The team struggles through a rough start. New line combinations struggle to find a lot of cohesion against a motivated opponent. Penalty kill can’t clear the zone and the opposing team finds the back of the net. How many times have we read or in my case written about this story over the course of the Wild’s season. All too often. That same story unfolded on Saturday night in Phoenix, against a very desperate opponent that hoped to leap frog the Wild. But the team got its act together, got its game going at the right time and was able to earn a huge 3-1 victory. But as is the case with the home stretch, you basically start with the same challenge the very next game. The stakes become a tiny bit higher each time. That’s no different tonight as the Wild face off against the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings are playing some of their best hockey of the season as they try to maintain their place in the Western Conference playoff picture. The Wild are scratching and clawing just to stay in the picture.
The internal challenge for any team that finds themselves in this position is to re-focus and ready themselves for that battle all over again with often little more than 24-48 hours to prepare for it. Its vicious, almost as much as the playoff games themselves. Whether it was growing pressure from the media, the front office, the team chose to bench a well-paid veteran as so many fans had hoped and it worked out to have a more consistent team. Will it work again in Los Angeles against the Kings?
1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota was hustling well to start the game, and the pace had a playoff-like intensity about it as both clubs were finishing their checks. The Wild were trying to get their forecheck going early as they were dumping and charging hard deep into the Kings’ zone. The pressure was working allowing the Wild to win the ‘territorial’ battle but shots were still hard to come by as the Kings were playing well defensively. Jason Pominville was able to find a little space and he was taking the opportunity to fire the puck on goal. The Kings were going to try to use their superior size as a team to slow Minnesota down as Nino Niederreiter was crunched in a nasty sandwich type open ice hit by Jake Muzzin and Jeff Carter. Minnesota would have another quality chance as Mikko Koivu let loose a shot that was partially blocked by Jonathan Quick and the puck would trickle through the blue paint. Los Angeles would counter attack as they worked it deep, as Anze Kopitar carried it down back behind the Wild goal as Jared Spurgeon frittered the puck away deep in his own zone and was unable to get the puck away from the smooth playmaker and he fed a pass back into the high slot that was pounced upon by Alec Martinez for a one-timer that beat Ilya Bryzgalov to make it 1-0 Kings. It was the kind of quick strike that again threatened to deflate the Wild who really had been matching the Kings’ intensity thus far. I have to say at this point I was really impressed with the efficient way the Wild’s defense had been playing the puck, making quick but smart passes and avoiding the low percentage longer hail-mary variety. Minnesota tried to go back to work, working the puck down low which was having some success at creating scoring chances. Charlie Coyle was especially effective, using his big body to protect the biscuit and dangling around defenders. Minnesota would get tagged with a penalty late in the period as Kyle Brodziak put a check on Jeff Carter and as Matt Cooke tried to skate by they’d bump into each other sending the Kings’ sniper down to the ice for an interference call that Cooke protested to no avail. On the power play the Kings had a great opportunity as Marian Gaborik managed to get the puck across the ice to Carter who fumbled with the puck and was unable to get a shot off with Bryzgalov down and out. The Wild’s penalty kill would keep the Kings off the scoreboard and Minnesota trailed just by one going into the 1st intermission. I thought Minnesota did fairly well that period. Spurgeon bobbling the puck away again, which led to Martinez’ goal. Hopefully the team can rally back.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Kings were attacking early as Kopitar rang a shot off the left post off a nice backhanded pass by Justin Williams. The Wild tried to counter as the 3rd line was forechecking well which turned into a quick wrist shot from Cooke that missed just wide as blew by Quick. Minnesota would draw its first power play as Tanner Pearson hooked down Jonas Brodin. The Wild’s power play would go to work and they were looking to get shots on goal right away as Suter flung a wrist shot that was gloved by Quick. Undaunted the Wild moved the puck well before a long shot by Mikael Granlund was punched by Quick but Parise was there to bat home the puck to tie the game at 1-1. The goal seemed to light a fire in the Wild and they started to cause the Kings’ fits on the forecheck as an errant pass made its way into the slot where Brodziak hammered a slapshot that struck the right corner of the post and out. Minnesota continued to pour it on and the 3rd line was getting plenty of prime opportunities. A nice chip of the puck off the glass turned into a breakaway for Justin Fontaine and he’d race in and fire a shot that was stopped by Quick who had to recover quickly to stonewall Brodziak who hesitated just enough for the Kings’ goalie to reset. The missed opportunity would come back to haunt the Wild a few minutes later as Marian Gaborik drew the defense towards him by faking a shot before dishing the puck out to Williams who juggled it a bit as a host of bodies crowded the slot before Williams sniped a shot by Bryzgalov to make it 2-1. Jake Muzzin would try to deliver another high hit as he’d level Pominville and Matt Moulson would step in and go after Muzzin and a fracas would ensue. Moulson would get a double-minor for roughing while Muzzin had just a single roughing minor of his own giving the kings another power play. Minnesota’s penalty killers did a great job of denying passing and shooting lanes with good active sticks. The Wild were able to get another key kill and they’d try to go on the attack. Yet a broken stick nearly came back to compound their troubles as Suter’s twig shattered and this turned into a frantic sequence deep in the Minnesota end but they’d work the puck out of the zone through sheer persistence. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to mount much of a counter attack but they battled fairly well most of the period. I just hope those missed chances by Brodziak don’t haunt this team anymore than they already had.
