The playoffs are an emotional grind where one can go from euphoria to despair in a matter of seconds. Although probably with the exception of the eventual Stanley Cup champion, the despair always seems to linger far longer than the euphoria. Part of that feeling comes from the way the league enforces its own rules. There is perhaps nothing more maddening in the NHL than how it goes about suspending its players. The mixed messages that are sent make it rather difficult to predict how the league will come down in situations of controversy. Obvious thuggery is often ignored, while more subtle hits are given the most stringent of sanctions. The result is cynicism and sarcasm from most fans, or down right disgust. Many people felt the flow chart created by the blog Down Goes Brown was as accurate as it was hilarious, and currently that seems to still be in effect as you swap out Colin Campbell for Stephane Quintal. As the league took its time in dispensing a 7-game suspension on Wild forward Matt Cooke for his knee-to-knee hit Minnesota fans took to Twitter, message boards and even blogs to air their dissatisfaction. I think what will most likely get ignored is that most Wild fans would agree the hit was wrong, but even the explanation of the league provided even more mixed messages. You can watch it here. In the NHL Player Safety Department Video it readily admits that according to the CBA he is not considered a repeat offender by the rules but then goes on to say he has a long history of suspensions. So back the truck up? He has a history or he doesn’t have a history? How many times did we see players who had a “history” get let off with light suspensions because of the new rules of the CBA, but this time when a player is not considered a repeat offender by those same rules now his “history” comes into play? See the contradiction?
Injuries are also a part of the playoffs, and even during the regular season details are rarely disclosed unless the player is supposed to be out for a while. So fans roll their eyes at upper body and lower body injury descriptions. Yet even before Game 3 ended, it was reported by TSN‘s Bob McKenzie that Tyson Barrie was going to be out 4-6 weeks with an MCL tear. Oh really? Why would they say that? Was this an attempt by the Avalanche to make a strong case for suspension of Cooke; a player they’d rather not deal with by disclosing the injury faster to drum up the court of opinion against him? Matt Cooke is no saint, Wild fans were well aware of that fact when the team signed him this summer. In fact, fans like myself were not real happy about the news and felt the organization made a mistake, while league experts like Kevin Weekes and even Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Michael Russo fell over themselves trying to tell us how he’s turned over a new leaf. Fans like myself said just wait and see, and well look at what happened? Cooke may have revealed he’s not perfect, but that still doesn’t excuse the league for looking like hypocrites with its own rules. Can the Wild dig deep once again to even the series against Colorado or will the Avalanche raise their game in honor of their injured comrade?
1st Period Thoughts: The Wild started the game with an absolute dynamite shift from its top line of Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville were able to work the puck deep and Minnesota appeared to have a power play as they controlled the zone, working the puck in and around the crease. Granlund would work the puck back out to Jared Spurgeon who had a lot of space and he’d skate into the slot where he tried to beat Semyon Varlamov with a backhander that he had to fight off. Varlamov stayed busy as the Wild kept swarming around the Colorado end as he had to make a number of quality saves as the Avalanche were scrambling. A few minutes later the Wild would work it deep again with its top line as Granlund and Parise put on a clinic along the wall as Colorado just couldn’t clear the zone and the sequence would culminate in Parise setting up Spurgeon for a one-timer that struck the left post and rattled in to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. The Wild seemed to be on a continuous power play, and the crowd was relishing every bit of Minnesota’s dominant play. Colorado would earn a tiny bit of reprieve as Jonas Brodin hauled down Maxime Talbot giving the Avalanche its first power play of the game. On the penalty kill; the Wild’s penalty kill was aggressive, pressuring the puck carrier and they were able to work the puck out of the zone. The Wild would get the kill, but Colorado was certainly feeling the pressure figuratively and literally. Colorado was trying to get a cheap score as Erik Johnson