When the season started much of the talk about who was the team to beat in the Western Conference focused primarily on the Chicago Blackhawks. It made sense, they are the defending Stanley Cup Champions; where they fielded a team that combined size, speed, and skill. They still do, but they don’t seem nearly as invincible the last few weeks. The Blackhawks have been rather ordinary as of late, going 4-5-1 over their last 10 games and currently riding a 3-game losing streak. Chicago is not really in any danger to be caught in the standings by Minnesota but they would rather not be in 5th place in the Western Conference as they are right now. So they should be a little angry and motivated, but the Wild will be equally motivated and probably a little desperate as they fight to hold onto one of the wildcard slots. Minnesota is still in the driver’s seat as they sit in 7th place as they hold a 4 point lead over 8th place Dallas and 9th place Phoenix.
Can this team bear down and finish the season strong? The team may be getting reinforcements as Josh Harding returned to Wild practice for the first time since December. You can read more about it here. The team also signed coveted college free agent in UMass-Lowell’s sophomore defenseman Christian Folin. The effort has greatly improved since members of the team held a players only meeting down in Phoenix. So can Minnesota continue to build on its positive momentum, or will the Blackhawks give the Wild a nasty reminder from last season?
1st Period Thoughts: The action was a bit suspenseful at the start as both clubs were skating hard and looking to create offensively. Right from the drop of the puck the top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle went on the attack as Koivu skated across the blueline and hammered a slap shot that was dismissed by Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks would counter attack and as they dumped the puck into the zone where the puck was played by Ilya Bryzgalov but his passed was intercepted by Kris Versteeg who fired a quick shot that was denied by the fast-acting right leg of Bryzgalov. Both teams would trade rushes up the ice, but time and space were in short supply as the clubs were backchecking well and finishing their checks. The reconstructed 4th line of Dany Heatley, Jake Dowell and Stephane Veilleux was aggressive, but Heatley’s lack of wheels was evident and the Blackhawks were able to this group’s attempt to forecheck. Minnesota would strike first, as a point shot by Jared Spurgeon would hit the skate of Niklas Hjalmarsson and then be redirected by Coyle just over the arm Crawford and into the back of the net. 1-0 Wild, it was a nice reward for some hard work along the wall by Zach Parise to help hold the zone. The Blackhawks tried to counter attack but Minnesota was very solid defensively, getting sticks on pucks and challenging potential Chicago shooters. Minnesota was winning the little races to loose pucks and paying the physical price to work the puck out of the zone. The Wild were consistently stepping up and putting a body on Chicago attackers to disrupt their entry into the zone and not allowing the Blackhawks to get their forecheck working. Even when Chicago got free, Bryzgalov was able to come up with a big stop as he denied Marian Hossa on a chance off the rush. The Wild had one last prime scoring chance late in the period as Kyle Brodziak raced into the Chicago end and with nobody open to pass to he stepped into a slap shot that rang off the pipe and out. Minnesota had to feel very good with their game thus far; playing well at both ends as well stepping up to be physical instead of giving Chicago free reign on the ice. Another player that really impressed me in the period was the play of Justin Fontaine who intercepted a number of Chicago passes, and provided quality puck support every shift. The Wild outshot Chicago 9-5 in the period.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Blackhawks were looking to net the equalizer and a long pass to Versteeg that turned into a quick 2-on-1 looked ideal but Spurgeon did a nice job of denying the pass and then helping take Versteeg as he shot and Bryzgalov was able to make the save. Yet Chicago continued to apply pressure and a point shot by Nick Leddy was partially deflected by Brandon Saad and it would reach Bryzgalov for a save but Nate Prosser was unable to get a stick on the rebound to clear it away and Ben Smith was able to lift it over the sprawling Wild goaltender to tie the game at 1-1. Minnesota appeared to be a little hesitant after the goal and the Blackhawks would dominate play, peppering Bryzgalov with shots. The Wild were not able to get much of anything going offensively, as Chicago was clogging up the neutral zone forcing the Wild to dump the puck early allowing the Blackhawks to win the easy race for the biscuit. We’d start to see some ugliness as Parise made a pass into the offensive zone and then was hit from behind for no reason by Brandon Bolig who had no reason to hit him. Parise laid on the ice a good minute or so as Wild Head Athletic Trainer Don Fuller