As I watched last night’s game 5 match up between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks I couldn’t help but see some connections. The powerful Blues won the first two games of the series and most were saying the defending Stanley Cup Champions were dead in the water. Criticisms about the play of Corey Crawford began to be seen all over the Twittersphere and many nearly wrote off the Blackhawks as the team saw one of its top defenseman in Brent Seabrook suspended for a vicious hit to David Backes that had the Blues’ captain wobbly on his feet. But that didn’t happen, as Chicago rallied back with 3 straight victories on the strength of a dramatic game-winning breakaway goal by ‘Captain Serious’ Jonathan Toews. Chicago now holds the edge as they will be returning to the loud and friendly confines of the ‘Madhouse on Madison’ that is the United Center. Either way, it offers a perspective of just how fast things can change in the playoffs and its a big reason why the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the best in all of professional sports. The momentum swings and suddenly the tables are turned. It remains to be seen if Chicago can finish this dramatic turnaround but they are looking good now.
The Minnesota Wild have to feel as though they are on the cusp of a similar situation. The Wild have evened their series, but are playing well at both ends of the ice while Colorado seems to be frustrated and demoralized. Even as Colorado players tried to knee Wild players (which you can watch one of those hits here) in retribution for the season ending hit to Tyson Barrie, Minnesota must remained focused on the goal at hand. As a famous Minnesota-born coach once said, “Great moments, lead to great opportunities.” Can Minnesota turn the series on its head by earning another victory tonight or will Colorado re-take the lead?
1st Period Thoughts: The Wild started the game by playing well defensively, stepping up in the neutral zone to prevent Colorado from building up too much speed. The Wild would get its forecheck going, where they kept Colorado bottled up in its own end, but it was not yielding any shots on goal as the Avalanche were quick to drop down near the crease to sweep away dangerous pucks. Minnesota would earn a power play early as Jason Pominville was cross checked by Nick Holden. The Wild struggled to get set up on the man advantage as a few errant passes and a hand pass gave Colorado some easy clears of the zone and then the Avalanche put four players near their own blueline to contest the entry into their end. Minnesota finally was able to create a quality scoring chance as Mikael Granlund set up Dany Heatley for a one-timer that was steered aside by Semyon Varlamov. After the big kill, the Avalanche would try to counter attack as Ryan O’Reilly turned on the jets and was nearly able to get around Marco Scandella as he dished the puck to Jamie McGinn for a hard shot that was blocked aside by Darcy Kuemper. Minnesota would counter attack as the top line of Granlund, Zach Parise and Pominville were able to work the puck deep as Granlund sidestepped a big hit and then passed the puck behind the net towards Parise as the puck was then swept up by Granlund who tried a wrap around that was stopped and covered up by Varlamov. The Avalanche tried double shifting its top line hoping to wear the Wild down, but Minnesota was playing well defensively, forcing Colorado to the perimeter. The Wild would try to go back on the attack and enter NHL referee Brad Meier to do whatever he could to screw the Wild over as he called Granlund for barely touching Varlamov who stopped a shot from Parise giving Colorado a power play. On the man advantage, the Wild did a pretty good job at disrupting the first minute of the Colorado power play, but then the Avalanche would settle down and they’d set up a few nice chances from in close but Darcy Kuemper was able to get across the blue paint to make some tremendous saves. The Wild would look a bit confused in the few minutes after the successful kill as Colorado was able to establish itself in the offensive zone forcing Kuemper to again come up with some huge stops at close range. Minnesota would have another great chance late in the period as Nate Prosser flung a wrist shot from the point that was deflected by Matt Moulson only to have it stopped by the leg pad of Varlamov. The 1st period was inconclusive thanks to some good goaltending at both ends of the ice. The Wild certainly could raise their intensity thus far. Minnesota out shooting Colorado 11-8 in the period. Minnesota’s defenseman don’t have to force plays but at times they’re guilty of being a little too nonchalant with the puck. I’d also like to see more energy from the Wild’s bottom 6 forwards. They need to be a source of energy and sandpaper out there. It can’t always come from the top 6.