threaded a long pass to Ryan O’Reilly but he wasn’t able to control the puck as the Wild were able to retreat to break up the play. The Avalanche wanted to raise the physical tone of the game by sending out its pair of ogres in Cody McLeod and Patrick Bordeleau to throw their weight around. A few minutes later, the Wild would go on the power play as Granlund was tripped up by Nate Guenin. On the power play, the Avalanche did a good job at forcing the Wild to settle for shots from the perimeter. As the Wild settled for shots from the point, the Avs were able to keep Minnesota from being able to create much in the way of screens and Varlamov made easy saves. With the Wild power play killed off, Minnesota stayed on the attack. A blocked shot at the point by Matt Moulson turned into a breakaway, but Varlamov made the blocker save. Minnesota continued to generate great scoring chances as Charlie Coyle dropped a pass back to Mikko Koivu who skated into the slot and the Wild captain would push a shot wide of the mark. Minnesota would end the period with the momentum on their side but the missed chances were a bit disconcerting. Koivu has to either bury that chance or put it on net. You don’t get many good looks like that. The Wild outshot Colorado 14-3 in the period.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild looked a bit sloppy and a tiny bit lazy to start the period as some lazy passes put Minnesota on its heels a little. Minnesota could only manage to ice the puck initially until the team sort of woke up with a physical shift by Cody McCormick and Dany Heatley. The shift got Minnesota to start moving its feet again and they’d go on the attack and would come dangerously close to adding to its lead as a shot off the point by Spurgeon would draw a rebound as Minnesota crashed the crease with the puck sitting near the blue paint as Ryan Suter whiffed on tapping home the biscuit. The ‘close but not quite’ chances continued for the Wild, as they were able to re-establish the forecheck as Jonas Brodin bombed a shot on goal that was redirected by Parise that would hit the skate of Guenin before trickling in on Varlamov for the fairly easy save. The Wild were starting to show a little frustration at the fact they were not able to add to their lead as Matt Moulson gave Ryan O’Reilly a shove at the end of a play that nearly through him falling backwards into the goal post. Nathan MacKinnon did not like Moulson’s hit and he got into it with the Wild winger who shoved back the rookie phenom. Minnesota’s pressure was starting to tell on the Avalanche as Gabriel Landeskog hooked Granlund giving the Wild a power play. On the power play the Wild would strike but not before Darcy Kuemper gave the team a big scare as he left his crease to play the puck and nearly had it stolen away by Talbot. Minnesota scrambled, gathered up the puck and counter attacked as Jason Pominville hammered a slap shot from the point that went off the glass and back out front where it was tapped home by Charlie Coyle. 2-0 Wild! With the crowd roaring after another solid effort and as Coyle’s goal was being announced, the Avalanche would score as O’Reilly fired a floater from near the boards that beat Kuemper 5-hole. It was a yogurt soft goal, and when you consider it came so soon after his misplay of the puck you wonder if his concentration and focus had been rattled a bit. 2-1 now. Minnesota would then go back on the attack and they nearly added to their lead as another power play; again drawn by Granlund as he was cross-checked viciously by Paul Stastny gave the Wild the man advantage. On the power play, Minnesota would come dangerously close to extending their lead back to two, as Granlund threaded a pass to Moulson who redirected it nicely by Varlamov but his shot would hit the base of the left post and out. The Wild had another reasonably good period, but they had to feel a little bit concerned that they were still only up by one after dominating so much of the play to this point; out shooting the Avs 11-4 in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild had a little better hustle to start the 3rd than it did to start the 2nd period. Unfortunately, the Avalanche would draw a Minnesota power play as Ryan Wilson would grab hold of Jason Pominville’s stick and then kick his legs out, drawing a holding call on Clayton Stoner who had also been nearby. The Wild’s penalty kill was again solid, pressuring the puck carrier and creating turnovers that became easy clears of the Minnesota zone. Minnesota seemed to want to defend its lead, but not as passively as they did in Game 1, this time attacking the Avalanche at the red line and forcing Colorado to dump and chase. The strategy was working as