If you’re a hockey die-hard like I am, holidays can be a time where you take yourself out of the close-knit rube-like world of hockey focused message boards or blogs to hear what casual fans think. Fanatics are often almost horrified by the lack of depth of knowledge of those fans, but sometimes their less invested perspective is refreshing. Some of my relatives know I’m a Wild fanatic, so they ask me, “So how is the team doing so far? I saw the score, so what happened last night (Saturday)?” Like any fanatic you try to explain all the fine parts of the game and you can see their eyes sort of glaze over at your tremendous amount of details when all they wanted to really hear was a vague Cliff Notes version. Then after you’ve given a fairly good summary of the ebb and flow of the previous game they chime in with, “oh yea, so they’re not going to make it past the 1st round, well still, its pretty good that this team made the playoffs right? How many Minnesota teams can say they did that this year?” True, but it got me thinking. Is that really good enough anymore for the Minnesota Wild?
At this point, I don’t think so. I don’t think Wild majority owner Craig Leipold has made the big deals he made just to feel like simply making the playoffs is good enough. The I think management expects more, so with the Wild’s season teetering half-way to oblivion you have to wonder if axes will fall if there is another one-and-done playoffs for the State of Hockey. Minnesota has dealt significant assets to bring in quality players at the deadline the last two years. I don’t think the goal was just to get toe hold into the post-season and then go golfing two weeks later than those that did not make it. Will the Wild push back tonight with a victory or will the Avalanche nudge Minnesota a little closer to that proverbial cliff?
1st Period Thoughts: There was an atmosphere of anxious intensity to start the game. The home crowd was urging the Wild to apply pressure early and as Minnesota started to attack, the directive was pretty obvious. Get pucks to the net. Minnesota was taking every opportunity to send shots on goal, even if there was no traffic in front of Semyon Varlamov. The Wild were working the puck deep and getting their forecheck going as its new ‘top line’ of Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville tried to rekindle its old chemistry. Parise tried to work the puck near the post but Varlamov was up to the task. The intensity also quickly spilled over in regards to physical play as skirmishes broke out early and often after whistles including an early shoving match between Brad Malone and Clayton Stoner. The 2nd line of Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson were using their big frames to control the puck along the boards and this was starting to result in some terrific scoring chances as they followed up pucks looking for rebounds that were not taking place as Varlamov was giving up very few of them. The crowd was enjoying the physical intensity as Minnesota was quick to push and shove and play with a dose of ornery anywhere around its crease. The Wild kept peppering Varlamov with shots and he was coming up with some great saves as Minnesota was throwing just about everything but the kitchen sink at him. Koivu would set up Matt Moulson right into the slot for a point-blank range chance only to be stoned by Varlamov. The crowd seemed to keep the Wild buzzing as they were winning most of the races to the loose puck while Colorado seemed to be struggling to keep up. Minnesota was standing up through the neutral zone well too; not allowing the Avalanche to exit their end with a lot of speed as they did in Game 2. The Avalanche would earn the first power play of the game as Coyle would get tagged with a roughing call. On the penalty kill, the Wild never really let Colorado get comfortable, and they forced the Avalanche to settle for shots from the perimeter and Darcy Kuemper was razor sharp. Even as the Avalanche worked the puck down low, Gabriel Landeskog moved in and fired a quick shot that was gloved by Kuemper. Another late period scrum that had Maxime Talbot getting into it with Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner turned into a wrestling match near the Colorado blueline. Stoner, Prosser as well as Talbot and Andre Benoit would sit 2 minutes apiece for roughing. The Wild would have one last golden opportunity in the closing seconds of the period as a puck squeeze by the Avalanche defense and it was gathered up by Charlie Coyle who skated in and fired a wrist shot that rang off the crossbar or out. It was a terrific period for the Wild in just about every way other than the fact they couldn’t manage to score. Minnesota outshot Colorado 22-8. Those are video game like numbers. I thought all the lines were really clicking; mainly because they all were able to manage to keep up the same level of pressure. Even Dany Heatley was demonstrating he could forecheck, at least a little.
