Vrbata strikes twice as the Wild loses 3-1 in bland home effort

Ryan Suter & Zach Parise

Take a long look Wild fans at the player standing on the left.  This will be the last time you see $198 million collectively in salary standing next to one another on the ice in a Wild uniform for the next 2-3 weeks as Zach Parise was given his prognosis by team doctors yesterday.  The news of Parise's foot injury, sustained on a play that personifies his willingness to do whatever it takes, blocking a slap shot from one of the top scorers in the league in Alex Steen.  As bad as the news of Parise's injury is, it will be another test of the character in the face of adversity for the Minnesota Wild.  Will the team spend more time worrying about who's not there, or will they circle the wagons and make the best of it with the guys that are healthy and keep the club winning games and piling up points in the standings?  While its easily asked whether they have the will to do it, its another to ask if they can do it.  Well, can they?    

Mikko Koivu

Make no mistake, losing Parise, their leading scorer and 2nd on the team in goals will be difficult to replace but its not impossible.  It will just put more of an importance on establishing some secondary scoring each night and there are plenty of viable options on the 2nd and 3rd lines.  Tonight will mark the first game the Wild have not had Parise in the lineup since he made his Wild debut last January.  Will the Wild be able to overcome his absence and take down the Coyotes too or will Minnesota fans be in panic mode after a 2nd straight loss? 

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Clayton Stoner

1st Period Thoughts:  The style of play throughout most of the 1st period was cautious.  You could almost expect the "keep it safe" approach as they try to cope with new lines as a few surprise additions to the Wild lineup in injured players Mikael Granlund, Torrey Mitchell and Keith Ballard were back.  The Coyotes were retreating quickly to stymie Minnesota's attempts to mount a rush.  Phoenix had less hesitation and were winning the races to most of the loose pucks.  Minnesota just was not moving its legs and overall they looked a little lethargic.  As the lack of wheels was holding the Wild back in the offensive zone it was arguably worse in the defensive zone as the Coyotes were moving just about wherever they wanted to go as Minneosta blueliners were standing and reaching a fair amount of the period.  On more than a few occasions the Coyotes had some scoring chances from in and around the blue paint as the lack of hustle had Niklas Backstrom sprawling in his crease and Minnesota would luck out that those opportunities didn't end up in the back of the net.  Backstrom himself seemed to be fighting the puck, unable to control the rebounds giving the Coyotes 2nd and 3rd chances.  The Wild seemed to lack the speed necessary to get away.  Another consistency of the 1st period was the chippiness as on numerous occasions Minnesota and Phoenix skaters would get tangled up in little wrestling matches after the whistle.  Phoenix would strike midway through the 1st period as a blocked point shot by Jonas Brodin ended up on the stick of Mikkel Boedker who raced down the ice in a 2-on-1 with Shane Doan.  Boedker let a retreating Ryan Suter hold the middle of the ice and took his time and he ripped a wrist shot high and over the shoulder of Backstrom to give the Coyotes a 1-0 lead.  The Wild had little to no push back as they continued to be in a mental haze throughout the rest of the period.  Poor decisions never really gave the Wild a chance to develop any flow or level of comfort and Minnesota was lucky to get out of the period only down by one.  An ugly 1st period by the Wild, and not the way you want to start any game let alone one at home.  The Wild never really tested Thomas Greiss, and perhaps the best opportunities came off the stick of Dany Heatley who got off a few weak shots which skittered through the crease, but the team needs to raise its game if it hopes to end up with 2 points from this one.  

2nd Period Thoughts:  Minnesota started the period with a little more effort and they would create a few scoring chances right away as Jason Pominville would direct a shot wide of the mark.  The positive momentum was short-lived as the Coyotes would add to its lead as Tim Kennedy carried the puck down low behind the Wild goal and he'd swing a pass out front to Radim Vrbata who sort of clubbed a shot on goal that eluded Backstrom to make it 2-0 Phoenix.  I wouldn't say the goal deflated the Wild, but Minnesota didn't really answer back with a little more anger in their step either.  The Coyotes were content to retreat and disrupt the Wild.  They were denying time and space in their own end, and settling to block and deflect shots.  Minnesota would be gifted its first power play of the game as Mike Ribeiro was sent to the sin bin for chirping the officials after being thrown out of the faceoff.  This was a potential break for the Wild, but as sleepy as the Wild were at full strength they were just as nonchalant on the man advantage as Phoenix had little difficulty clearing the zone.  The bored crowd was now becoming agitated by the Wild's lack of urgency ane execution on the power play and you started to hear boo's raining down at each bad decision and lazy pass.  The only quality scoring chance came at the end of the power play as Kyle Brodziak set up Nino Niederreiter for a quick shot that he fanned on making for an easy save for Greiss.  Minnesota would finally start to show a little more hustle and this would lead to a few more shooting opportunities but most were from long range and when they did fire the puck long enough to create a rebound the Wild were often no where to be found near the net and potential secondary chances never materialized.  The Wild would earn another power play late in the 3rd period as Jeff Halpern tripped up Justin Fontaine.  Minnesota again were ineffective on the power play.  Weak passes, predictable puck movement made it easy for the Coyotes to anticipate where Minnesota was going with the biscuit and they were able to clear the zone and again the Wild spent more time tracking the puck down in its own end than it did in the offensive zone.  As another failed Wild power play expired the 3rd line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak swarmed into the Coyotes zone for a few quick scoring chances and I think I wasn't alone wondering where that sense of urgency was during the rest of the game.  

