For a long time the Toronto Maple Leafs were a bit of a punchline for their futility as well as the large number of pugilists they seemed to have in their lineup. After qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in 7 years the Leafs were no longer the butt of all hockey related jokes in Canada. Although one of the biggest chokes in professional sports in the last 25 years didn't help but the fact they were in the post season was still a step forward. This season, the Leafs are standing atop the Atlantic Division and with a team that features a nice mix of talent, speed, size, grit and toughness. Do I think we'll see a Stanley Cup in Toronto this year, no, unless you count going to visit it at the Hockey Hall of Fame. However you can say Toronto and 'contend for a Stanley Cup' without laughing and not have your fellow hockey fans think you're crazy.
The Wild still have a little way to go before they start to be mentioned in that class of teams, but like Toronto they are making progress. Like Toronto, the first step was getting to the playoffs and now its all about building upon that success. Minnesota's new puck possession style is causing opponents its fair share of headaches as the Wild are making better use of their time with the biscuit. Can the Wild earn another win on this road trip after a reasonable effort in Buffalo last night?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota had great jump to start the game. They were executing well, making short and accurate tape-to-tape passes. Minnesota's energetic forecheck drew a holding penalty on former Minnetonka Skipper's star Jake Gardiner. On the power play the Wild moved the puck with terrific efficiency and the Toronto zone resembled a shooting gallery as James Reimer found himself under seige. Unfortunately, when the 2nd power play unit went out, Dany Heatley would take a lazy slashing penalty to negate the man advantage. Heatley's penalty proved to be even more costly as the Leafs took the lead on a pretty tic-tac-toe goal where Nazem Kadri fed a pass to Dave Bolland who then threaded a pass to Tyler Bozak for an easy tap in goal. Darcy Kuemper had no chance. The Wild were doing a great job of staying within their puck possession game but they were not capitalizing on their opportunities. When you don't cash in when you have the chance, karma has the way of paying you back in a bad way. Toronto would add to its lead on a yogurt soft goal given up by Darcy Kuemper as Trevor Smith pulled the trigger on a wrist shot that snuck though the wickets and slowly slid over the goal line, 2-0. It was a deflating goal for a team that was carrying most of the play and drawing penalties. Minnesota's patience with the puck was drawing penalties on the Maple Leafs who were guilty of some lazy stick penalties late. The Wild's power play moved the puck around the offensive zone with tremendous precision as they set up Zach Parise for a close-in chance that was fought off by James Reimer. The 2nd power play unit was arguably as good as the 1st unit as they utilized Justin Fontaine at the point. Fontaine was very efficient at distributing the puck and their quick passes never allowed Toronto to settle and deny shooting and passing lanes. Minnesota nearly cashed in on a little pass to a waiting Dany Heatley in the slot who hammered a shot off the right post. After the penalty expired the Wild went right back on the power play as Mason Raymond got his stick up in the grill of Jared Spurgeon to the chagrin of the home crowd and the ever ornery Toronto bench boss Randy Carlyle. Minnesota would finally cash in as Mikko Koivu found Jason Pominville in the slot for a quick shot that was stopped by Reimer but he lifted his rebound right underneath the crossbar and in to cut the Maple Leafs' lead in half, 2-1. It was a huge goal that gave Minnesota some much-needed momentum. I thought the Wild's defense did a great job at contesting the Maple Leafs' entry into the zone and I felt Nate Prosser looked pretty good out there. Calm, collected and making smart simple plays with the puck. I am noticing a slight trend of Mike Yeo to put Pominville along with Koivu and Parise in the last minute of the period to catch opponents a little off guard. The Wild were trailing, but it wasn't for a lack of effort as they were outshooting Toronto 18-3. Nino Niederreiter continues to look solid.