2nd Period Thoughts: The period would get out to an auspicious start as Matt Cooke would get a kneeing call as he went knee-to-knee with Tyson Barrie who fell to the ice in pain. He’d limp to the bench and head down for the locker room and the Avalanche would go on the power play. On the power play the Avalanche managed to find more room as they reversed the puck well but Minnesota’s penalty killers were still able to contest shots and keep Colorado confined to the perimeter. The Wild would get the big kill and they’d get a power play of their own as Talbot was given a slashing penalty. On the power play, the Wild were too far static on the man advantage, making it easy for Colorado to deny shooting lanes and Minnesota kept holding onto the puck as they moved the puck around the point. Minnesota still controlled the zone as they started to hammer point shots that started to cause Varlamov some trouble. The Wild kept swarming as they started to work the puck in around the crease, but so many times Minnesota just couldn’t get a stick on the puck to direct a shot on goal as Colorado’s defenseman scrambled about its own end. Even after the power play expired the Wild kept forechecking for nearly an extra minute, Minnesota kept Colorado hemmed in as Nino Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu were putting on a clinic along the boards as how to control the puck. However despite the pressure, the Wild still couldn’t manage to get a puck by Varlamov. There were some close ones as a slapper by Jared Spurgeon that Varlamov just got a piece of as the puck trickled harmlessly out of the crease. The crowd would give the Wild an appreciative cheer for the hard work of their team. The energy of the building was incredible as each shot on goal drew a gasp of anticipation from the capacity crowd. The intensity seemed to create another Avalanche casualty as Andre Benoit laid on the ice in pain as he appeared to have a fallen on his backside rather hard. The Avalanche training staff would make their way out to their fallen defenseman and for a time it looked as though Colorado was going to be forced to play the rest of the game with just 4 defenseman. The Wild continued to play physical, but at times they’d get carried away as a slashing penalty to Niederreitier and a high sticking penalty to Parise who nearly pulled a Keith Tkachuk on Josh Holden. Fortunately, the Wild didn’t pay for those mistakes as the team’s penalty kill and Kuemper were rock solid. Minnesota would press the attack late in the period and they’d draw a power play as Nate Guenin was given an interference penalty after tackling Parise near the Colorado crease. The Wild came inches from taking the lead as Jonas Brodin‘s low lying shot from the point was deflected by Moulson and off the right post and out. So even though the Wild were still held a huge advantage in shots; 31 to 15 the score was still the same with a 0-0 stalemate. I have to admit, at this point you had to feel nervous over the fact the team hadn’t managed to cash in yet, but I’m loving the intensity. Haven’t seen the emotion level in the crowd this high since 2003.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period started with that same nervous anxiety hanging in the air as the Wild tried to will themselves a goal. Minnesota certainly seemed to have a sense of urgency pushing them along as they were taking their opportunities to blast the puck on goal. The normally secure Varlamov started to give up rebounds and Minnesota kept plugging away. The crowd’s noise steadily intensified as the minutes ticked off the clock. Minnesota would finally draw a penalty as Zach Parise would step around a would be check and then race in a 2-on-1 as he’d try to saucer a pass over to Granlund who was hauled down before he could pull the trigger earning the Wild a power play. Minnesota would not do much with the man advantage as again they were too static and predictable in their puck movement which allowed Colorado to get sticks and people into shooting and passing lanes. Colorado would counter attack with its 4th line and for a brief moment it looked as though former Wild draft pick Patrick Bordeleau had a golden chance only to have the puck knocked off his stick by a diving play by Stoner. The Wild just could buy a goal, and finally Minnesota resorted to just attempting to jam the puck through as Heatley set up Niederreiter but Varlamov would manage to keep the puck from crossing the goal line. The play would be reviewed, but it would be called no