3rd Period Thoughts:  Minnesota had a little better pace to start the period, but Phoenix, ever patient was happy to play rope-a-dope.  The Wild were starting to earn a little more time and space and it started out small as they tried to funnel pucks on goal, forcing Greiss to make a few saves.  You could tell the home crowd was feeling more anxious as the minutes and seconds evaporated as the Wild's chances appeared to be diminishing.  The Coyotes were sitting back in a passive 1-2-2 trap that would've made former Wild Head Coach Jacques Lemaire proud.  This forced the Wild to dump the puck into the zone and Minnesota only seemed to be able to win about 50% of the dump ins to the Coyotes' end.  Minnesota was persistent and a great effort by the 2nd line of Nino Niederreiter, Dany Heatley and Kyle Brodziak would be rewarded as Brodziak won a battle for the puck along the boards and Heatley swept it up and worked it out to the point to Niederreiter who unleashed a long range wrist shot that went high and struck Greiss near the face mask and then moved about 15 feet out that was pounced on by Heatley who found the back of the net to cut the Coyotes' lead in half.  2-1 now.  The Coyotes would go away from playing the passive 1-2-2 and instead try to disrupt and play keep away working the puck deep and forcing Minnesota to move up the length of the ice.  Minnesota had some difficulty with the Coyotes change of pace, but they'd adjust and the scoring chances again started to tilt the Wild's way.  Charlie Coyle chipped a Mikko Koivu pass just over the goal as he had Thomas Greiss guessing a bit.  Unfortuantely that really was as close as it got as Kyle Brodziak would take a costly interference penalty in the offensive zone with just about a mintue left to play.  Minnesota would pull Backstrom to make it 5-on-5 but as they did so some poor passes led to a turnover that ultimately led to Vrbata burying an empty net goal to seal a 3-1 Coyotes' win.  Niederreiter had a good period, but it was too little too late.  

Niklas Backstrom was a bit shaky, making 23 saves in the loss.  His rebound control again was a bit suspect and while the Wild did a better job at tying up opposing forwards he was still leaving pucks in dangerous areas of the ice.  I thought Jared Spurgeon had a rough game and I thought the Wild did not get that great of play from it's defense as they were not anticipating the play very well.  I am not sure if that was due to the return of Keith Ballard and various defensive pairings being a little unfamiliar with one another but they had a number or circumstances where the Wild were getting caught sort of standing around their own zone.  

Offensively the Wild were particularly lazy.  Minnesota wasn't moving its feet nearly well enough and only in the 3rd did the Wild finally use some speed through the neutral zone and causing Phoenix some problems with its cycling game.  The Wild were not directing enough shots on goal, and not following up their shots and taking advantage of some of the opportunites Greiss was giving up.  The 3rd period goal by Heatley is a great example of what the Wild should've been doing all game long.  Mikael Granlund going down with what looked like another concussion is not a good sign after he tried to deliver a hit to Curtis Murphy early in the 1st period.  Granlund is a key set up man and I would be shocked if we see him back next game.  

Whether the team missed Parise or not is irrelevant.  This was a game the Wild could have and should have won.  The Coyotes did not play so well that the Wild did not have a chance.  There is no excuse for the Wild to start out as flat as they did.  Minnesota had two rather lousy periods and only in the 3rd did they finally exhibit some urgency but it was too little, too late.  Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo told reporters after the game, "Clearly, we did not come out with the same force in our game, its seems like we're reactive, we're on our heels."  Hopefully the Wild regroup and play their next game with more focus and energy than they did this evening.  

Wild Notes:

~ The Wild lineup tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Torrey Mitchell, Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Dany Heatley, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner.  Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom.  Zach Parise, Mathew Dumba and Nate Prosser were the healthy scratches.  

~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild.com were: 1st Star Mikkel Boedker, 2nd Star Dany Heatley, 3rd Star Nino Niederreiter

~ Attendance was 18,265 at Xcel Energy Center.

~ The Iowa Wild snapped a 6-game losing streak by earning a 3-1 win over the Chicago Wolves tonight.  Jason Zucker had a big night back with the Wild, scoring twice while Stephane Veilleux added the other goal in the victory.  Darcy Kuemper had 32 saves in the win.  It was the first time the Wild had scored two goals in a game since November 9th.  

Jack Jablonski & Jenna Privette

About Derek Felska

I am a lifelong hockey fan from Minnesota who loves and appreciates the game at all levels. I have been blogging about the Minnesota Wild since 2005. I cover just about every aspect of the organization from the team itself, its coaches, its management, its broadcast as well as its AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild and the club's pool of prospects. In addition to the NHL I occasionally take the time to cover college and high school hockey as well. We are the State of Hockey and I want to make this blog informative and objective from the eyes of a fan. I am a fan of the Minnesota Wild, but I am no homer. I hope what you read reflects this approach!

Pyatt’s goal enough to defeat the shot challenged Wild 1-0

Brodziak races up the ice...

Superbowl Sunday is just around the corner.  It is nearly a holiday unto itself, and a pilgrimage to some.  Nevermind the ridiculous price gouging, where fans are asked to shell out $1,000 or more just for a parking spot.  The game is fed by weeks of media hype including the two-week blitz of pointless stories and lame soundbites from players and coaches.  Its nauseating.  Then again, I live in Wisconsin so the coverage of the event is amplified.  Where the local news covers a story of a middle aged couple that purchased two tickets to the game at $2,400 apiece.  I am a Vikings fan, but I don’t care if Minnesota was in the Super Bowl, I’d never spend $2,400 on a single ticket.  That being said I wonder what the Wild fans that decided to participate on the team’s annual road trip to Phoenix for tonight’s game paid for the whole excursion.  Tickets in the lower bowl of the Jobing.com Arena are between $120-$75, a lot more affordable and in my opinion much more worthy of my fan dollars.  Sitting at a game with an obscene amount of commercial breaks and an extended halftime show that fits in some silly concert in 30 minutes doesn’t sound like anything Iike I’d wish to attend.  Call me grouchy, but after two weeks of news of homer-ific news coverage bordering on the absurd, where a lead news story is someone painting a giant green “G” on a lake near Madison hopefully you can see where I’m coming from.  