made his way out to the Minnesota alternate captain. No call on the dirty hit as Bolig raised his arms in the air trying to look innocent even though he brought his elbows up and hit Parise high. Parise had no reason to expect to be hit. It should be suspension-worthy. Parise would be helped back to the Wild locker room. On the ensuing shift, Stephane Veilleux would take a good run at Kris Versteeg, delivering a solid check that he didn’t appreciate and he’d slash the Minnesota forward for an obvious retaliation call as he gave a few choice words to the agitating Veilleux. Parise would return for the Minnesota power play and Minnesota was patient before Suter was able to work a shot on goal that Crawford stopped and the puck would trickle just wide of the mark as Parise just couldn’t quite reach. The Wild came up short on the man advantage but the fireworks were not over with. Matt Cooke would catch Chicago’s Andrew Shaw a bit unaware as he leveled him with a clean shoulder check. Chicago’s Jeremy Morin took objection to the hit and went after Cooke as Erik Haula skated into defend his teammate and the two would tussle a bit at center ice. Haula and Morin would sit for roughing while Minnesota was given a ‘too many men’ penalty giving Chicago a power play. Minnesota’s penalty killers were terrific on the man advantage, forcing Chicago to settle for shots from the perimeter and not letting them get anything going from in close. The Wild dodged a Chicago power play bullet and so they went back onto the attack. It started with a nice rush by the 2nd line as Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson and Haula combined for a pretty little play as Haula passed a puck back to Jonathon Blum who skated down the high slot for a backhander that went wide and was swept up by Moulson who dished it across to Pominville for a quick chance from in close that was denied by Crawford. The Wild had an even better chance a minute later as a bad pass by Duncan Keith was intercepted by Cooke and he’d find Brodziak all alone in the slot and the center would opt to deke and he got Crawford to bite big time but as he pulled the puck to his backhand he’d lose control and the opportunity was gone on what would’ve been an easy goal. If Brodziak would only tally a few of these golden chances the Wild could have at least 5-6 more wins this season. But as it stood it was 1-1 going into the 2nd intermission.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Blackhawks had good energy to start the period and their hustle would result in the lead. It all started with an intercepted a poor Jonas Brodin pass by Morin who turned and swung a pass out front to Bryan Bickell who moved in and got off a quick shot that Bryzgalov stopped and the Bickell would roof the rebound to make it 2-1 Chicago. The Wild would try to rally back, pinching with their defenseman as Marco Scandella was stepping up into the play and taking his opportunities to shoot the puck. Shots were still hard to come by as the Blackhawks were denying time and space and forcing the Wild to pay a physical price for every just about every foot of ice. The shots that were taken were often partially block and they’d be easy slow moving pucks that were of no real threat. After 5 minutes of struggling to find room to work; the 3rd line of Haula, Fontaine and Cooke would try to get something going offensively as Haula turned on the jets and he’d fire a shot that was fought off by Crawford. Moments after that, Spurgeon would jump into the rush and dangle the puck through the legs of Brent Seabrook and he’d lift a backhander up and over the goal. The speedy 3rd line continued to cause havoc as Fonrtaine bought some time as he weaved his way into the Chicago zone before sending a wrist shot that made it to the bluepaint and unfortunately a pinching Spurgeon and Haula couldn’t bang home the rebound. This line’s persistence would eventually be rewarded as Fontaine pushed a puck up to Haula who was flying into the zone and with no other options readily apparent, he’d take a shot that trickle off the arm of Crawford and in, 2-2 with 1:54 left in the 3rd period. The Wild was content to go into overtime with another point in the standings before that happened the Blackhawks came within inches of spoiling that opportunity as Brandon Saad stopped and ripped a shot that deflected off a stick and just caught the shoulder of Bryzgalov and then went just up and over the Wild goal.
Overtime Thoughts: Minnesota was clearly the aggressor early in overtime as the grouping of Koivu and Parise up front with Suter and Spurgeon at the blueline hustled well as a shot from the point by Spurgeon was deflected on goal by Koivu. The Wild kept taking its chances as Moulson ripped a shot from the right faceoff dot that made its way through the legs of Hjalmarsson and on goal as Crawford stopped it. Minnesota continued to attack and a nice play off the boards by Parise back to Koivu was put back in front of the net towards a crashing Suter who chipped a shot just wide. Neither team was able to get it done in OT so the game would go to a shootout.
