A few days ago, if you follow me on Twitter @StateofHckyNews you may have noticed my little battle with The Hockey News. I was criticizing The Hockey News' Twitter feed for its Eastern Conference bias as they 'covered' the Chicago Blackhwks game against the Philadelphia Flyers. This was a game which the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks stomped Philadelphia 7-2; but at one point THN tweeted, "Flyers trail 5-2" instead of saying "Blackhawks lead 5-2" because it implies they're rooting for the Flyers. Why that may sound circumstantial this is where the mini Twitter 'war' began. The Hockey News Twitter manager (apparently an intern that was assigned to follow the game) chirped back saying that he had given props to the Blackhawks a lot and that to say there was an Eastern Conference bias was ridiculous. I wasn't going to back down, and I chirped THN for its oversaturation of Toronto Maple Leafs updates even though they are not even an elite team in the East let alone the NHL. They attempted to appeal to the masses by noting how THN was being accused of being both Western Conference and Eastern Conference biased. No help was coming THN's way. Western Conference fans know that my assertion is correct. How many Maple Leafs covers do we have each season? And if you're wanting to toss in the United States-based clubs how many covers do we get with the Pittsburgh Penguins most notably their team captain who I will not name. However, at least the Penguins can say they have stood in the Eastern Conference's elite for the better portion of the last 6-7 years unlike the Maple Leafs who have accomplished very little over that same span.
That got me to thinking as one of the reasons why so many fans across the NHL; especially in the West loathe the Pittsburgh Penguins. From the daily coverage of their team and their captain, to the preferential treatment in regards to the NHL spectacle that is the Winter Classic, the Penguins have become the team you love to hate. With the Wild having a number of different connections with the Penguins organization in former Pittsburgh assistant Mike Yeo as bench boss and former assistant General Manager Chuck Fletcher to former Penguins' winger Matt Cooke in the State of Hockey fold it should make for a game in which the bosses want to win big time. Will the Wild help give Yeo, Fletcher and Cooke some satisfaction to earn a victory over their old franchise or will the Penguins spoil their Pittsburgh homecoming?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota had an awful opening frame. The Penguins went right after the Wild and a quick rush up the ice led by Sidney Crosby who passed it over to Pascal Dupuis who fired a quick shot that was stopped by Backstrom but he would juggle the puck and drop the puck near the paint as Pittsburgh crashed the crease, chopping at the biscuit before Dupuis backhanded it in. The goal would be reviewed as there was some thought that Crosby may have high sticked the puck but the replay showed otherwise and it was a good goal, 1-0 Pittsburgh. Zenon Konopka tried to spark the team by challenging the Pens' Craig Adams, who obliged and it was a spirited bout. Both fighters were trading some heavy punches but few were really landing as Konopka tried to get Adams tangled in his gear. I think Konopka get a slight edge but both fighters did not seem to be any worse for the wear. Minnesota did not exactly respond after Konopka's fight. In fact, the Penguins just seemed a step or two faster all period long. The Wild were routinely being beaten to the puck and even though the Penguins were having some turnover issues of its own Minnesota seemed completely incapable of making Pittsburgh pay for it. Minnesota was setting for shots being taken from the perimeter, nothing that was really testing Jeff Zatkoff. The Wild were at times gulty of trying to overhandle the puck; Marco Scandella had a few snafus in this way. Pittsburgh was flying around the ice while the Wild seemed to be a deer in headlights. Keith Ballard would try to slow down the Penguins with a big hip check that sent former Wild forward Chuck Kobasew going head over heels. Kobasew was not happy with the hit and he'd go after Ballard where he put a bit of a beat down on the Wild defenseman. Pittsburgh would continue to make things difficult with its speed and Mikko Koivu would water ski behind Crosby for an obvious hooking penalty. On the power play the Penguins moved the puck with great efficiency, not a lot of time holding onto it just moving it and quickly setting up shots on goal. Right away the Penguins set up James Neal for a one-timer that missed just wide. Minnesota's penalty killers were scrambling a bit but they were challening passing lanes and with a little hustle they were able to clear the zone and the Wild kept Pittsburgh from being able to create another quality shooting opportunity. After the kill, the Wild tried to go on the attack and while they were able to enter the zone the Wild struggled to possess the puck long enough to get a shot on goal. Minnesota's best shot came off the rush as Koivu dished it over to Jared Spurgeon for a shot that he fired high which was snagged out of the air by Zatkoff. Even the Penguins youngers defenseman like Olli Maata and Brian Dumoulin looked like veteran studs the way they were able to seal off Wild forwards from the puck. The Wild had to be a little happy they were only down 1-0 for being outplayed as badly as they were. Pathetic period for Minnesota; who were the better rested team going into this game.