So back to tonight’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Coyotes resident Twitter sensation, Paul Bissonette called this a “do or die game” and that should be posted on the bulletin board in case the Wild need motivation.  Minnesota has lots to feel good about as of late, winning their last 3 games and sitting on the cusp of a playoff spot.  The Wild cannot afford to rest on its laurels because it is so much easier to plummet in the standings than it is to climb towards the top.  Hopefully the Wild can deliver a victory for tose fans that decided to make the trip down to Phoenix to watch them play.  Will the Wild make those fans feel the trip was worth it or will they be considering whether or not they should demand their money back?

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1st Period Thoughts:  It was not their best effort.  The Wild looked pretty tired, especially the last 10 minutes of the period.  Early on the Wild were able to create some good scoring chances as they tried to take the puck to the crease to jam it in much the same way they had success near the start of the Colorado game but they were unable to solve Ilya Bryzgalov.  Phoenix started to throw its body around a bit as Paul Bissonette tried to be a wrecking ball on the ice and the physicality appeared to back the Wild off.  As Minnesota stopped moving its feet, the Coyotes went on the attack and the ice would tilt in the direction of the Wild’s crease.  Niklas Backstrom found himself under siege.  The Coyotes started blasting shots from long range that Backstrom stopped with ease, but as the period continued the chances were from point blank range and the Wild goaltender bailed his team out with a number of incredible saves.  Minnesota’s lack of hustle would also lead to giving up two power plays.  The first minute the Wild found themselves watching and reaching with their sticks as the Coyotes piled up shots on goal while Backstrom somehow managed to keep the puck out of the back of the net, including one sequence where he stopped a shot right from the top of the crease by Scottie Upshall and Minnesota was able to clear the zone.  Minnesota tried to increase its intensity with a phyisical shift from its energy line as Cal Clutterbuck delivered a few big hits, but Phoenix’s captain Shane Doan would answer back with a nice check to Justin Falk and then he made a power move to the goal that forced Backstrom to make another big stop before Cam Barker helped the net off of its moorings.  Barker’s ‘help’ gave Minnesota another penalty to kill off.  The Wild would play rope-a-dope through the last minutes of the period, but they’d get a small bit of relief as Martin Hanzal was given a pretty marginal goaltender interference call.  The Wild are really playing with fire if they want to keep giving the Coyotes power plays.  Offensively the Wild need to be less picky and fire shots on goal when they have the chance; a perfect example of this over generous play was when Antti Miettinen raced down the left side and instead of taking his open lane to shoot the puck he attempted to feed a pass to Mikko Koivu that was intercepted.  Miettinen needs to realize his line needs him to be a triggerman, not a set up guy.   

2nd Period Thoughts:  The 2nd period was a little better.  The Wild were not chasing the Coyotes as much and were taking more opportunities to go on the attack.  It wasn’t as though the Wild were flying around the ice, but they were doing less standing and watching which was happening far too often during the 1st period.  The 2nd line of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat and Kyle Brodziak was working well to establish a little cycling game in the Coyotes’ zone, but despite the possession they struggled to put too many shots on Bryzgalov.  Minnesota still needs to shoot the puck more frequently and hope to get a lucky bounce of carom off a skate.  They can’t expect that to happen if they continue to over handle the puck.  The Wild finally got a little sustained offense on the power play, but their best chances came from the point as Cam Barker shot the puck more in about a minute than he has in the last 10 games combined.  The Coyotes had their moments too, but Minnesota did not allow Phoenix to just swarm around the net as it had in the 1st.  Cody Almond looks painfully slow and hesitant out on the ice and while the team had no choice to play him I don’t think we’ll see him too much in the 3rd period.  I understand he and Justin Falk arrived very early in the morning after having played the night before in Houston but if he wants to make a positive impression he has to be better than he was tonight.  Another ugly period. 

3rd Period Thoughts:  The ending was really not all that surprising when you consider how poorly the Wild played to see that all it was going to take was a single goal for Phoenix to be enough to win the game.  It happened just past 2:20 when Phoenix defenseman Sami Lepisto skated into the Wild zone, and he feinted at shooting which froze the Wild’s defense; most notably Cam Barker and he threaded a pass to Taylor Pyatt who one-timed a shot up and over Niklas Backstrom.  The Wild mildly attempted to push for the equalizer but as happened throughout much of the 1st and 2nd periods, the team did not pull the trigger when the opportunities presented themselves.  The Coyotes were content to sit back in a 1-2-2 and defend their one-goal lead, which was a smart idea since so few members of the Wild wanted to shoot the puck.  I know I hate the fans that incessantly yell “shoot!” all game long, but Minnesota’s passiveness with the puck came back to haunt them in the final moments of the game.  The Wild would pull Niklas Backstrom and even when they were able to win a few battles for the puck no one wanted to shoot and the over handling the puck and the Coyotes were able to get their sticks in the passing lanes and potential shooting opportunities were squandered.  It was especially infuriating to see the team’s captain, Mikko Koivu be set up with time and space and instead of firing the puck attempts an ill-advised diagonal pass to Miettinen that was intercepted.  The result was the Wild never forced Bryzgalov to make any saves in those final moments.  The team even got a very weak icing call late to have one last faceoff in the Coyotes’ end with 4 seconds left and its only fitting that the team captain again failed to win the draw and the team lost in shameful fashion.  Minnesota was out of gas and it played like it all game long. 