2nd Period Thoughts: After evading an initial Toronto forechecking effor the Wild had a great shift by its 2nd line of Heatley, Granlund and Pominville as the former Sabres captain had a couple nice shots on goal that Reimer had to be solid on to stop. The Maple Leafs tried to apply pressure but Minnesota's aggressive backchecking kept Toronto to the perimeter and not giving them much in the way of time and space. Mikael Granlund would pick up a careless play of the puck by Phil Kessel and race down the ice on a breakaway and he attempted to sneak a shot 5-hole but Reimer was able to make the big save. The Wild's strong play along the wall, where the Leafs appeared unable to wrest the puck away from Minnesota was causing the Air Canada crowd to get a little anxious as they tried to inspire their team with a 'Go Leafs Go' chant. Minnesota almost got the equalizer on a long range wrist shot by Prosser that rang off the left post. The Leafs were starting to show signs of being a little impatient as they were being a little less choosy with their shots but to the Wild's credit they were getting sticks in lanes and deflecting pucks before they could reach Kuemper. Toronto's frustration was turning to aggression as Joffrey Lupul and others tried to deliver big hits to give their team some momentum but Minnesota showed poised and counter attacked. Nino Niederreiter would give Toronto a power play on a high sticking penalty. Minnesota's penalty kill was solid early as their puck pressure resulted in a shorthanded breakaway for Torrey Mitchell but Reimer again bailed out his team by deflecting Mitchell's attempt up and over the glass. The Leafs would regroup and Kuemper would give up another soft goal as Mason Raymond lit the lamp on the power play. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo had seen enough and he'd swap out Kuemper in favor of Josh Harding. The Wild would get a bogus coincidental minor as Niederreiter was checked into Reimer by former Vancouver Giants' star Cody Franson. Franson got the hook for interference but they sent 'El Nino' to the box too because they felt he should've tried harder to avoid the collision which is laighable since he was so near the crease before he was checked from behind. With the ice a bit more open 4-on-4 Minnesota would go back on the attack and Zach Parise would carry the puck in where he tried to feed a crashing Mikael Granlund who was held up by Tyler Bozak. Carlisle was again incensed by the call and Minnesota had another power play opportunity. Minnesota moved the puck well, but perhaps a bit too unselfish with the puck and another power play went by the wayside. Its very tough to fault the Wild at all for their effort at either end of the ice. Minnesota was still winning most of the puck battles and peppering Reimer with shots as the Wild held a 24-7 advantage in shots on goal but they still trailed by two. Kuemper was noticeably shaken and frustrated by his paltry performance and fired out a four letter word that rhymes with puck on the Wild bench. Nice to see the Wild get some chances in transition but the Wild have to bury those chances.
3rd Period Thoughts: Very early in the period the Wild had a great chance as Justin Fontaine ripped a shot that was redirected by Matt Cooke that went up and caught the crossbar. The Maple Leafs were trying to contest the Wild's shots and were playing a bit tighter checking game. Not as much in terms of physical play, but shadowing Minnesota closer in the offensive zone. The Wild was showing a sense of urgency as Koivu and Niederreiter turned a fired a few bullet shots on goal but Reimer was up to the task. The Wild also had some tantalizing 'almost' opportunities as Dany Heatley threaded a nice little saucer pass to Granlund who was behind the defense but he was unable to get off a backhand shot as he ran out of room. The Wild's assertiveness would also lead to some bad turnovers that translated into some great chances for Toronto but Josh Harding and some scrambling defensive play kept Minnesota's hopes alive. The Wild really poured it on late as they took just about every opportunity to put the puck on goal for a variety of quality chances but Reimer was able to slam the door shut. Mason Raymond would add an empty netter to seal a 4-1 victory.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Zenon Konopka, Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Josh Harding shared the goaltending duties with Darcy Kuemper. Mike Rupp (knee), Charlie Coyle (knee), Niklas Backstrom (knee) were out of the lineup while Keith Ballard and Mathew Dumba were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star James Reimer, 2nd Star Zach Parise, 3rd Star David Bolland
~ Attendance was 19,283 at Air Canada Center.