Cue the Olympic Anthem. Get ready for taped-delay broadcasts people, make sure you adjust your Twitter accounts so you don't spoil the results early. On morning shows, they'll post the various medals the United States has won and viewers and fans of the Olympics like myself have to cover our ears and close our eyes to avoid having the suspense ruined. It doesn't matter how it happens, but if I see who won ahead of time or see the score scroll across the screen on a taped delay broadcast it kind of kills it for me. I can try to get myself excited over watching a game where I've seen the score but you know whether there is a comeback or a collapse the overall feeling is kind of blah. Its just like knowing the end of a movie. Its impossible to be surprised and the climax loses all of its energy. Yet there is one exception for me. The movie Miracle. Like any American hockey fan knows, the underdog Americans had a fantastic upset of the power house Soviet squad and then came back to beat Finland to win the Gold medal. Even though I knew how the story ended and was quite familiar with what took place the movie still put me on edge with the action and the way the story was depicted. But beyond that, I am not looking forward to dodging the "spoilers" every station feels compelled to show.
However there is still one more NHL regular season to play before the players all bolt for Russia. The Nashville Predators sit at the bottom of the Central Division but players are playing for jobs; whether with Nashville or elsewhere via trade. Minnesota is coming off a dicey victory against the Predators, earning a 2-1 decision over Tampa Bay. The Predators probably do not have much in the way of playoff aspirations but they'd love to do their part to try to spoil the Wild's chances. Can Minnesota's 5 Olympic bound players focus enough to beat Nashville?
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1st Period Thoughts: After an inconclusive first few minutes where there was a fair amount of hustle by both clubs but not a lot of pucks making their way to the scoring areas on the ice. Good active sticks, and two teams recognizing the importance of points between them gave the appearance of making this game a defensive struggle. Minnesota would have the first quality scoring chance in the period as Mikael Granlund set up Zach Parise near the blue paint that Carter Hutton fought off and the puck would roll slowly before it was finally swept away by Roman Josi. Just about a minute after this missed chance, Nino Niederreiter would win a battle for the puck in the offensive zone and he'd swing it back to Jonas Brodin who fired a wrist shot from just above the left faceoff circle that snuck by Hutton to make it 1-0 Wild. It was a soft goal as Hutton was unscreened but perhaps a bit surprised that Brodin decided to shoot but certainly a shot he should've stopped. Nearly a minute later the Wild would give up a soft goal of their own as Craig Smith would motor into the Wild zone where he'd hammer a slap shot that Darcy Kuemper thought he stopped but the puck would fall from his pads and the puck would sit in the crease a second or two before Smith tapped it home to tie the game. A few minutes after tying the game, a turnover near the red line by Justin Fontaine turned into a breakaway for Josi and he'd move in and shoot up high that Kuemper again struggled with and the puck would fall back into the crease only to be swept away by Ryan Suter. Minnesota tried to answer back as Mikael Granlund carried it deep, and he patiently outwaited a sprawling Nashville defenseman before passing it out to the top of the crease where Jason Pominville intially fanned on the shot and then put it on goal with his 2nd attempt that drew a big rebound from Hutton. The Wild would earn a power play as Rich Clune was tagged for hooking Keith Ballard. On the power play the Wild worked the puck from low to high instead of just working from the wall to the point like they typically do. This got the Predators' penalty kill to chase a bit and this ultimately opened up the high slot where Dany Heatley was lurking. The Wild set up Heatley for a long deflection by that was stonewalled by Hutton. Minnesota still liked what they were able to create as they went from high to low again, making the slot available and they found Heatley with a pass who turned and feinted at the goal before dishing a pass over to Parise for a heavy wrist shot that beat Hutton stick side to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. The goal got the crowd going and just as important it got the team going and Minnesota followed it up with an outstanding shift by its 'kid' line of Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker. The line outhustled and outworked the Predators along the boards and they cycled the puck brilliantly. The Wild's tremendous dominance with the puck led to some great scoring chances as Jason Zucker was stopped on a shot taken a few feet from the crease. The great shift, which kept the Predators bottled up in their end was followed up by the 3rd line of Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak that added to their misery and Hutton finally covered the biscuit to get his team a much-needed whistle. The period would end with the Wild leading by one, earning an appreciative cheer from the 'white-out' crowd. Pretty good period, but the team should try to get more pucks on goal as Hutton was really fighting it at this point.