One player that cannot be blamed for the outcome was Niklas Backstrom.  Backstrom was absolutely incredible, making 40 saves in a losing effort.  He made a number of fantastic saves from close-range, including a wicked kick of the leg to deny a shot by Lee Stempniak.  Backstrom gave the Wild every chance to win this game.  You give up just one goal and lose, you can’t blame the goaltender.  Defensively the Wild were just ok.  Nick Schultz was another example of the lack of initiative for this club.  In the 3rd period, a puck was trickling towards the blueline and Schultz had turned his back to the puck and was skating back to the red line when he spun around to see the Coyotes take the puck out of their zone and go on the rush and he continued to spin around attempting to find the puck and did not even manage to stop Upshall from taking a shot.  That’s simply poor defense and hesitant play.  Inexcusable.  I thought Justin Falk looked weak and lacked the confidence he had early in the season.  He wasn’t terrible, but he made me wish Jared Spurgeon was back there instead of him. 

Offensively it was utter embarrassment.  The whole team appeared to be waiting for someone else to step up and lead the way.  No one wanted the puck, or at the very least to shoot it on goal.  When Cam Barker is 2nd on the team in shots on goal, with 3 to his credit you’re probably struggling to generate a lot of scoring chances.  The player who disappointed me the most was Mikko Koivu.  Sure, he may have been tired and he logged over 21 minutes of ice time but he has to be a guy who looks to shoot more often than he did.  Especially down the stretch he passed up multiple chances to fire the biscuit.  The best players in the game want the puck at the critical times and they want to take that chance and fire shots on goal. 

The bottom line is the Wild deserved to lose this game.  They looked tired on the ice and it was obvious Phoenix wanted this game more.  Being out shot 41 to 25 says it all.  25 shots seems generous to me for the Wild, who managed just 8 shots on goal in a period where they needed a goal to at least salvage a point in this game.  The team returns to St. Paul where they have a small break in their schedule before playing the Avalanche on Wednesday.  They can expect the Avalanche to be hungry, focused and with some jump in their skates so Minnesota must be better than they were tonight.  Tonight was a missed opportunity and a team that it was battling for a playoff spot got a clean 2 points in the standings at the Wild’s expense.  I hope they learn their lesson. 

Wild Notes:

~ Wild roster tonight was as follows:  Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Chuck Kobasew, John Madden, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Kyle Brodziak, Cody Almond, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Justin Falk, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Clayton Stoner, Cam Barker and Brent Burns.  Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom.  Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Cullen were the “healthy” scratches.  Marek Zidlicky (shoulder), James Sheppard (knee) and Guillaume Latendresse (groin & sports hernia) are on injured reserve. 

~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Ilya Bryzgalov, 2nd Star Taylor Pyatt, 3rd Star Lauri Korpikoski

~ Tonight’s attendance at Jobing.com Arena was 14,587.

~ Houston Aeros find themselves in a 4-way tie for first place in the West Division after defeating in-state rival Texas Stars (for the 7th time this season) 4-1.  The Aeros would control the pace of the play early on, even though both teams were showing elements of rustiness as it was their first game after the AHL All Star break.  Houston would take a 1-0 lead late in the second period on a power play one-timer by Patrick O’Sullivan.  In a bit more back and forth 2nd period where both squads started to find their legs a bit, as Jed Ortmeyer started to fly around the ice lighting up Stars players wherever he could find them.  The Stars, dilapidated by injuries had a very difficult time creating any sort of offense making Anton Khudobin‘s job pretty easy.  The Aeros would strike again on the power play as O’Sullivan rifled a one-timer by Brent Krahn to give Houston a 2-0 lead.  Houston would score 40 seconds later when Jarod Palmer found the net for the first time since November.  The Stars would answer back late in the game on the power play, when Luke Gazdic shoveled a shot by Khudobin to cut the Aeros lead to two, 3-1.  The Aeros lone All Star representative, Maxim Noreau bury an empty netter to seal a 4-1 Houston win.  Khudobin had 31 saves in the victory.  The arrival of O’Sullivan has been a terrific offensive boost for the Aeros, scoring 5 goals, and 9 points in just 8 games.  The Aeros play tomorrow against the Texas Stars in Austin. 

~ Next week Saturday is Hockey Day in Minnesota and as usual the State of Hockey News will provide complete coverage all day long.  We hope you check in with us frequently as we will do our best to cover all the games. 

