After the Wild's most recent game in San Jose, where the Wild lost 3-1 to a Sharks team that had lost its last 4 games the team held the ever ominous "closed door meeting." We'll never know what is said, as what is said in the room, stays in the room but we certainly can guess. Players calling others out for not giving it their best, or perhaps not playing with the necessary will to pay a physical sacrifice to make plays, and maybe more simply just players admonishing themselves for not being ready to play. Whatever was said, today we'll find out whether that 'closed door meeting' had any value at all. As the old saying goes,'actions speak louder than words' so what will the Wild's actions be? Will the team come out fired up against an opponent who has beaten them twice this season in the pesky, young and uber talented Colorado Avalanche? Or will they look tired, passive and hesitant to take a hit to make a play as they have through its last two games?
The Minnesota Wild's most recent little slide now has them on the outside of the Western Conference playoff window and while there is still over half of the season left the fact members of the team felt it was necessary to have a 'closed door meeting' is at least a sign of how they are aware the team may be at a critical point. Its good to see the club acknowledge it has some issues to work out. However, as they would tell you in any sort of intervention group. Acknowledgement of a problem is just the first step of the process. Doing something about it will mean a whole lot more. Will the Wild make it its words count with meaningful action or will those words ring hollow?
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1st Period Thoughts: Both clubs started the game with a fair amount of jump in their skates and open ice was tough to come by. Minnesota was hustling well, moving its feet and trying to play a simple game by directing shots on goal. The Wild's first scoring chance wouldn't materialize until about 5 minutes in as Nino Niederreiter found Erik Haula with a nice little pass where he had a lot of net to look at but the former Gopher pushed the shot wide of the mark. A few minutes later it was Dany Heatley making a clever little give-and-go play between himself and Zenon Konopka before swinging a shot on goal that was stopped by Semyon Varlamov. Defensively the Wild were backchecking pretty well, but the Avalanche still had their chances as a long range shot was stopped by Josh Harding who gave up a rebound and he pushed it out into the slot hoping his defensemen would sweep in and escort it out of danger but instead Cody McLeod was given a gimme of a breakaway but Harding came up with a big save. Harding wasn't done there, as Jonas Brodin would give Colorado its first power play of the game and this would result a golden opportunity for the Avalanche. On a pretty back door play to P.A. Parenteau who had a ton of net to look at and Harding got across his crease to make a fantastic save. After that great chance, the Wild's penalty kill took over; being aggressive on the puck carrier in causing turnovers and never really allowing Colorado to set up the way they did on the missed chance to Parenteau. The Wild would try to counter attack and it was Zach Parise moving wide to his left as he entered the Avalanche zone before directing a shot on goal that was deflected by Jason Pominville that snuck through Varlamov's 5-hole and missed just wide and the period woudl end with both clubs still scoreless going into the 1st intermission. I thought the Wild had a good road period; and other than a few little breakdowns I liked the hustle and effort as well as the simplified offensive approach. I thought Erik Haula was showing a lot of creativity. Minnesota's defenseman were pinching a lot, and trying to help support the play in the offensive zone.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild actually had a pretty good period. I liked the hustle and effort but as has been the case throughout much of the season the team just couldn't bury a puck to save its life, or draw a penalty in its favor. Erik Haula followed up a good 1st period with an even better 2nd as he helped the 4th line create a scoring chance as he won a race for the puck and then started the cycle before setting up linemate Zenon Konopka for a chance near the crease. Despite the Wild's good pressure, the Avalanche would get another power play as Nino Niederreiter was tagged for hooking. The penalty kill again was solid; limiting the Avalanche's chances and Minnesota would go back on the attack. Brett Bulmer would step into a hard shot that was fought off by Varlamov. As good as the Wild's pressure was, the Avs would score first. The Avalanche would draw the Wild defense down low where they worked the puck back out to the point where Cory Sarich would wind up and blast a slap shot that deflected off the leg of Maxime Talbot and by Harding to make it 1-0. It was sick punishment as the Wild were really dominating the play, outworking and outhustling the Avalanche all over the ice. Minnesota would not lay down and pout about its misfortune, they'd have perhaps their best single shift of the season as the top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle worked the puck deep and then used good quickness and a strong cycling game to start peppering Varlamov with shots on goal. The Wild's top line held the puck in the Avalanche zone for at least 2 minutes but despite all of the pressure they were unable to find a way to beat Varlamov or at the very least draw a Colorado penalty. Parise was outstanding, winning races to the puck and where he tried to jam a puck through to no avail. While the goal was deflating, the Wild still kept themselves within one shot of tying this game.