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild's good energy would carry over into the 2nd period where their hustle put the Predators on their heels. Minnesota would earn another power play as Taylor Beck bumped into Kuemper giving him a two-minute sit in the penalty box for goaltender interference. The Wild would move the puck on the power play with a lot of confidence as they made quick, crisp passes to open up passing and shooting lanes. Minnesota had two golden opportunities as Mikael Granlund swung a pass cross ice to Pominville for a one-timer that Hutton denied, and then just momets after that he stopped Parise on a nice redirection from just in front of the blue paint. The Wild would come up empty on the power play and the Predators tried to answer back. They would tie the game for the second time as Victor Bartley wound up and slapped a shot that was redirected perfectly by Craig Smith up and over the shoulder of Kuemper. There was nothing Kuemper really could've done to stop that shot. You could sense the energy from the home crowd deflate after Smith's 2nd goal of the game. The Predators continued to apply pressure and they came close to taking the lead as Shea Weber blasted a shot that hit the post. Minnesota would draw a penalty as Jason Zucker was hauled down by Bartley. On the power play the Wild's Ryan Suter found Parise on a long pass that sent him in on a near breakaway and he'd rip a shot high that was deflected up into the netting as Josi was holding him up a bit. The Wild had a little trouble entering the offensive zone and the 2nd unit would get a chance to show what it could do. They moved the puck a bit more quickly setting up Jonas Brodin for a blast that didn't miss by much. The solid power play allowed the Wild to re-establish momentum in the game and they'd draw another penalty as Mike Fisher held up Coyle and would start the 3rd with a full 2-minute power play. An ok period, but one where the Wild had some missed chances thanks to some outstanding saves by Hutton.
3rd Period Thoughts: Wild started the period with the power play, but the sense of urgency seemed to be lacking a bit as the quick puck movement that had worked so well previously wasn't there. The result was whole lot of nothing going on the man advantage as both power play units seemed to be waiting for someone to take the initiative and direct a puck on goal. Minnesota would compound their slow start in the 3rd as Heatley tripped up Ryan Ellis giving the Predators their first power play of the game. The Wild penalty killers were doing all they could to force Shea Weber to dish the puck instead of just blasting it on goal. Minnesota's puck pressure started to yield some turnovers, as Kyle Brodziak blocked a Josi shot and he'd race down the ice on a break away but all he could manage was a weak backhand shot (for a 4th grader) that was easily dismissed by Hutton. The Wild would get the big kill, so what would give? Well the Wild would do their best to end the stalemate with another offensive zone penalty as Niederreiter tripped up Colin Wilson. On the power play the Predators had great difficulty with the Wild's aggressive puck pressure and Minnesota was able to disrupt passing and shooting lanes and cause turnovers. The penalty kill seemed to fire up the Wild and they'd have another great opportunity shorthanded as Brodziak would pick up a loose puck from Ellis but as he tried to work it out front to get off a backhander he was knocked down before he could really get a shot off and the opportunity was gone almost as fast as it appeared. Another crucial kill for the Wild. The physicality started to steadily pick up as the 3rd period would go on as you started to see pushing and shoving after the whistle. Minnesota would get another great opportunity on the man advantage as Shea Weber shoved Parise into the boards from behind. Mike Yeo would choose to call a timeout to rest the Wild's top unit. I think that was a mistake. I think using the 2nd unit would've been a nice change of pace. Instead the Wild go with their top guys and this time they moved the puck a bit quicker and generated a few shots from the perimeter where they tried to crash but Hutton was able to make the saves. The 2nd unit would go out with about 36 seconds left in the power play and they would go right after Hutton with a number of chances as Heatley found himself stymied twice from point-blank-range before getting rocked by a big check and the game would go to overtime. Minnesota outshot Nashville 15-6 in the period.
Overtime Thoughts: The Wild kept doing all that they could to direct shots on goal in overtime, and Hutton was making the saves and holding on for the whistle. Minnesota seemed to have the extra bit of jump in its skates in OT and they'd take advantage of a broken stick by Shea Weber as it shattered and the Wild would pick it up and go on the counter attack. Nino Niederreiter would use his speed to force Josi to give him a little space and he'd use him as a screen as he rifled it by Hutton to give Minnesota a 3-2 overtime victory.
Darcy Kuemper was 'ok' tonight, making 16 saves in the victory. The first goal was a bit flukey but certainly one that should not have happened. Kuemper seemed to have a few communication issues with his defenseman as he left his crease when he didn't need to a few times and Minnesota was lucky that didn't cost them the game. I thought Minnesota was pretty solid defensively. Jonas Brodin was again great as was Ryan Suter. The penalty kill was also rock solid, shutting down a fairly potent Predators' power play.