Minnesota High School Hockey Report:

Top 10 Scorers (Boys):

1. Tyler Heinonen (Delano) – 21GP  42G  36A = 78pts
2. Ville Rantanen (Mankato West) – 21GP  43G  25A = 68pts
3. Garrett Hendrickson (Virginia/Mt.Iron-Buhl) – 22GP 26G  39A = 65pts
4. Josh Archibald (Brainerd) – 22GP  24G  40A = 64pts
5. Nick DeCenzo (Hibbing-Chisholm) – 21GP  19G 45A = 63pts
6. Justin Kloos (Lakeville South) – 19GP 26G  37A = 63pts
7. Dillon McLain (Delano) – 21GP  22G  41A = 63pts
8. Adam Johnson (Hibbing-Chisholm) – 21GP  32G  30A = 62pts
9. Nate Baker (Detroit Lakes) – 20GP 35G  21A = 56pts
10. Andrew Habel (Chisago Lakes) – 19GP  22G 33A = 55pts

Top 5 Goaltenders (Boys):

1.  Alex Lyon (Lake of the Woods) – (13-5-2)  1.57GAA  .946%SP
2.  Michael Stumpf (Little Falls) – (12-1-1)  1.37GAA  .940%SP
3.  Michael Bitzer (Moorhead) – (14-5-1)  2.04GAA  .933%SP
4.  Zach Moore (Woodbury) – (6-3-0)  2.33GAA  .932%SP
5.  Nick Malvin (Blaine) – (11-4-3)  1.89GAA  .931%SP

Top 10 Scorers (Girls):

1. Taylor Kuehl (Mound-Westonka) – 25GP  50G 46A = 96pts
2. Dani Schultz (Morris/Benson Area) – 21GP  58G  36A = 94pts
3. Sara Rajewsky (Morris/Benson Area) – 21GP  37G  39A = 76pts
4. Rachel Bona (Coon Rapids) – 24GP  41G  31A = 72pts
5. Dani Cameranesi (Blake) – 24GP  31G  40A = 71pts
6. Hillary Crowe (Blake) – 24GP  42G  28A = 70pts
7. Lisa Marvin (Warroad) – 24GP  25G  44A = 69pts
8. Leah Jensen (East Grand Forks) – 25GP  49G 16A = 65pts
9. Karley Sylvester (Warroad) – 22GP  25G  40A = 65pts
10. Layla Marvin (Warroad) – 22GP  29G  35A = 64pts

Top 5 Goaltenders:

1.  Shelby Amsley-Benzie (Warroad) – (20-3-0)  .98GAA  .953%SP
2.  Julie Friend (Minnetonka) – (16-0-1)  .81GAA  .952%SP
3.  Erika Allen (Roseville) – (8-4-0)  1.46GAA  .946%SP
4.  Erika Hansen (Centennial) – (14-6-1)  1.46GAA  .944%SP
5.  Erin Deters (Sartell / Sauk Rapids) – (12-7-1)  1.72GAA  .944%SP

About Derek Felska

I am a lifelong hockey fan from Minnesota who loves and appreciates the game at all levels. I have been blogging about the Minnesota Wild since 2005. I cover just about every aspect of the organization from the team itself, its coaches, its management, its broadcast as well as its AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild and the club's pool of prospects. In addition to the NHL I occasionally take the time to cover college and high school hockey as well. We are the State of Hockey and I want to make this blog informative and objective from the eyes of a fan. I am a fan of the Minnesota Wild, but I am no homer. I hope what you read reflects this approach!

Timely goals in the 1st period help lift Wild to 3-2 road victory over the Coyotes

“Here comes Santa Claus, right sown Santa Claus lane, Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer, Pullin’ on the reins, Bells are ringin’, children are singin’, all is merry and bright, hang your stockings and say your prayers Santa Claus is coming tonight” might be something the Wild should consider.  While Wild defenseman Brent Burns may be singing “All I want for christmas is my two front teeth” after colliding with teammate Greg Zanon resulting in the loss of a few chicklets in last week Friday’s game against Calgary which ended in a 3-2 shootout loss.  Either way its that time of year, whether its the snow shoveling or the endless and unavoidable amounts of holiday music that is tagged to virtually every commercial on TV the reminder is constant.  Its nearing the holidays, and whether you celebrate Kwanza, Hanukah, Christmas or my personal favorite, Festivus (“Festivus for the rest of us” of Seinfeld fame) its a time to show those that we care about that we appreciate them.  While some decry that the holidays have become too commercialized, I would ask them to show me a major holiday that hasn’t been exploited by big business.  Anyways, I guess this is the perfect opportunity to wish all of my readers out there a happy and safe holidays and that I hope all of your holiday wishes come true!  Now that you’ve given me that Full House-worthy “awww” I think its also the right time to talk about gifts.  Afterall, as kids, many judge the holidays almost solely on what they received as presents as to whether it was a good holidays or not.  So what would you, Wild fans wish to receive from the Wild?  Is it a goal scoring sniper for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft?  Is it salary cap relief?  Is it that one or more of the team’s prospects really takes off to become a superstar?  Is it that Andrew Brunette get rocket skates so he can skate faster than slow motion for a change?  Is it the rather un-cheery sight of a pink slip of termination for Wild Head Coach Todd Richards?  Is it the Wild qualifying for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs?  The choices and possibility of requests are endless but I can assure you that whatever you are wanting from the Wild, Santa Claus (i.e. General Manager Chuck Fletcher) will be “makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s been naughty or nice” and perhaps those players who have been naughty (cough haven’t gave a full effort ) will be sent out of town. 

So the Holidays are a time for giving, and the Wild have already given opposing teams plenty already by losing its last 5 straight games.  Its time for the Wild to get some gifts of its own.  Its time for some of its players to step up and repay the gratitude (heavy salaries) they’ve been given (cough Mikko Koivu cough), and its time holiday colored team that the Wild are finally bring some cheer to the Xcel Energy Center in the form of wins which have been a 50/50 proposition so far this season.  The Phoenix Coyotes would also enjoy some giving, from its fans for whom the team has provided winning hockey but they have shown precious little loyalty as they dress up as empty seats most nights.  So what will the Wild find in its stocking tonight, a nice gift of a victory or just a sad lump of coal as they feel the misery of losing their 6th straight? 