3rd Period Thoughts: This period was typified by the Avalanche taking a page out of Jacques Lemaire's book, sit back and defend the 1-goal lead. The Avalanche were doing all they could to clog up the neutral zone with as many as 5 skaters between the bluelines as they attempted to force the Wild to chip and chase. Colorado would quickly retreat, track down the puck and then work it deep in the Wild zone and make Minnesota start all over again. Honestly, we better not hear Colorado Avalanche beat writer and rube Adrian Dater bitch and moan about how the Wild play boring hockey when their club sits back for an entire period to defend a 1-0 lead. Initially, it looked as though the passive strategy was going to work as Minnesota struggled to get the puck in the offensive zone, let alone work any shots on goal. Minnesota thought it got a break when Nathan MacKinnon held up Mikko Koivu giving the Wild its first power play in Colorado this season. On the man advantage, the Wild was not messing around; moving the puck well as they set up a few shots from the point by Ryan Suter and shots taken from in close by Parise and Koivu. Koivu seemed determined to give his team a goal as he stepped up and put his shoulder down to power around Jan Hejda where he tried to work a backhand shot only to have it knocked off his stick before he could lift the puck. Minnesota continued to persist and they would finally be rewarded as Ryan Suter would fling a wrist shot from the point that was deflected in by Nino Niederreiter where it snuck through the pads of Varlamov. It wasn't pretty but it tied the game at 1-1. After the goal, the game would open up a bit as Colorado tried to catch the Wild a little off guard by raising up their tempo but Minnesota did a fine job to neutralize the Avalanche from having many quality scoring chances in the waning moments of the period. Another player who I felt really stepped up in the 3rd period was Charlie Coyle who was a horse with the puck; outworking the Avalanche down low and then making some good plays with the puck. However, neither club could get the go-ahead goal and we'd go to overtime. One player who also worked pretty hard in the 3rd, was Brett Bulmer who was throwing his 6'3" frame around with great effect.
Overtime Thoughts: In overtime, it was all Minnesota Wild. The Avalanche appeared to be playing for the shootout. Minnesota was patient, but they seemed far more assertive to try to work the puck deep into the Colorado zone where they'd work it back to the point looking for an open shot but too many times the Wild were missing wide. One thing that was noticeable in overtime was the fact the Wild did not put out Dany Heatley and some of its other slower forwards as they have done in the past. Minnesota was sending out its faster and quicker players and I felt this was a good approach but unfortunately they were not able to end the game here and it would go to a shootout.
Shootout Summary: In the shootout, the Avalanche opted to shoot first. Their first shooter was Matt Duchene, and the smooth skating forward would take a wide right approach before bearing down on Harding before ripping a wrist shot by him blocker side to make it 1-0 Avalanche. Minnesota's first shooter was Zach Parise and the former Devils' captain would take a slow weaving approach where he moved from backhand to forehand repeatedly before ripping a wrist shot, low blocker side that rang off the left post and in to tie it up at 1-1. Colorado's next shooter was P.A. Parenteau, and he'd move out to the right and then try to beat Harding with a quick backhander that was gloved by the Wild puckstopper. The Wild's next shooter was Mikko Koivu and I think everyone in Minnesota and Colorado knew what to expect, and Koivu did not disappoint as he worked his patented forehand to backhand move where he lifted it up and over the glove in an instant to make it 2-1 Wild. I have no idea how any goaltender can be fooled by this. This put the game back in the hands of Josh Harding and Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly. O'Reilly would move in with a lot of speed where he tried to fire a wrist shot that was steered away by Harding to give the Wild a 2-1 shootout win.
Harding was again tremendous, making 26 saves in the victory. He had a number of high quality saves to keep the Wild in the game when the offense wasn't doing much of anything. Defensively I thought the Wild did a good job of sweeping away rebounds and making it difficult for the speedy Avalanche forwards to find time and space. The only goal Harding gave up in regulation was of the variety that would've beaten any goalie; off an improbable deflection.
Offensively the Wild didn't do much until the end of the 2nd period but then the team kept it simple and played with the mantra that any shot was a good shot. Minnesota had some quality pressure on its own power play but some players clearly need to step up and find ways to get pucks on goal. One of those players is Jared Spurgeon. Spurgeon takes his opportunities to shoot but more often than not they're getting blocked. While I know its not easy to score from the point, he could learn something from Suter who created a quality chance on a quick wrist shot. I liked the creativity Erik Haula brought to the 3rd and 4th lines and I wouldn't mind seeing what he could do on the power play.