goal. Minnesota continued to hurl themselves as the Avalanche, as Mikko Koivu made a nice move to play a puck off the boards to elude a check and he’d skate in with 2 wingers with him as he wove in towards the slot but he’d fire a shot that was blocked by a diving Avalanche player and before he could gather it up the opportunity was lost before he could pull the trigger on a shot. The pace of the game would slow down a bit as both sides were contesting every inch of the ice and the quality of the scoring chances declined to more of a prayer than a real quality look. The Wild caught a huge break late in the period as Jonas Brodin cleared a puck into the ice that Minnesota managed to convince the officials was partially tipped by Nathan MacKinnon. The replay showed that wasn’t the case. Bullet dodged there. So it was no real surprise that the game would go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: Overtime had more of cautious tone as both clubs were wary of being too aggressive and giving up a quality scoring chance the first few minutes. Kuemper had to make a few saves early as Colorado was looking for a cheap goal. It would be nearly 4 minutes before the Wild registered its first shot in OT as Koivu tried to power his way around Ryan O’Reilly for a close-range chance but Varlamov was able to hold the post and make the stop. But it was meant to be the Wild’s night as the line of Granlund, Pominville and Parise worked the puck down deep and then managed to criss-cross and reverse the play which gave Mikael Granlund a little space as he looked to pass it but a shadowing Jan Hejda lost him and then he’d move towards he crease, dangle around a poke check and then bury the game winner on a diving goal. Beautiful goal and the series lead for Colorado is cut to one, 2-1. 1-0 Minnesota!
Darcy Keumper was terrific, stopping all 22 shots he faced. Kuemper gave the Avalanche virtually nothing in the way of 2nd chance opportunities as he absorbed pucks all night and he rewarded Minnesota with calm, poised play. Defensively the Wild were strong and extremely physical. The Wild were not just giving up time and space for the Avalanche forwards to turn the game into a skill fest. I thought Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Clayton Stoner and even Jonas Brodin stepped up their physical game to force Colorado to fight and battle for every inch of ice in the offensive zone. The penalty kill also continues to be a source of strength for the Wild as they stopped all 3 power plays.
Offensively, the Wild left little to chance just about all game long as they were shooting early and often as they racked up 47 shots on goal. 47 shots, with 22 of them coming in the 1st period alone really set the tone for the Wild who were working the puck deep and letting their offense be the best defense against Colorado’s collection of speed and skill. As impressive as that shot total was, the team had a number of potential shots it never got off as pucks were stuck between the skates and players just were unable to reach them. Parise and Granlund had 7 shots on goal, but Minnesota was getting shots on goal from just about everyone. That too is key at putting Colorado under constant pressure. Granlund’s move was fantastic and more proof of the hard work he put in to transform his game and score a big time goal for his team. I really was glad to see Justin Fontaine back in the lineup this evening.
I don’t want to dwell on this; but the Wild had to have wondered if they were cursed and destined to lose this game but the team persevered and got the victory. The lead helps offset that negative inertia after the first two games. Now you almost have to wonder if the team was able to hold onto that 2 goal lead in game 1. The other story line that was discussed ad nauseum after the game by the NHL Network and the supposed “Play of the Game” according to Colorado Head Coach Patrick Roy, was Matt Cooke’s knee-to-knee hit on Tyson Barrie. The NHL Network was demanding a suspension and felt the hit deserved a lot more than a 2-minute minor it received. So much for the “give Matt Cooke a chance” plea to Wild fans the NHL Network had when we signed him last summer. Now they bring out the pitchforks. So will he be suspended? Probably, but at this point I don’t really care. I would guess Stephane Veilleux, a player with a similar skillset to Cooke’s is his replacement if the suspension is handed down. The Wild played mean, determined hockey, I think fans across the State of Hockey should be ok with that!