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The Coyotes would win the initial draw and pull it back into its own end but the Wild were aggressive and little turnover by Phoenix down low to Antti Miettinen who drove to the crease for a quick shot that was directed aside by Ilya Bryzgalov.  The Wild were skating very well to start the period as Brent Burns took away an attempted drop pass by Taylor Pyatt and immediately go on the attack as he dished the puck up to Martin Havlat who raced back into the Phoenix zone where he slid the puck back to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who fired a wrist shot that was deflected up into the netting by Bryzgalov.  Minnesota was winning most of the races for the loose puck and was anticipating well early on.  The game had a great pace with both teams well rested flying all over the ice.  The Coyotes first quality chance, where a redirected shot nearly ended up on the stick of a wide open Lee Stempniak who was foiled by a diving poke check by Niklas Backstrom.  The Wild tried to counter and it was Patrick O’Sullivan showing some dangle as he attempted to work the puck near the crease but Minnesota wasn’t able to generate much other than a few long range shots as Chuck Kobasew fired a shot that was covered up by Bryzgalov.  Minnesota’s assertiveness was beginning to pay off and a nice play through the neutral zone turned into a 2-on-1 for Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette and the Wild captain was able to draw the defenders towards him before threading a backhand pass to Brunette who skated in and beat Bryzgalov with a pretty little backhander that he lifted over the Coyotes goalie to take a 1-0 lead.  The Wild continued to apply pressure and the KISS-principle offense; of just shooting the puck whenever they had the opportunity was being followed as Eric Nystrom would move into the Coyotes’ zone where he fired a slap shot that Bryzgalov covered as Nystrom stormed the crease.  The Coyotes was trying to weather the Wild assault by taking a few chances of their own and Wild “killer” Scottie Upshall attempted an against the grain wrist shot that was gloved by Backstrom.  The Coyotes then would try to work the cycle down low as Martin Hanzal used his big frame to shield the puck before moving it out to the point to Sami Lepisto who flung a quick diagonal pass to Ray Whitney who blasted a one timer that was snagged by Backstrom.  Minnesota would try to show some hard work along the boards of its own as the 2nd line of Kyle Brodziak, Bouchard and Havlat would simply out work and out skate the Coyotes for the biscuit culminating a scoring chance for Brodziak who got a snap shot off that was pounced upon by Bryzgalov.  The Wild’s hard work would pay off on the next shift, as Minnesota drew a hooking penalty on Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  On the power play the Wild would struggle to get set up against the Coyotes penalty kill which challenged the puck carrier very well through the neutral zone.  It would take almost a minute before the Wild were able to get set up, and they had a great potential chance as Havlat nearly was able to feed Cal Clutterbuck who was wide open on the backside but his cross-ice pass was deflected out of harm’s way by Keith Yandle.  Minnesota would come up empty on the power play, and as Ekman-Larsson exited the box he picked up the loose puck and drove deep into the Wild zone where he was being chased by Clutterbuck but before he took a big hit he fed it back into the slot for Pyatt who chipped a shot by Backstrom to tie the game at 1-1.  The game would sort of resume a furious pace for the next minute or so as both teams would trade rushes against one another, and it was Phoenix coming close to taking the lead where a long wrister by Eric Belanger was knocked down by Backstrom but he couldn’t pounce the rebound and Shane Doan swept in and lifted the puck over him but it would strike the crossbar and carom out.  Minnesota would try to strike back and it was O’Sullivan who tried to connect on a long diagonal pass with a crashing Matt Cullen but Bryzgalov would reach out his paddle and the puck would ramp up his his stick and into the netting behind the goal.  In the last minute of play, the Wild’s top line had another great scoring chance as Miettinen redirected a point shot just wide but Minnesota would gather the puck up where Miettinen flung a pass towards the crease where it was tapped in by Brent Burns who had worked his way right to the top of the crease to give the State of Hockey a 2-1 lead going into the 2nd period. 

The 2nd period would start out with a slower pace with both teams using a more cautious style as the Coyotes sat back in a 1-2-2 hoping for a mistake and they nearly got it as an outlet pass was stolen by Doan who fired a shot on goal that was steered away by Backstrom but right to Upshall who turned and flung a shot that hit the side of the goal.  Phoenix continued to pour it on early as they again found some space in the slot where Backstrom got some help from Cam Barker who made a save with his skate before it was swept out of danger by Kobasew.  The Coyotes were pinching in defensively trying to support the play offensively.  Minnesota would try to counter attack with speed but they were unable to generate much more than just one shot at a time and then they’d have to retreat back to their own zone.  Niklas Backstrom was challenging the shooter aggressively, moving way out of his crease as he denied Radim Vrbata on a slapper taken from the right faceoff dot.  You could also see Minnesota try to rally back with some great play along the boards down low in the Phoenix zone by Koivu and Brunette but they just weren’t able to get the puck away from the Coyotes defense.  The Wild were starting to tilt the ice back towards the Phoenix end, as Koivu and Brunette had another dominant shift a few minutes later where Koivu flung a quick wrist shot that was walled off by Bryzgalov.  Tempers would flare a few moments later when Barker seemed to get into it with the Coyotes Twitter phenom Paul Bissonette.  The Wild would try to take advantage of the Coyotes’ willingness to pinch with its defense as Burns tried to join the rush and his redirect play was stymied by the stop of the Phoenix goalie.  Minnesota was doing a nice job of disrupting the Phoenix attempts to mount a rush of its own with good actives ticks through the neutral zone.  Phoenix had some better success at sustaining offensive pressure by working its line of big-bodied forwards to cycle the puck but despite their puck possession they were unable to generate a quality shot on goal.  Both teams would be playing rather cautiously, retreating quickly to try to help out defensively and the result was shots were hard to come by.  The Wild tried to get back on the scoreboard as a Barker wrist shot would float down near the crease as Brodziak and Bouchard tried to jam a puck by Bryzgalov who hd sat down to make sure there was no way it was sneaking underneath his leg pads.  Moments later, the Wild continued to swarm near the Phoenix crease as Martin Havlat tried to wrap a shot by the Coyotes goaltender and as he jammed at the puck he would get a facewash by Yandle.  Minnesota continued to win the races for the loose puck in the Phoenix zone and the top line was able to threaten the Coyotes a bit more but they just weren’t able to put a real quality shot on goal.  The 2nd period would end with Minnesota still holding a one-goal lead, 2-1 Wild. 