2nd Period Thoughts: This period was not much better for the Wild other than the fact they had a few more scoring chances. Pittsburgh would score twice in the first half of the period as Brandon Sutter would take a puck from Mikko Koivu and he'd release a quick wrist shot as he was falling that went by two Wild players and by Backstrom who was screened by his teammates. 2-0 Penguins. Nino Niederretier would take a lazy interference penalty and the Penguins would make Minnesota pay for this mistake. Early on it was a big shot that yielded a rebound chance for Crosby from the slot and somehow the puck was steered wide as Backstrom was sprawling and guessing. Pittsburgh would light the lamp on a quick slap shot from the point by Virginia, Minnesota-native Matt Niskanen that beat Backstrom who was being screened by Chris Kunitz. 3-0 Pittsburgh. The frustration by the Wild was building, but a hooking call to Brian Dumoulin provided an opportunity to create some positive momentum. The Wild's power play was really not all that bad; by the Wild's standards they were moving the puck quickly and working to get the Penguins' penalty killers moving a bit as they worked the points and the half wall before Spurgeon stepped into a slap shot. There were not a lot of shots, but they were forcing Zatkoff to make some saves so it was a small improvement. Yet as the good vibes from the power play started to fade a bit, things would get worse before they'd get better. James Neal tried to race into the slot to blast a one-timer and as he released a bomb that missed wide he was hip checked by Ballard and Neal was not happy about it and he'd go after the Wild defenseman. It was Ballard's 2nd fight that he didn't really wish to have and Neal took control after a 30-seconds of grappling. Ballard would be given a minor for clipping and a major for fighting while Neal got a minor for roughing to go along with a fighting major of his own. The fireworks would calm a bit right? Nope, the Penguins would strike again as Crosby won a battle for the puck in the corner and he'd turn and make a great pass out to the slot that was banged home by Chris Kunitz for an easy goal, 4-0 Pittsburgh. It was a beauty of a goal and Backstrom had a look of disbelief by how fast that play developed. Minnesota would answer back just 43 seconds later as Nino Niederreiter threaded a pass between the legs of Ryan Bortuzzo right to Pominville who redirected it by Zatkoff to cut the Penguins lead back to three, 4-1. The Penguins would sort of sit back and defend their lead denying time and space and Minnesota struggled to get the puck in deep behind Pittsburgh's defense. Backstrom can't be faulted all that much for the goals, but a game like this isn't doing much for his confidence as it seemed whenever his team loses one battle that its in the back of his net.
3rd Period Thoughts: With the offensively anemic Wild trailing by three going into the 4rd the odds were long for a comeback, even against an injury-depleted Pittsburgh squad. In order for the Wild to have a chance they had to score early and amazingly they did just that. A hard shot by Pominville rang off the post and Keith Ballard and host of other Wild players hacked at the biscuit before Dany Heatley was able to squeeze it by Zatkoff, 4-2 Pittsburgh. The Penguins now had the "worst lead in hockey" and the Wild would appear to have some more good fortune as Pittsburgh would take two penalties to give Minnesota a long 5-on-3 power play. A great chance to cut the lead to one, right? Wrong, the Wild are horrible on 5-on-3's and they proved it again. The power play becomes very static and they do very little to break the oppositions triangle in front of their goalie. Ryan Suter is not a dangerous shooting threat that penalty killers must account for, and the unit lacks initiative to fire the quick shot making it relatively easy to defend. When the Wild did manage to get a puck through to the back door player the puck was bouncing resulting in a fanned shot. Adding insult to injury, the inability of the Wild to score on the 2-man advantage turned into a shorthanded chance for Olli Maata who was hooked by Jonas Brodin and the rookie defenseman was awarded a penalty shot. On the penalty shot, he'd take a wide right approach where he snuck a shot through 5-hole. 5-2 Pittsburgh on what was also a shorhanded goal, ouch. (facepalm) It was a pathetic finish for a team that never really showed up to play. I could talk a bit more about the 3rd period, but why bother. The Penguins continued to win the battles for the puck and Minnesota ended the game with a wimper rather than a growl.