~ The Wild roster was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Cody McCormick, Justin Fontaine, Dany Heatley, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Ilya Bryzgalov backed up Darcy Kuemper. Kyle Brodziak, Keith Ballard, Jonathon Blum, Stephane Veilleux, Jake Dowell, and John Curry were the healthy scratches. Mike Rupp is serving the last game of his 4-game suspension.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild TV were: 1st Star Mikael Granlund, 2nd Star Mikko Koivu, 3rd Star Semyon Varlamov
~ Attendance was 19,221 at Xcel Energy Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Final Record: (27-36-7-6) 67pts Last in the West
169 Goals For (30th)
235 Goals Against (24th)
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #22 Brad Winchester ~ 19G 19A = 38pts
2. #51 Zack Phillips ~ 12G 21A = 33pts
3. #27 Carson McMillan ~ 12G 16A = 28pts
4. #21 Steven Kampfer ~ 6G 20A = 26pts
5. #4 Tyler Graovac ~ 13G 12A = 25pts
Top 3 PIM’s:
1. #20 Kurt Gogol ~ 204 PIM’s
2. #22 Brad Winchester ~ 149 PIM’s
3. #14 Corbin Baldwin ~ 129 PIM’s
1. #31 Johan Gustafsson (12-20-4) 2.98GAA .903%SP 1SO
2. #33 John Curry (7-9-2) 2.62GAA .920%SP 1SO
Recent Score: Iowa 2, Oklahoma City 3 SO
The Wild went into the last game of the season on Saturday night with nothing to play for as did their opponents the Oklahoma City Barons. Iowa would get out to a positive start as 2013 draft pick (107th Overall), Dylan Labbe fired a snap shot by Frans Tuohimaa. 1-0 Wild. The Wild were aggressive and assertive but Tuohimaa kept the game close through the rest of the 1st and a scoreless 2nd period. The Wild’s inability to add to its lead during this time would have consequences. The Barons would tie the game on the power play in the 3rd as Jordan Oesterle would wind up and blast a slap shot from the point that beat Johan Gustafsson. Iowa would answer back as Tyler Graovac would make a pretty move to get around the defense and race in on a breakaway where he beat Tuohimaa with a shot right underneath the crossbar to make it 2-1 Wild. The Wild couldn’t hold their lead as Curtis Hamilton dropped a pass back to Martin Gernat in the slot where he unleashed a wrist shot that beat Gustafsson over the shoulder tying the game at 2-2. As disappointing as the goal was Gustafsson would redeem himself in a fast and furious overtime as he made 5 saves to send the game to a shootout. In the shootout, the Wild got goals from Zack Phillips and Carson McMillan but it wasn’t enough as the Barons prevailed after Jack Combs, C.J. Stretch and the appropriately named Joshua Winquist won the game.
The loss personified Iowa’s season. The Wild had the worst offense in the AHL by far, and while Minnesota’s injury woes deprived it of potential offensive workhorses in Erik Haula and Jason Zucker, the team suffered from a chronic lack of goal scoring. There was hope towards the end as Tyler Graovac finished the season on a hot stretch but it was obviously too little, too late. Minnesota’s 2nd tier of young prospects were not able to carry the offensive load as hoped and despite reasonably decent goaltending the team came up short way too often. Zack Phillips was the leading scorer that stayed with the team for the whole season. It still was a valuable season for development for youngsters like Phillips, Graovac, Brett Bulmer, Raphael Bussierres, Gustav Olofsson, Kurtis Gabriel, Dylan Labbe as well as Johan Gustafsson who got his first real taste of North American hockey.
From a financial standpoint, the Iowa Wild were a success as they were 10th in the AHL in attendance, averaging 5,883 fans per game. Considering the Minnesota Wild own the Iowa Wild, its important that the team be a positive source of revenue as opposed to an anchor. It will be interesting to see if the fan support will be as strong next season after what was a very tough 1st year back in Des Moines. No doubt, the fact the parent club is fairly close helps keep the locals hopeful but the season as a whole has to feel like a major disappointment. Playoff games provide valuable experience for players to hone their skills, face pressure, and extra opportunities to play. So hopefully they can fix what went wrong and do better next year.