"When he first came to the mountains his life was far away, on the road hangin' by a song, but the string is already broken and he doesn't even care, It keeps changin' fast and don't last for long," are the lyrics to John Denver's classic Rocky Mountain High. The lyrics might as well describe the fleeting nature of success in sports as teams can go from total dominance to a death spiral in the space of a few games. The Wild are all too familiar with that feeling of total despair having been mired in a seven-game losing streak. The vultures were circling the team. The axe was very close to falling on the head coach, fans were talking about a possible firesale and other significant front office moves appeared likely. As injuries mounted, it indeed looked bleak. But adversity sometimes serves to get players, coaches to refocus and push through those obstacles. Hence where the Wild find themselves right now (knock on wood).
The Wild have scratched clawed and played beyond their talent against some of the best teams in the Western Conference. But getting back to where the team once was is nice, but can this team go even farther? Can it climb its way back into the Top 5 in the Western Conference? One of the teams standing in its path is the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche rode a hot start and kind of settled down since. Will the Wild take another step closer to overtaking Colorado in the uber tough Central Division? Or will the Avalanche delay that climb a bit more?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Wild looked a little out of sync to start the period and were trying to play a run and gun kind of game against an opponent who thrives in that environment. Minnesota was able to enter the zone with speed but found themselves unable to connect on passes in the offensive zone to get much in the way of shots on goal. The Avalanche were patient to wait for the errant pass and then quick to transition and Colorado would strike first. After a bad turnover on the cycle, Colorado would counter with a rush of their own as Matt Duchene took full advantage of the time and space the Wild gave hiim and he stepped aggressively into the slot before dishing a pass off to Ryan O'Reilly for a big slap shot that beat Darcy Kuemper to make it 1-0. It was a goal Kuemper probably should've stopped considering how far he was out of his crease as well as the fact he was not screened. The Avalanche continued to swarm in the Wild zone and Cody McLeod would put a little snow into the face of Kuemper after a save that Clayton Stoner took exception to. Stoner wanted to fight and dropped the gloves and he got McLeod to oblige and Stoner wasted little time getting an early advantage as he was firing a barrage of right handed jabs that were landing with great effect. McLeod threw a few punches of his own as he tried his best to duck out of the way of Stoner's flurry of punches before deciding to just grab Stoners sweater and haul him down to the ice. It was a clear cut win for Stoner as McLeod had to leave for his locker room for a few repairs. Shortly after Stoner's fight win the Wild would draw a power play as Gabriel Landeskog hauled down Mikael Granlund as he tried to carry the puck in deep to the offensive zone. The Wild would take full advantage of the power play as Minnesota worked the puck out to the point where Ryan Suter let loose a wrist shot that was partially deflected by Dany Heatley and then Zach Parise deflected it again and by Semyon Varlamov to tie the game at 1-1. It was a great response to Colorado's early strike. Colorado would go back on the attack, and Matt Duchene really started to cause the Wild some significant troubles. A misplay of the puck by Kyle Brodziak turned into a pseudo Colorado Power Play as Duchene dangled in and around Wild defenders for nearly a minute before the Wild finally managed to clear the zone. The speedy and skilled Avalanche began to draw penalties on the Wild who would get caught flat footed on a few occasions. The first one came on a pretty questionable interference call on Erik Haula. Haula raced for the puck and looked as though he managed to win the race and seal Nathan MacKinnon off from the puck but NHL referee Jean Hebert sent Haula to the sin bin. On the power play, the Avalanche moved the puck quickly around the perimeter before trying to work a back door play but good active sticks kept Colorado at bey. The Wild would even counter attack a bit on the penalty kill as Matt Cooke blocked a shot to have a breakaway but he ran out of gas as he entered the Avalanche zone but he was able to find Kyle Brodziak with a pass and he moved in all alone but was stonewalled by Varlamov. The Wild got a big kill, but as soon as they'd kill off a penalty they'd take another. This time it was a tripping penalty on Jonas Brodin who got caught standing still as a long pass reached Matt Duchene who immediately turned on the jets and all the Wild defenseman could do was dive and trip him up otherwise watch him go in uncontested on Kuemper. The Avalanche's power play again moved the puck with great efficiency, even setting up a tricky little tic-tac-toe play that just failed to connect as Kuemper got across his crease for a big save. Minnesota would kill off that penalty only to find themselves going right back on the penalty kill as Clayton Stoner tripped up Nathan MacKinnon who fell remarkably easy (cough Dive cough) but NHL referre Jean Hebert was all over it. The Wild's penalty kill did a better job at preventing Colorado from creating anything in the middle of the ice, and Minnesota take away the passing and shooting lanes and were able to clear the zone to alleviate pressure. Minnesota had to have felt a little lucky still tied at one after giving up those three consecutive power plays and were only being out shot 10-7. I thought Kyle Brodziak had an ugly period. Bad passes, his inability to bury a golden opportunity and I think he had at least 2-3 failed clearing attempts that nearly came back to bite the Wild. The Wild will have to do their best to stay out of the penalty box as well as apply more offensive pressure if they want to have a realistic chance in this game.