Niklas Backstrom did not have a great game, but he cannot be blamed for the loss as he had little support in front of him. Backstrom stopped 31 shots in a losing efort. The Wild's defense was chasing the Penguins all over their zone and this was giving Pittsburgh gaps to exploit as they did on Kunitz's goal in the 2nd period. I thought it was the Wild's defense that looked like the inexperienced group rather than Pittsburgh's collection of rookies.
Offensively the Wild didn't create much as they were unable to work the puck deep and put the Penguins on their heels beyond the power play. The sad part is, I think Zatkoff was going to give Minnesota second chances with some nice rebounds but you have to be willing to pay the price to get to those pucks. It was too little too late and I've already given my 2 cents on their pathetic 2-man advantage that really personified the evening.
Minnesota was playing a lineup that was sort of like one would expect in an exhibition game with 11-regulars out but they were the ones that were thoroughly outplayed. Pittsburgh played the night before and the Wild looked like the team that was a little tired. Perhaps they felt they could coast into the weekend but this team isn't nearly good enough to take its foot off the gas. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo called the game "maddening" and "disappointing" and he said he didn't think his team was ready to play and I'd have to agree. He added he wanted to see Backstrom win and that he has fight through and that he needs to 'fight through it." Hopefully they're better against the Jekyll and Hyde team that is the New York Rangers.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley, Erik Haula, Nino Nieferreiter, Brett Bulmer, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Charlie Coyle, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard. Johan Gustafsson backed up Niklas Backstrom. Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine and Nate Prosser were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game selected by Consol Energy Media were: 1st Star Olli Maata, 2nd Star Matt Niskanen, 3rd Star Pascal Dupuis
~ Attendance was 18,623 at Consol Energy Center.
~ The Iowa Wild fell 2-1 last night in overtime to the defending Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids' Griffins last night in Des Moines. Zack Phillips gave the Wild an 1-0 lead but unfortunately Iowa couldn't add any more tallies to help their cause. Grand Rapids would capitalize after a turnover in the neutral zone that led to a bomb from the point by Brennan Evans to tie the game early in the 3rd period. In overtime, the Griffins would chip a puck behind the Wild's defense and Cory Emmerton would beat Darcy Kuemper to give their team the victory. Kuemper has steadily improved this season, he had 27 saves in the loss. The Wild's next game is Friday against Hamilton.
High School Hockey Report:
Here are the updated rankings from Follow The Puck.com; one of the best websites I've seen that follows Boys Class AA Hockey in Minnesota. Give them a follow on Twitter @FollowthePuck for updates on high school scores (for both Class AA and A) around the state.
Here are the rankings as of December 15th, 2013
Class AA (Boys)
2. Elk River / Zimmerman
4. St. Thomas Academy
5. Eden Prairie
8. White Bear Lake
9. Duluth East
10. Maple Grove
Wild Prospect Report:
C – Avery Peterson (Grand Rapids, USHS) ~ It must be kind of crazy to be an NHL drafted player still playing high school hockey. For Peterson, that's just a fact of life. Peterson still has a long way to go, but the power forward is off to a fast start with the Thunderhawks lighting the lamp 7 times to go along with 13 points in just 6 games this season. The 6'2" forward had a goal and 2 assists in Tuesday's 6-1 win over Virginia-Mount Iron-Buhl.