The Coyotes tried to dominate right at the drop of the puck to start the 3rd while they were able to set up a blast from the point by Yandle.  Minnesota counter attacked with its 2nd line who had a nice shift, as Havlat was really attempting to dangle and take the puck to the crease but the Coyotes blueliners were bale to sweep away the dangerous pucks before Bouchard or Brodziak could take advantage of the bouncing pucks near the crease.  The Wild had another great scoring chance a few minutes later when Kobasew feed a puck to Patrick O’Sullivan who found himself in the slot, and after fanning on his first attempt he got off a quick shot that was stopped by the quick legs of Bryzgalov before getting a stick to the face by Ed Jovanovski to no penalty called.  He would have to receive a little attention from Wild trainer Don Fuller as his mouth was a little bloody after the incident.  Minnesota would earn a penalty just moments later as Ekman-Larsson tried to throw the puck out of the zone where he got a delay of game penalty for closing his hand on the puck.  On the power play Minnesota was making crisp passes but not quite enough puck movement to get the Coyotes penalty killers out of position to open up a few shooting lanes.  The Coyotes would get the big kill and then go on the attack as Doan and their big bodied line cycled the puck effectively forcing Backstrom to make a few quality saves.  Phoenix would then try to work the cycle with its smaller line and they came close to tying the game when they set up Whitney for a one-timer from the high slot who blistered a slapper just over the goal.  The Wild would again challenge well through the neutral zone and Andrew Brunette would intercept a pass in the neutral zone and he’d help start a rush into the Coyotes zone where Koivu attempted a drop pass that was just a little behind and out of reach of Brunette but the line kept working and nearly set up Brunette near the top of the crease as Minnesota was again able to create a little offensive pressure.  Minnesota’s forwards were also backchecking well as Havlat made a nice play in the defensive zone to support the Wild blueliners as the State of Hockey would continue to hustle and move its feet and it would be rewarded for its hard work.  That reward would come in the form of a power play, when Adrian Aucoin would hold up Mikko Koivu who was on the forecheck.  This time the Wild would make the Coyotes for their lack of discipline with the man advantage as Pierre-Marc Bouchard would create a little movement by going down near the halfwall before passing it back to Marek Zidlicky who unleashed a wrist shot that was redirected perfectly by Brunette to beat Bryzgalov to give Minnesota a 3-1 lead.  The Coyotes tried to answer back as Wojtek Wolski skated towards the crease and his wrister was steered wide by Backstrom.  Minnesota was paying the price physically to help their goaltender as Greg Zanon was blocking shots, as you could tell he was laboring after making the play but he had the presence of mind to bail out the Wild by clearing away a loose puck that sat in the crease.  Rather predictably it was at this point that the Coyotes would be given a power play as Scottie Upshall did a nice acting job to draw a roughing call on Cal Clutterbuck.  Minnesota was challenging the Coyotes through the neutral zone forcing Phoenix to settle for a dump in as the Wild defense quickly retreated and attempted to blast the puck off the glass but to no avail.  When the clearing attempt didn’t work Minnesota’s forwards were still hustling well and Madden made a nice diving play to clear the zone.  The Wild would get the big penalty kill but Minnesota would get another bogus call as Barker was tagged for tripping after giving a nice check.  Phoenix had a great chance early on this new power play as Whitney moved in and slid a pass to the crease where Vrbata looked to be perfectly set up by somehow Backstrom kept it out of his goal and after a flurry near his crease he’d cover up the biscuit to get the whistle.  With 1:40 left to play, Phoenix would pull Bryzgalov for an extra attacker to make it a 6-on-4 power play.  Minnesota was playing well positionally and keeping their sticks active to try to challenge those passes, but it was only a matter of time before Phoenix was able to overwhelm the Wild’s defense and it was Shane Doan wiring a shot that beat Backstrom who was scrambling all over his crease to cut the Wild lead to one.  A few  moments later, the Coyotes would pully Bryzgalov with about 30 seconds left.  The Wild would scramble some more, but Havlat was able to carry the puck out of danger and Minnesota would hold on for a 3-2 victory. 

Niklas Backstrom was fairly solid, making 33 saves in the win.  He was having to deal with traffic near his crease throughout most of the game and doing a fair job of finding the puck to make the key saves to keep the Coyotes from having much momentum in this game.  Backstrom was poised and no doubt it was a huge relief for him to earn a win this evening.  Defensively the Wild were fairly solid and its hard to fault them for some of the calls late in the game when it was painfully obvious the officials were giving some early holiday gifts to Phoenix just because Minnesota had earned 3 power plays up until that point in the game.  Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky got involved offensively but they would not have been able to do their jobs if it hadn’t been for the Wild’s forwards showing good dedication to helping out in the team’s own end with some great backchecking.  Havlat and Koivu were doing an excellent job defensively to make some crucial plays down the stretch. 