2nd Period Thoughts: The 2nd period started with a crash and a bang as the Avalanche's Jamie McGinn tattoo'ed Nate Prosser with a huge hit near the Colorado bench and as Marco Scandella skated over to defend his teammate but the play would continue as the officials wouldn't let them get into a scrap. A turnover in the neutral zone and Nate Guenin threaded a pass to John Mitchell who fired a wrist shot from the high slot that beat Kuemper, 2-1 Colorado. Another soft goal. Minnesota would draw a horrible holding call on Tyson Barrie. On the power play the Wild had some outstanding chances but just couldn't finish. It would start with a Parise shot taken off the rush and the Wild followed up the play swung it back to the slot where Heatley fanned on the shot and the rolling puck yielded a rebound that was shot on goal by Jason Pominville and as the puck skittered through the crease Parise and Heatley couldn't manage to bury what looked like an easy tap in. With the Wild failing to capitalize on the power play the Avalanche would sense an opportunity and the game would get out of hand. It would start with the Avalanche attacking off the rush as Erik Johnson skated into the offensive zone before sending a pass back into the slot where Paul Stastny ripped it by Kuemper to make it 3-1. Minnesota would try to answer back and the team had some not bad forechecking shifts by the 3rd and 4th lines. I liked how Keith Ballard and Marco Scandella held the zone and then took their oppotunities to shoot. Yet the Avalanche would tun the tables on Minnesota as it had its 4th line on the ice and the Wild zone looked like a hooting gallery as Colorado set up chance after chance while the exhausted Wild could only watch and hope Kuemper would bail them out. Finally Kuemper would deflect a shot up and out of play but you could sense it was just a matter of time before Colorado would add to its lead. The Avalanche would again swarm all over the Wild zone while Minnesota's defensemen were unable to poke check it away and Colorado would score again as a big shot by Mitchell that drew a big rebound that was buried by Maxime Talbot, 4-1 Avs. Mike Yeo would swap out Kuemper for Niklas Backstrom to spare the youngster's confidence. Backstrom would have to help kill off a lazy holding penalty on Torrey Mitchell. The veteran goaltender had to make an amazing stop to keep the Wild's deficit at three going into the 3rd period. A trainwreck of the period partially triggered by that lack of focus that led to that early goal.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period would start off with a little snarl as McGinn tried to light up Nate Prosser again as he got his elbows up and Prosser went after McGinn and the two would drop the gloves. McGinn was hammering away early and they appeared to land but not have a great effect as Prosser rallied back before he pulled the jersey over the head of McGinn before wrestling him to the ice. I'll give McGinn the victory, but good to see Prosser stand up for himself. The feistiness would continue as Kyle Brodziak would catch Tyson Barrie flatfooted as he fell over backwards as Brodziak motored his way towards the Colorado goal where he fired a low shot that was gloved by Varlamov who decided to show Brodziak his save and Brodziak bumped into him slightly as he stopped which drew the ire of Gabriel Landeskog who shoved him into the boards. This turned into a big scrum as Matt Cooke also got sent into the bin as he tried to defend his teammate. With the penalty boxes loaded up with 3 players apiece, the Wild would strike as Zach Parise found a little room off the rush and he beat Varlamov with a wrist shot that seemed to flutter by the Avalanche goalie cutting the Colorado lead to two, 4-2. The Wild would continue to attack and the top line came close to cutting the lead to one, as Jason Pominville tried to fire one through at a sharp angle. The Avalanche would try to counter attack as Ryan O'Reilly thought he had his 2nd goal of the game as his shot hit off the cross bar and straight down where it was swept out of danger by an alert Keith Ballard. Minnesota was undaunted and they'd use their first line and with a simplified approach as Keith Ballard got off a hard wrist shot that drew a big rebound that Parise got a piece of before Mikael Granlund tapped it home to make it 4-3 and you could hear the anxiety level from the home crowd as now you had a 1-goal game. The Wild were doing all they could but you could tell they were running out of gas as they had shortened their bench. Minnesota was starting to overhandle the puck while the Avalanche were just hoping to poke check it away and chase. Keith Ballard would have his wrist shot blocked and it was chased down by MacKinnon and he simply could not get back fast enough and he lifted a forehand over the shoulder of Backstrom to make it 5-3. The Wild are just dead now right? Nope. Minnesota answered immediately (just 11 seconds later) as Mikael Granlund managed to step around a big check and he would thread a perfect pass to Pominville for a picture-perfect tap in goal, 5-4. Minnesota would pull Backstrom for an extra attacker but they just couldn't get any shots on goal and the game would finally slip away from them.