I think the Wild managed to win this game in part due to its willingness to doing the tough things to make plays. Matt Cooke, Brett Bulmer really were punishing the Avalanche throughout most of the night. This was not lost with Mike Yeo who praised Bulmer for his gritty play and he expanded that to the rest of the team by saying his team really dug deep in the 3rd to push for the game-tying goal. Was it perfect? No, but its 2 points this team battled awfully hard to earn. The Wild now return home to St. Paul where they can rest up and ready themselves for what will be another difficult test against a Vancouver Canucks team feeling very good after lambasting the Boston Bruins.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Brett Bulmer, Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville, Erik Haula, Matt Cooke, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Mike Rupp, Nate Prosser and Justin Fontaine were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Altitude TV were: 1st Star Mikko Koivu, 2nd Star Josh Harding, 3rd Star Nino Niederreiter
~ Attendance 16,188 was at Pepsi Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
Anthony Hamburg (in orange)
RW – Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ The 6'4" power forward ended his mini 3-game pointless drought by registering an assist in the Attack's 5-2 victory over the Kitchener Rangers on Friday night. Gabriel finished the evening a +2 and with 2 PIM's to add to his season total of 7 goals, 24 points with 58 PIM's and a +4 through 26 games played this season.
D – Dylan Labbe (Shawinigan, QMJHL) ~ The offensively gifted defenseman lit the lamp for the first time in about a month as he helped the struggling Cataractes to a 3-0 win over Acadie-Bathurst on Friday night. Labbe had 2 shots on goal as well as a hit and was a +1 for the game. The 6'2" 192lbs defenseman has 3 goals, 16 points, with 16 penalty minutes and a collective -16 in 32 games played this season.
D – Gustav Olofsson (Colorado College, NCHC) ~ The lanky super smart defenseman continues to play well for a struggling Colorado College team. Even in the Tigers' 4-1 loss to Wisconsin on Friday night, Olofsson had 2 shots on goal and was a +1 playing on Colorado College's top pairing along side Peter Stoykewych.
D – Carson Soucy (Minnesota-Duluth, NCHC) ~ The 6'4" defenseman continues to play well for Scott Sandelin's midling squad as the youngster had a shot on goal and finished the night a +1 in UMD's 5-3 loss to Western Michigan. Like Olofsson, Soucy is playing on the Bulldogs' top pairing along side Andy Welinski is a nice endorsement of confidence in the freshman from western Canada.
G – Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) ~ Cynics may say that Belanger's record has been helped in a major way by the Huskies' powerful offense. So how does he fare in a low scoring game? Pretty well as Belanger made 23 saves as well as stopping all four in the shootout to give Rouyn-Noranda a 2-1 shootout victory over Blainville-Boisbriand. Belanger improves his record to 16-7, 3.21 goals against average and a .879 save percentage.
C – Anthony Hamburg (RIT, Atlantic) ~ The Phoenix-native is anchoring the Tigers' 4th line and while he isn't scoring a lot he's playing an important energy-type role for RIT. RIT tied Niagara on Saturday night with Hamburg registering two shots on goal and finished the game with an 'even' rating.
High School Hockey Report:
State Rankings have finally been released as we're about 2 weeks (boys) and 3 weeks (girls) into the regular season schedule for the state's high school boys and girls programs. Here are the current rankings according to Let's Play Hockey as of December 11th, 2013.
Class AA (Boys):
1. Blaine ~ 5-0-0
2. Hill-Murray ~ 4-0-0
3. Elk River-Zimmerman ~ 5-0-0
4. Benilde-St. Margaret's ~ 4-2-0
5. Eden Prairie ~ 4-0-0
6. Edina ~ 4-2-0
7. Duluth East ~ 3-1-0
8. St. Thomas Academy ~ 3-2-1
9. Wayzata ~ 4-3-0
10. Prior Lake ~ 2-1-0
Class A (Boys)
1. Breck ~ 5-0-1
2. Hermantown ~ 3-1-0
3. East Grand Forks ~ 5-0-0
4. St. Cloud Cathedral ~ 5-0-0
5. Totino-Grace ~ 2-2-1
6. Warroad ~ 4-2-0
7. Duluth Marshall ~ 2-2-0
8. Mankato West ~ 4-0-0
9. Thief River Falls ~ 3-3-0
10. Mahtomedi ~ 2-3-0
Class AA (Girls)
5. Benilde-St. Margaret's
6. Lakeville North
8. Lakeville South
9. Eden Prairie
Class A (Girls)
1. Red Wing
2. Thief River Falls
4. East Grand Forks
6. South St. Paul
7. Achiever Academy