Offensively the Wild again had a lot of missed opportunities but I liked the fact they were taking their chances to shoot the puck outshooting the Predators 36-18. The power play overall was better, moving the puck with better efficiency and finding ways to at least create some offensive pressure. The top line of Granlund, Parise and Pominville has looked very good and you have to think it will be tough to break up the line after the Olympic break if Mikko Koivu is ready to return. I think Mikael Granlund looks better each game and his confidence and creativity continues to spark that line. I also thought Charlie Coyle had a good game, but I still think he needs to shoot the puck more. And what more can you say about Nino Niederreiter (a guy who the State of Hockey News wanted us to draft back in 2010), speed, grit and great offensive instincts and now he has an overtime winner and an assist to his credit this evening.
Now most of the team can rest up for a few days before they begin to work out again and eventually report back for a mini-training camp for the home stretch of the season. The Wild gives Minnesota a nice level of comfort sitting in 7th in the Western Conference as of right now. There are still some more games to be played by those chasing the team before the Olympic break begins for the rest of the league but you have to like the way the Wild finished things off through the 3/4ths point of the season.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine, Torrey Mitchell, Erik Haula, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner. Johan Gustafsson backed up Darcy Kuemper. Mike Rupp, Marco Scandella and Niklas Backstrom were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild TV were: 1st Star Nino Niederreiter, 2nd Star Craig Smith, 3rd Star Jonas Brodin
~ Attendance was 18,766 at Xcel Energy Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Current Game: Iowa 2, Utica 3 SO
It was an all too familiar story for the Iowa Wild on Wednesday night. The Wild would strike first as Carson McMillan got a long pass from John Landry and he'd turn on the jets and get behind the Comets' defense where he'd beat Joe Cannata 5-hole to make it 1-0 Iowa. The Wild peppered Cannata with lots of shots but couldn't manage to score and the Comets would press the attack in the last few minutes of the 1st. Utica would tie the game on a power play goal by Nicklas Jensen, and then just a few minutes later they'd take the lead on a shorthanded goal by Rochester, Minnesota-native Colin Stuart to make it 2-1 going into the 1st Intermission. Wild Head Coach Kurt Kleinendorst was not too happy with Johan Gustafsson, who had given up 2 goals on just 9 shots in the 1st so he swapped out the big Swede for John Curry. Early in the 2nd, the Wild missed out on a golden opportunity when Jonathon Blum was hauled down on a near breakaway. He was awarded a penalty shot later in the shift, but since he wasn't on the ice this allowed the Wild to select McMillan to take the shot and his attempt to go glove side was denied by Cannata. The Wild would tie the game on the power play as Steven Kampfer set up Zack Phillips for a one-timer from the left faceoff circle that beat Cannata top corner. Both sides were firing a lot of shots on goal but not a lot was getting accomplished as both goaltenders locked things down. The game would eventually go to a shootout where Curry and Cannata were again solid sending it to sudden death. It would finally end in the 9th round when the Wild's John Landry was stopped and Utica's Alex Biega scored to give Utica the 3-2 shootout victory. Curry was perfect in regulation, stopping all 27 shots he faced.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ The rugged forward helped end the Attack's recent small slide by chipping in two assists in Owen Sound's 5-1 victory over the Barrie Colts. Gabriel also had a penalty and finished the game with a +2 rating. The Newmarket, Ontario-native has 9 goals, 33 points and 72 PIM's as well as a +5 through 42 games played this season.
G – Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) ~ The Sherbrooke, Quebec-native continues to be the anchor between the pipes for the Huskies as he stopped 30 of 33 shots on Wednesday in Rouyn-Noranda's 5-3 win over Cape Breton. The win improves Belanger's record to 23-13 with a 3.11 goals against average and an .881% save percentage in 40 games played this season.
High School Boys Hockey ranking:
These are the rankings for both Class A & AA (Boys) High School hockey as of February 2nd, 2014 according to FollowthePuck.com.
Class A (Boys)
2. East Grand Forks
5. New Prague
6. Mankato West
7. Duluth Marshall
8. St. Cloud Cathedral
11. Thief River Falls
15. Achiever Academy
Class AA (Boys)
1. Lakeville North
7. Elk River/ Zimmerman
8. Duluth East
9. Holy Family Catholic
10. Eden Prairie
11. Benilde-St. Margaret's
12. Cretin-Durham Hall
14. St. Thomas Academy