It was not Darcy Kuemper's best night, as he gave up for goals on 23 shots but at least two of those were of the soft variety. Especially the 2nd goal, where he was beaten cleanly by a wrist shot from the slot is a save he simply has to make. That goal turned into the 3-goal rally the team tried to claw back from in the 3rd period. Niklas Backstrom entered the game and was respectable, making 8 saves but you have to wonder a little about what could've been if he had managed to stop MacKinnon's goal late. To add insult to injury for Backstrom, because of that goal he is the one who gets tagged with the loss tonight. Defensively it was rough night for Jonas Brodin who was fighting the puck all night long while I thought Minnesota had a great game from Keith Ballard. Sure Ballard got burned on MacKinnon's goal but he was doing a lot of good things out there and I really liked how he played with the puck on the point as well as how he stepped up to hold the offensive zone. Another bright spot for the Wild was its penalty kill who went a perfect 4-for-4.
Offensively, it was all about the top line of Parise, Pominville and Granlund. The line combined for 18 shots on goal and 9 points in the game including all four of the Wild's goals. They nearly were able to will the Wild to at least a point in the standings with their 3rd period surge but all night long they were making good things happen in the offensive zone. The line has fantastic chemistry and whenever Mikko Koivu returns to the line up I think you'd have a hard time breaking that line up. Kyle Brodziak had some quality opportunities but he couldn't manage to bury those chances. He too was battling the puck and the inability to bury the biscuit probably made it that much more frustrating for him. I thought the team got a good effort from Nino Niederreiter who at times looked like a beast out there with the way he handled the puck and took it to the scoring areas on the ice; he nearly willed himself a goal early in the 3rd on a good power move to the net. One player who I've been disappointed in Charlie Coyle who I felt was guilty over holding onto the puck far too long and when he did decide to pass it he often passed it to players who were in absolutely no position to do much of anything with it which led to a giveaway. He needs to be more assertive to take his own chances to shoot the puck.
Its a frustrating game to see the Wild play so atrociously in the 2nd to nearly comeback to win the game in the 3rd. The team self-destructed with their own mistakes in the defensive zone that turned into pucks in the back of their net. I still don't understand why Mike Yeo keeps scratching Jason Zucker. The Avalanche are a fast, up-tempo team so why help our opponent out by putting a slower player into the lineup? If its for intimidation, then why is it Prosser and Stoner feeling compelled to drop the gloves? The Wild Head Coach gave credit for is team's late-game rally but also pointed out its sluggish start proving to be costly. He gave kudos to the Parise-Pominville-Granlund line but he also said there were a number of players who he felt were not giving their best. Hopefully Minnesota can bring the effort they had in the 3rd to douse a red-hot Calgary Flames squad on Saturday.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Torrey Mitchell, Erik Haula, Mike Rupp, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner. Niklas Backstrom shared duties between the pipes with Darcy Kuemper. Jason Zucker and Stephane Veilleux were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Altitude Network's Peter McNab were: 1st Star Jonathan Mitchell, 2nd Star Matt Duchene, 3rd Star Zach Parise
~ Attendance was 14,697 at Pepsi Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
D – Mathew Dumba (Portland, QMJHL) ~ Dumba and the Winterhawks are making a strong case to be a contender for the Memorial Cup this year after an 8-1 trouncing of the Everett Silvertips. The Calgary-native chipped in 2 assists and was a +4 in the victory. Dumba has 2 goals, 8 points, 11 PIM's and is a +14 in 6 games played this season.