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota started the period on its heels, as Colorado really swarmed from the drop of the puck. The Wild were scrambling around their own end and pretty soon it looked like a shooting gallery as Kuemper was getting moved all over his own crease. Minnesota had some very close calls as Kuemper sprawled to cover a puck but he was unable to control it and O’Reilly’s chance would strike the skate of Clayton Stoner the Avalanche center had a gaping Wild net to look at. Stoner would get tagged with a cross-checking penalty giving Colorado another power play. On the power play the Wild did a great job of pressuring the puck carrier and forcing the turnover so they could clear the zone. Even as Colorado got sticks on the puck to take it away from Wild penalty killers, solid puck support in their own end to get it back and preventing the play from becoming dangerous. Shortly after another successful kill, the Wild would go on the power play thanks to a ‘too many men’ penalty on the Avalanche. The Wild power play would struggle to get set up as some bad passes again put Minnesota on its heels. Then a fanned shot by Pominville turned into an odd man rush on the power play and it was O’Reilly setting up a one-handed redirection by Cody McLeod for a shorthanded goal to put Colorado up 1-0. With 30 seconds left on the power play, Matt Moulson had a great shift as he won some battles for the puck down low and even as the man advantage expired the Wild controlled the zone as they took advantage of the fact McGinn had no stick. The puck would be worked out to the point where Jared Spurgeon stepped into a slap shot that was redirected by Moulson and by Varlamov to tie the game at 1-1. The goals raised the intensity of the game as Mikko Koivu would get into a bit of a scrum with Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog who cross checked Koivu and then punched him in the back of the head before jumping on top of him. The officials took the easy way out and sent both of them to the box even though Koivu more or less got tackled and punched and did nothing in retaliation. Koivu would get up from the ice saying “That’s fucking embarrassing.” But it didn’t matter, the play would go to 4-on-4. Colorado was fine with that and they’d immediately go on the attack as Minnesota got caught a little too deep in the Avalanche zone and Nathan MacKinnon would turn on the jets and fly into the Wild zone as he dropped a pass back to Andre Benoit who hammered a slap shot that was deflected by Kuemper by Holden and it was 2-1 Avalanche. Minnesota would try to answer back but the bad calls kept coming their way as Charlie Coyle and Cody McLeod battled in the offensive zone where McLeod enraged cross checked Moulson as he tried to enter the Wild bench for a line change. Coyle skated over but did nothing in retaliation but Brad Meier who watched the whole sequence sent Coyle off for roughing. It was a completely pathetic call by an official who has been a plague for the Wild since its first season in 2000. With Minnesota on the penalty kill; the Wild penalty killers did a fine job of disrupting passing and shooting lanes and helping out Kuemper in and around his crease and they’d get another huge kill. The Wild had to feel a little fortunate being down only by one despite some truly questionable calls; not to mention the constant attempts to knee Granlund and Spurgeon every time they’re out there.
3rd Period Thoughts: Colorado again would start the period out strong, with a physical shift that kept Minnesota pinned in its own zone forcing Kuemper to stand tall right away. Minnesota would then regroup and go on the attack and their persistence would be rewarded as Zach Parise would find a little open space off the left side and he’d wind up and rifle a shot top shelf over the shoulder of Varlamov to tie the game at 2-2. Then the 4th line would have what was perhaps the shift of the game as they worked the puck deep; taking full advantage of a broken stick by Marc-Andre Cliche and they’d tire out the Avalanche with a great cycling game. Minnesota would stay patient as they held in a lethargic Colorado clearing attempt as Spurgeon moved the puck down to Heatley who worked it back to the point where Kyle Brodziak stepped into a slap shot that beat Varlamov high to give Minnesota its first lead of the game, 3-2. The Wild kept taking its chance to attack the Avalanche as Erik Haula found some space and he’d race in and fire a shot that was stopped by Varlamov and he’d give one poke at the pads of the Colorado goalie that Landeskog didn’t like and he’d skate over and cross check Haula. The officials moved in to break it up, but no calls were made. A bad turnover of the puck by Prosser gave McGinn a lane to attack but good help by Koivu prevented him from directing a shot on goal and the Wild would scramble and Kuemper would make a save to draw a whistle. The Avalanche were really taking every chance to send 3 players in on the forecheck and pinch with their defense as they looked to tally the equalizer. The shifts were physical and Minnesota was content to flip the puck into the air into the Colorado zone where it would slowly roll deep but avoid an icing call. Minnesota would occasionally look to counter attack as Koivu skated in along with Coyle and he’d move into the slot and dust off his forehand to backhand shelf move that was just blocked up and over the net by Varlamov. The Wild were playing smart and hustling hard as they worked the puck deep. Their hard work was starting to frustrate the desperate Avalanche who would take a late penalty as Landeskog sprayed Kuemper after he made a save, and he’d sit for unsportsmanlike conduct as the home crowd boo’d in displeasure. What also happened on the play was Landeskog pushing Meier twice on the play and he’s lucky he wasn’t tossed from the game. On the power play the Avalanche’s penalty kill was very aggressive and the Wild struggled to get much in the way of offensive chances. The best chance was Koivu setting up Pominville in the slot as he pushed a shot just wide. As the penalty expired, the Avalanche would pull Varlamov for an extra attacker with a little over 2 minutes left to play. The Wild was strong defensively, mucking along the boards and using the glass effectively to get the puck out of the zone. Minnesota looked to have a 2-on-1 as Parise worked a puck deep as Charlie Coyle tried to chase after it but he was held up by Benoit. Coyle seemed a bit tired and he slowed up as he was being held instead of just trying to skate through it to compel a call to be made. So instead of drawing a penalty the Avalanche would counter attack and it was Paul Stastny would race down the ice and put it on goal that Kuemper stopped but he couldn’t control the rebound and P.A. Parenteau would bury it to tie the game at 3-3. In the closing seconds the Wild tried one last time to take the lead as Spurgeon carried a puck down low and he’d swing a pass out front to Erik Haula that was just deflected up and over the goal and the game would go to overtime. Want to be more pissed off Wild fans, check out the fact the Avalanche were offsides on the play in which they scored. Here’s the damning evidence below.