3rd Period Thoughts: Initially it was all Kings as they were trying to set the tone early as they swarmed looking to extend their lead but Minnesota’s defense came back to help their goaltender and the Wild would turn the tables on Los Angeles. It all started with a great forechecking effort by the top line as Jason Pominville threaded a pass out front to Matt Moulson who had Jarrett Stoll shadowing him but Moulson fired a shot by Quick to tie the game at 2-2. Minnesota followed that up with another outstanding shift from the modified top line of Koivu, Coyle and Parise as they raced into the Kings’ end as Los Angeles’ looked a bit stunned and it was Coyle winning a battle along the boards as he swung a pass to Koivu for a one-timer from the top of the right faceoff circle that beat Quick stick side to give the Wild its first lead of the game, 3-2. With two goals just 1:02 apart the Wild stayed aggressive. Although they had to hold their collective breath as Bryzgalov would play a puck behind his goal and as he tried to use the glass to get the puck out of danger it appeared as though he put it up into the netting, which should’ve been a delay of game penalty. The officials got together and after a discussion they decided not to call anything and Minnesota perhaps dodged a bullet on the non-call because the replay looked pretty incriminating. The Kings were looking for the equalizer but Minnesota was backchecking well and collapsing in and around Ilya Bryzgalov. Tensions would steadily rise as Kings’ captain Dustin Brown and Matt Cooke would chirp back and forth with one another. Los Angeles really poured it on over the last two minutes, but the Wild were playing smart defensively. The Kings would call a timeout with 1:22 left, where the pulled Quick for the extra attacker. The Wild were shadowing the Kings well, forcing them to settle for shots from the perimeter as Minnesota was doing all it could to deny shooting lanes. With a late icing call and the Kings still using the extra attacker they’d call a timeout to give their players a much-needed rest. Koivu would win the draw and the Wild would earn a huge 3-2 victory.
Ilya Bryzgalov was solid, making 18 saves in the victory. Shots were hard to come by, but Bryzgalov often had to contend with a fair amount of traffic in front of his crease. He did enough to earn the win, but credit Minnesota’s tenacity on the backcheck to deny time and space to the Kings throughout most of the game. I thought the Wild got solid play from their defense, who did a nice job of making Los Angeles’ forecheck a relative non-factor. Spurgeon did have a costly turnover but the team didn’t let it phase them. Minnesota was solid on the penalty kill, stopping both of the Kings’ power plays.
Offensively the team really had a fairly well rounded effort from its top 3 lines. Even though Kyle Brodziak drives Wild fans crazy, he and the rest of the 3rd line, Cooke and Fontaine caused some havoc in the offensive zone and had fair amount of opportunities. While they could’ve buried those chances, its good to see them being assertive and at least helping the team build positive momentum. The 1st line of Koivu, Parise and Coyle were tremendous working the puck down low. It’s unfortunate to see the team lose Mikael Granlund who appeared to get the worst of an attempt to hit Jarrett Stoll, as well as Nino Niederreiter being crunched as well it will be interesting to see if they are able to come back Thursday against Chicago. One thing is for certain, with Dany Heatley out of the lineup this team is so much more difficult to play against because they seem to have so much more speed from top to bottom. The team can actually forecheck the way it wants to, and that style of play yielded the two goals in the 3rd period that ultimately won them the game.
This was a huge win for the Wild who now gained some much needed cushion in the race for the playoffs as they now have a 5-point lead over Phoenix who has a game in hand on Minnesota and maybe more importantly a 6-point lead over Dallas (who has two games in hand on the Wild). I like the way the Wild stood up for itself when the Kings tried to take liberties with them. Sure, the Wild weren’t just beating the snot out of the Kings, but they were not just being submissive either like they were a few games ago against St. Louis. Now the team can rest up a bit and ready itself for another intense late-season blitz.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Stephane Veilleux, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser and Jonathon Blum. Rob Laurie backed up Ilya Bryzgalov. Mike Rupp, Cody McCormick, Dany Heatley, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner were healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by were: 1st Star Mikko Koivu, 2nd Star Justin Williams, 3rd Star Zach Parise
~ Attendance was 18,118 at Staples Center.
