathew Dumba. Johan Gustafsson backed up Josh Harding. Nate Prosser was the lone healthy scratch.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild.com were: 1st Star Mikko Koivu, 2nd Star Josh Harding, 3rd Star Blake Wheeler
~ Attendance was 18,283 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The State of Hockey News would like to send our sincere congratulations to the University of Minnesota's Women's Hockey team which lost 3-2 today against arch-rival North Dakota ending their 62-game winning streak. It was a wonderful and crazy ride for as long as it lasted. Now its time to start another mega-winning streak! Congratulations to all of the Gopher players, staff and coaches that were a part of the streak.
Iowa Wild Report:
Times have been tough for the Iowa Wild as they dropped their 3rd straight game in a 1-0 loss to Midwest Division rival Milwaukee Saturday night in front of 8,111 fans at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Former Kelowna Rockets star Colton Sissons would score late in the 1st and that is all that Milwaukee would need. Darcy Kuemper had 33 saves in the loss. Jason Zucker led the Wild with 5 shots on goal as goals have been hard to come by this season. The Iowa Wild are 6-8-0 and are in last place in the Midwest Division.
Wild Prospect Report:
G – Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) ~ The athletic goaltender earned his 1st shutout of the season making 27 saves in the Huskies' 3-0 win over the Sherbrooke Phoenix. Belanger is 10-6 this season with 3.34 goals against average and .879% save percentage this season.
G – Stephen Michalek (Harvard, ECAC) ~ An Ivy League showdown ended in Michalek (now with a 1-2-1 record) earning his first victory of the 2013-14 season for the Crimson. Michalek made 32 saves in the 5-3 victory.
D – Nick Seeler (Nebraska-Omaha, NCHC) ~ The Eden Prairie-native had an assist in the Mavericks' 4-3 loss to Michigan on Saturday. Seeler has a goal, three assists and 18 PIM's in 12 games this season.
D – Nolan DeJong (Michigan, Big 10) ~ The freshman defenseman helped the Wolverines earn a series sweep by adding an assist in their 4-3 win over Nebraska-Omaha. DeJong has two assists in 10 games this season.
LW – Mario Lucia (Notre Dame, H-East) ~ The talented left winger chipped in an assist as Nore Dame battled to a 2-2 tie against Merrimack. Lucia has 5 goals, 3 assists and 4 PIM's in 12 games this season.