Minnesota’s defenseman were able to skate down the dump ins and then work the puck back out of the zone and force Colorado to regroup and start all over again from their end of the ice. I swear, the last 10 minutes of the game sort of reminded me of Team USA vs. the Soviet Union back in 1980 as the Wild basically did all it could to withstand a Colorado siege that would intensify as the time wound down. Even when the Wild got a little break as Jamie McGinn was given a sort of a weak tripping call when he knocked down Ryan Suter. The Wild didn’t do a whole lot on the power play; with its best chance came off the stick of Koivu who again found some room in the slot where he directed a shot just wide of the mark. The Avalanche were trying to create traffic in front of Kuemper who came up with some tremendous saves as he had Colorado players moving in and around his crease. With about 2:34 left in the game, the Avalanche would pull Varlamov for an extra attacker. Colorado poured it on, and Kuemper would make a great save as Stastny was nearby, and then made an even better stop on a quick shot by O’Reilly. Jonas Brodin would be given a hooking call on the play giving Colorado a power play with a little over 2 minutes left in regulation. Colorado kept their goaltender pulled, giving them a 6-on-4 man advantage. The Avalanche continued to storm, but Minnesota’s penalty killers would raise their game as blocked shots and deflected passes down the stretch, taking the hit to clear the zone and Minnesota would prevail 2-1 to even the series at 2 games apiece.
Darcy Kuemper didn’t see a lot of action tonight; but he came up with the saves late in the game to seal a Minnesota victory. Kuemper had just 11 saves in the win. Defensively the Wild paralyzed the Avalanche all game long; giving up just 12 shots all game long. But it wasn’t done without sacrifice as Minnesota was blocking shots and playing tough through the neutral zone which deprived Colorado from ever feeling comfortable in this game. The penalty kill has been very good throughout the post-season and it continued this evening as not only did it not give up a goal, but it never allowed Colorado to build any sort of positive momentum.
Offensively, the Wild did a good job at creating chances with a strong cycling game down low. The tremendous start sort of set the tone and the fact they were rewarded early was good to see. Charlie Coyle continues to be able to find the net, while Matt Moulson, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu keep struggling to bury their chances. Yet, its not for a lack of trying. I thought Moulson in particular had one of his strongest all around games tonight as he was quite involved defensively in addition to his normal little burst of high quality scoring chances. Mikael Granlund also had an outstanding game at both ends of the ice; pesky, elusive and made something good happen on just about every shift. Another line that I really liked tonight was the 3rd line of Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine who provided speed, solid defensive play as well as a little sandpaper too.
It was another great effort by the Wild who had their foot on the pedal right away to start this game. I think Minnesota will have to play the same way in Colorado if they want to get a win on the road. Its good to see the Wild deny time and space, playing the body with great frequency that has really disrupted Colorado’s comfort level. The cohesion of the group seems to be as good as its been all season long, but now they have to prove they can do it without a friendly crowd behind them. So instead of raucous cheers, the Wild should try to work to silence the Avalanche faithful.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Cody McCormick, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Ilya Bryzgalov backed up Darcy Kuemper. Mike Rupp, Keith Ballard, Stephane Veilleux, Raphael Bussieres, Zack Phillips, Carson McMillan, Steven Kampfer, Jonathon Blum, Jon Landry, Tyler Graovac, Jake Dowell and John Curry were the healthy scratches. Matt Cooke served the first game of his 7-game suspension.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild Radio were: 1st Star Mikael Granlund, 2nd Star Jared Spurgeon, 3rd Star Charlie Coyle
~ Attendance was 19,396 at Xcel Energy Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Zack Mitchell (Guelph, OHL) ~ The Guelph Storm suffered a setback on their quest to be OHL champions as they lost 5-2 to Erie on Tuesday night, cutting their series lead to 3-1. The Caledon, Ontario-native did his part though, lighting the lamp once in the loss. Mitchell’s strong post-season keep rolling along as he has 8 goals, 21 points and a +14 in 14 playoff games.