Offensively the Wild had an outstanding game from its top two lines; but the line of Koivu, Mietinen and Brunette really was a factor nearly all game long.  Koivu was very assertive, moving his feet well and playing like a dominant player especially along the boards and his two assists are all do his great effort.  One line that didn’t really end up with points but played very well was Havlat, Brodziak and Bouchard line who continue to demonstrate excellent chemistry and were a threat to score all night.  Havlat continues to play with urgency and is really starting to show off his skills and talents providing energy and creativity in each of his shifts.  Minnesota wasn’t pretty on the power play but they finally used a little more player movement on their last goal and it was Bouchards’ move to the half wall that gave Zidlicky the space to use a wrist shot from the point that turned out to be a game winner.  Bouchard is still not going into the corners, but he is making good plays to his linemates and giving the Wild a legitimate 2nd line. 

Todd Richards said that he felt his team played extremely hard tonight, and felt he got a effort from all of his players.  Richards added in his post-game interview to the media, “It was a big game for us, you’ve got to look to your big dogs, you look at Mikko, Brunette and Miettinen, you’ve got to look to those guys.”  You could argue this was one of the team’s better efforts all season long and Phoenix is a team that can expose foolish mistakes rather well but overall Minnesota didn’t make many.  Sure the Wild got lucky a few times as the Coyotes missed on a few of its chances but it was far more disciplined than the last time the two teams played against one another on December 1st.  This was a quality win for the Wild, but they will have to ready themselves for another tough battle Saturday when they travel to take on the Los Angeles Kings who have struggled as of late.  Hopefully Minnesota takes what it learned tonight about just how valuable scoring first can be.  I wouldn’t say this was a gift from Santa, but it was a nice little holiday treat nonetheless. 

Wild Notes:

~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Patrick O’Sullivan, John Madden, Cal Clutterbuck, Chuck Kobasew, Eric Nystrom, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Jared Spurgeon, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns.  Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom.  Clayton Stoner and Brad Staubitz were the healthy scratches.  Guillaume Latendresse is still recovering from groin and sports hernia surgery he received nearly a month ago. 

~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Andrew Brunette, 3rd Star Taylor Pyatt

~ Attendance tonight at Jobing.com Arena was 7,749 at the game which I must admit I highly doubt to be true since most of the arena appeared to be empty. 

Wild Prospect Report:

Great news for the Wild as the team will be well represented at this year’s World Junior Under-20 tournament.  The Wild should have as many as 5 players playing for the United States, Finland and Sweden in the annual tourney, which pits some of the best young players in the world against each other.  The tournament is followed with incredible analysis and coverage north of the 49th parallel but seems to be ignored somewhat in the U.S.  Team USA has performed very well the last few years and will be the tournament’s defending champion after shocking Team Canada up in Saskatoon on a John Carlson overtime goal last year.  The U-20 tournament is also a crucial showcase for the few NHL hopefuls to boost their stock for the upcoming 2011 draft which will be held in St. Paul this summer.  A good or a bad tournament can really have the scouts be your best supporter or your worst enemy as the event serves as a solid baseline you can see how the Europeans stack up against their North American peers. 

One such WJC hopeful is Jason Zucker who won a gold medal with Team USA last year.  Zucker has been fantastic for the Denver Pioneers (where he is one of the top freshman in goal scoring) and will be looked to provide his speed, and offense for a possible repeat in what will likely be the somewhat friendly confines of HSBC Arena in Buffalo.  Other Wild prospects that will be there are Minnesota’s 1st round pick from last season in Mikael Granlund who has had a tough start to 2010-11 by suffering a concussion in mid-October.  Mikael should play a crucial role for team Finland, while his brother Markus Granlund who is also a small but skilled player, is hoping to make his draft stock rise. Another hopeful for the Finnish team is Wild prospect Erik Haula who is also having a terrific freshman season with the Golden Gophers.  Haula was a rather puzzling omission from last year’s squad from what some felt was an issue between the Finnish team execs and Haula’s dad who apparently is considered tough to deal with.  Either way, the fact Haula is playing so well and Finland has always struggled offensively should mean he’d give a spot on the roster.  He certainly has been deserving of that honor.  The Wild will have two members on team Sweden with hard working forward Johan Larsson and goaltender Johan Gustafsson

While that is all good for the Wild there are other Minnesota connections likely to have a good chance to play as blueliners as UMD’s Justin Faulk (South St. Paul), North Dakota’s Derek Forbort (North Dakota), former Wild 1st round pick Nick Leddy (Eden Prairie, MN), in addition to the Golden Gophers’ Nick Bjugstad (Blaine, MN), North Dakota’s Brock Nelson (Warroad, MN) giving the State of Hockey another chance to be well represented.   

About Derek Felska

I am a lifelong hockey fan from Minnesota who loves and appreciates the game at all levels. I have been blogging about the Minnesota Wild since 2005. I cover just about every aspect of the organization from the team itself, its coaches, its management, its broadcast as well as its AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild and the club's pool of prospects. In addition to the NHL I occasionally take the time to cover college and high school hockey as well. We are the State of Hockey and I want to make this blog informative and objective from the eyes of a fan. I am a fan of the Minnesota Wild, but I am no homer. I hope what you read reflects this approach!