Overtime Thoughts: The Wild had a great shift from its 2nd line of Koivu, Moulson and Coyle as they used their strength to control the puck deep in the Colorado end, and work a few shots on goal but unfortunately the Wild were unable to cash in on the rebounds he gave up. The Avalanche would score as Nathan MacKinnon found a little space and he’d rip a shot by Kuemper and Colorado would win 3-2. I am sure that noise you just heard was fans all across the state of hockey cursing the hack that is Brad Meier. Fans knew there was going to be problems as soon as it was known he was going to be the ref and he proved us all right. What a joke.
Darcy Kuemper played ok, stopping 31 shots in the loss. He got beat on rebounds and deflections but he made enough saves to give the Wild a chance to win this game. Unfortunately, when he needed his team to sweep away pucks late they couldn’t get it done and the pucks ended up in the back of his net. I thought Minnesota had a harder time defensively partly because of Roy’s ability to have the last change allowed Colorado to exploit when the Wild had their 4th line on the ice. The officials did all they could to give the Avalanche the victory, but Minnesota’s penalty kill was still a perfect 3-for-3.
Offensively the Wild got contributions from all over again. The 4th line generated a goal as well as from its workhorses too as Parise finally lit the lamp in the playoffs. Minnesota pumped 32 shots on goal and I liked their effort most of the night. Pominville still hasn’t managed to bury one yet, but he’s due. I know Haula is concentrating on shutting down MacKinnon, but I hope he can somehow get involved on the power play because he has great hands and great vision on the ice. Moulson had a great game and I thought Coyle continued to play big even if he didn’t score tonight.
This is a particularly frustrating game because you feel as though it was stolen from the Wild. Brad Meier is a travesty to the NHL, and has consistently jobbed the Wild since the team came into the league. The phantom roughing call on Coyle, the bogus goaltender interference on Granlund to the botched offsides call on the play that resulted in the game-tying goal it was a comedy of errors for this officiating crew. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo didn’t let the officials have it by simply saying, “It is, what it is.” The Wild battled through the awful officiating and really deserved to win this game. But now, trailing 3 games to 2 they have to run the table to win the series. Its certainly possible, so hopefully this team can move on from this game and take care of business on Monday night in St. Paul.
~ Wild notes were as follows: Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Matt Moulson, Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak, Cody McCormick, Dany Heatley, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Ilya Bryzgalov backed up Darcy Kuemper. Mike Rupp, Jake Dowell, Carson McMillan, John Curry, Raphael Bussieres, Stephane Veilleux, Zack Phillips, Tyler Graovac, Steven Kampfer, Jon Landry and Jonathon Blum were the healthy scratches. Matt Cooke served the 2nd game of his 7-game NHL suspension.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Ryan Boulding were: 1st Star Nathan MacKinnon, 2nd Star P.A. Parenteau, 3rd Star Semyon Varlamov
~ Attendance was 18,418 at Pepsi Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Zack Mitchell (Guelph, OHL) ~ The Guelph Storm punched their ticket to the OHL Championship against the North Bay Battalion after beating Erie 5-0 on Friday night. The Storm’s alternate captain continues to have a strong playoffs, as he buried 2 goals in the series clincher. Mitchell’s 10 goals and 23 points leads all OHL’ers in the post-season thus far.
F – Avery Peterson (Sioux City, USHL) ~ The Sioux City Musketeers are battling their way through the USHL semifinals as they fell 3-2 to Waterloo on Friday evening. Peterson has been a force for the Musketeers as he chipped in a goal and an assist in the loss. The former Grand Rapids star has 4 goals, 7 points in 5 playoff games.
D – Mathew Dumba (Portland, WHL) ~ The Portland juggernaut keeps on rolling as they cruised to a 7-3 victory over Kelowna which clinched the Western Conference championship as they now await the resolution of the Eastern Conference championship between Edmonton and Medicine Hat. Dumba did his part by scoring the game winning goal as he helps lead a pretty explosive attack. The Calgary-native has 3 goals, 11 points and is a +20 in 14 playoff games this season.