Shootout Summary: Chicago would elect to shoot first, and their first shooter was Patrick Sharp. Sharp would move right down the middle where he made a few dekes before trying to beat him with a forehand shot and Bryzgalov made the save. Minnesota’s first shooter was Zach Parise and he’d move in and try to fire a wrist shot but it would hit Crawford’s stick and miss wide. The Blackhawks’ next shooter was Marian Hossa who would move in and he’d wind up and blast a slap shot that just had enough momentum to drive by the glove of Bryzgalov and in. 1-0 Chicago. The Wild’s 2nd shooter was Mikko Koivu and even the peanut vendors knew what move he was going to use and he’d go wide left and move to his right as he went forehand to backhand and Crawford leapt out to make the stop on his backhander. If Koivu faked and went forehand he’d have an easy goal. Chicago’s next shooter was Ben Smith and the speedy former Boston College star would race in and he’d fire a wrist shot that struck the post and out. This put all of the pressure on Jason Pominville to keep Minnesota’s hopes alive and he’d move slowly down the middle of the ice where he’d stick handle a bit before trying to fire a shot 5-hole but Crawford shut the door and the Wild fell 3-2 in a shootout.
Beyond a little early game shakyness handling the puck, Bryzgalov kept Minnesota in the game with some clutch saves. Bryzgalov had 24 saves in the loss. Defensively, it was not a good game for Nate Prosser who was -2 on the night and at times he looked confused and slow to anticipate which led to Chicago’s two goals. On the flip side I thought Jared Spurgeon had a fine game; showing remarkable perseverance and physical stamina as he used his low center of gravity effectively to seal of Blackhawks forwards as well as weathering their attempts to grind him into board dust. I also thought Ryan Suter had a terrific game as well; very poised at both ends of the ice.
Offensively the Wild got just enough, but I felt overall offense struggled due to a lack of speed from top to bottom that had served it so well the last few games. Heatley just doesn’t have the wheels to be effective on any line, let alone the 4th. Towards the end of the game it was Minnesota’s 3rd line of Haula, Fontaine and Cooke that was its most dangerous as it used its speed to create quality chances and ultimately buried the huge game-tying goal. The first line of Koivu, Coyle and Parise was ok, but they seemed a little tired at times. Also, can Kyle Brodziak buy a goal? Golden opportunity after golden opportunity and he just can’t bury the biscuit. It was interesting to see Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo move Brodziak up to the 2nd line in place of Haula when you consider just how remarkably snake-bitten Brodziak has been.
Whether it sounds pathetic or not, earning a point tonight was very important on a night where Dallas lost to the Carolina Hurricanes and where Phoenix has been sputtering as of late. Earning 5 out of a possible 8 points on the road trip is absolutely huge. Minnesota has managed to strengthen its position as a wild card team but they still have some work to do. Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh is another tough game against an opponent playing pretty well as of late. After the game, Zach Parise complained of a headache, hopefully that doesn’t keep him out of Saturday’s game (knock on wood) because the last thing the team needs is anymore injuries to its top six. The team missed Mikael Granlund tonight, both his speed and creativity as well as his ability to win draws. However its tough not to feel good about how this road trip went when you consider how things were going before it begun.
~ The Wild’s roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Zach Parise, Erik Haula, Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Dany Heatley, Stephane Veilleux, Jake Dowell, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Jonathon Blum and Nate Prosser. John Curry backed up Ilya Bryzgalov. Mike Rupp, Nino Niederreiter, Cody McCormick, Christian Folin, Mikael Granlund, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner were the scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game according to Brian Hedger were: 1st Star Bryan Bickell, 2nd Star Ben Smith, 3rd Star Ryan Suter
~ Attendance was 21,791 at United Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Recent Score: Iowa 1, Grand Rapids 6
Tonight the Wild would start some of Minnesota’s recently signed prospects by dressing Brady Brassart and Gustav Olofsson in their game against Grand Rapids. Initially this youth movement paid off as Olofsson would score his first goal as a professional on a power play mid way through the 1st period. 1-0 Wild. Unfortunately it was all downhill from here. The Griffins would strike twice in the span of 4 minutes late in the 1st period as Trevor Parkes and Martin Frk found the twine behind Johan Gustafsson to make it 2-1 Grand Rapids going into the 1st intermission. In the 2nd period, the Wild seemed to be on the cusp of taking the game back, generating scoring chances but were unable to get pucks by Petr Mrazek. The Griffins would add to their lead as Jordin Tootoo would let loose a wrist shot from the blueline that beat Gustafsson who was unscreened to make it 3-1. It was a very soft goal and Iowa tried to rally back but Grand Rapids held the Wild scoreless despite being outshot 16-5. In the 3rd period, the wheels would come off as Grand Rapids struck 3 more times as they rolled to a 6-1 victory. Gustafsson had 28 saves in the loss.