~ Rob Laurie, a 43-year old former minor league goalie now turned sporting goods’ store owner wore #33 for the Wild joining a group that includes Scott Pellerin, Sergei Zholtok, and Petteri Nummelin having worn the number.
Iowa Wild Report:
Recent Score: Iowa 2, Utica 3
The Iowa Wild had the chance to play the role of the spoiler on Sunday against the Utica Comets. The Wild would get out to a good start as Tyler Graovac fired a laser on the power play that beat Joe Cannata, 1-0 Iowa. Just 16 seconds later, Brad Winchester would bury a rebound off a shot by Bryce Aneloski to make it 2-0 Wild. The Wild dominated the rest of the period and carried their two goal lead into the 1st intermission. The desperate Utica Comets would go back on the attack. A slashing penalty on Matt Hagel would come back to bite the Wild as Utica cashed in on the man advantage as Pascal Pelletier bombed a one-timer by Johan Gustafsson cutting Iowa’s lead in half, 2-1. Then Iowa would earn a power play when Kellan Lain was sent to the box for elbowing. Yet the power play did not go as hoped as a turnover at the blueline allowed Pascal Pelletier to walk by Steven Kampfer for a near breakaway where Gustafsson stopped the initial shot but was out of position to stop Jeremy Welsh‘s rebound chance and just like that it was 2-2. The Wild had to feel more than a little deflated with the game still knotted at two goals apiece. The ill-feeling would be amplified early in the 3rd period as Brandon DeFazio found the twine behind Gustafsson and the Comets comeback was complete. The Wild did all they could to try to bury the equalizer but quality chances were hard to come by and the goals did not arrive as hoped and they’d fall 3-2. Johan Gustafsson had 21 saves in the loss.
College Hockey Report:
~ The Union Dutchman (ECAC) punched their ticket to the Frozen Four tournament with a 3-1 win over the Providence Friars (H-East) the sealed the East Regional bracket. Union’s hustle and swarming style around the crease Matt Hatch‘s late goal was the back breaker.
~ A familiar foe to Minnesota hockey fans will also be present at the Frozen Four as North Dakota (NCHC) defeated Ferris State (WCHA) 2-1 in a double overtime thriller to take home the Midwest Regional Final played in Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Edina Hornet Connor Gaarder was the late-game hero for the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux.
~ Boston College (H-East) also advanced to the Frozen Four in a entertaining back and forth game with UMass-Lowell (H-East), 4-3 to seal the Northeast Region final. Ian McCoshen‘s goal in the 3rd period lifted the Eagles to the victory.
~ Minnesota (Big 10) won the West Regional with a decisive 4-0 win over their in-state rival St. Cloud State (NCHC) to earn a trip to the Frozen Four. Freshman phenom Justin Kloos had two goals in the victory for the Golden Gophers.
Wild Prospect Report:
LW – Mario Lucia (Notre Dame, H-East) ~ The 2014 season came to an end for the lanky sniper as the Fighting Irish fell to St. Cloud State 4-3. The junior contributed an assist in the loss. It is expected by those close to Lucia that he will return to Notre Dame for his senior season. In 2013-14, 16 goals, 31 points and 12 PIM’s in 40 games played this season.
C – Brady Brassart (Calgary, WHL) ~ The gritty forward’s season came to an end Saturday night as the Hitmen fell 5-3 to a plucky and resurgent Kootenay Ice squad. Brassart put it all on the ice as he contributed a goal and an assist in the defeat. The Vernon, British Columbia-native had 3 goals, 9 points and 8 PIM’s in 6 playoff games. In the 2013-14 regular season, the 6’2″ right shooting forward had 35 goals, 50 assists with 94 PIM’s and was a +11 in 70 games played this season.
RW – Zack Mitchell (Guelph, OHL) ~ The Storm will advance to the next round of the OHL playoffs after routing the Plymouth Whalers 8-3 on Friday. Mitchell got the Storm going with a goal just a little over 3 minutes into the game. The Caledon, Ontario-native has 2 goals, 8 points and 6 PIM’s as well as being a +6 in 5 playoff games this season.
RW – Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ The big power forward’s junior days are likely done as the Owen Sound was crushed 6-1 on Thursday by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Gabriel tried to get things going by dropping the gloves but it wasn’t enough. The 6’4″, 215lbs had just an assist and 22 PIM’s in 5 playoff games this season. The Newmarket, Ontario-native had career highs in goals (16) and points (51) to go along with 99 PIM’s in 60 games played in the 2013-14 season.
G – Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) ~ The athletic goaltender’s Huskies’ advanced to the 2nd round of the QMJHL playoffs after a 6-2 win over Quebec on Friday. Belanger stopped 28 shots in the victory. The Sherbrooke, Quebec-native is 4-1 with a 3.23 goals against average and .851% save percentage in 5 playoff games this season.