A little over a year ago, NHL players scrambled to super shortened training camp for what would be a 48-game blitz of a regular season thanks to the lockout. This year, the league is squeezing in a condensed mini-training camp after the league took 3 weeks off for the Olympic break. With the Sochi games behind us, media and NHL experts around the league are weighing whether league participation is beneficial. On one side of the argument are some truly exciting games as well as an elevated profile that compels normally non-hockey fans to watch with the hope they'll latch onto the NHL once it returns to action, but on the other is suspending operations for 3 costly weeks and then trying to recapture the mojo all over again for what will be a blitz to the post-season to say nothing of the injuries that took place. I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about the NHL's participation. While I didn't mind the little break in the middle of the season, I feel fortunate that my NHL team did not suffer the loss of one of its better players due to an injury sustained while playing in the games.
A fast start will be crucial for the Wild to possibly climb to a less precarious spot in the Western Conference standings. A favorable schedule against clubs that are struggling a bit also works in their favor but only if Minnesota takes advantage of its opportunities. Tonight the Wild take the first step towards the post season, will they finish the evening with a step forward or a step backward?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Oilers would try to set the tone early when Blaine's Matt Hendricks rocked Elk River's Nate Prosser with a vicious check from behind as he played the puck. Hendricks was quickly jumped by Kyle Brodziak who wrestled the OIlers' agitator to the ice. No checking from behind even though it looked like a clear cut case for it; Brodziak and Hendricks would earn coincidental roughing minors. Minnesota went right back to work and the top line of Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise would combine to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. Granlund would race into the offensive zone where he dropped a pass back to Parise who got the defense to move over to him and Parise saucered a pass back to Granlund who had a nearly open net to shoot at as Ben Scrivens apparently lost track of the puck and Granlund buried an easy goal. It was a pretty play, but one that was made easy by Scrivens' overly aggressive play. The chippiness continued as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would get into it with Keith Ballard near the Wild crease as he cross checked the Wild defenseman in the back of the head who answered back with a bit of a facewash as Matt Cooke and Taylor Hall exchanged a few shoves. Nugent-Hopkins would earn the extra two minutes for the cross check and Minnesota would go on the power play. The Wild's power play was predictably rusty as they struggled to move the puck with a great level of efficiency. Minnesota would come up empty but the nastiness continued as Kyle Brodziak chopped the stick out of the hands of Anton Belov to give the Oilers a power play. Edmonton wasn't much better on the power play, as their attempts to set up players on back door feeds were thwarted by good active sticks and solid hustle by Minnesota's penalty kill. Darcy Kuemper wasn't really tested but even when pucks were reaching him he was doing a great job of corralling loose pucks and not taking any unnecessary chances. Minnesota would get the big kill and the game would continue to feature big hits and up and down play as both clubs were trading rushes. The Oilers thought they had the equalizer late as Jordan Eberle ripped a shot that hit Kuemper in the arm and went up into the air and the puck fell back to the ice behind Kuemper but Jared Spurgeon was there to clear the crease by firing the puck back through Kuemper's 5-hole to preserve the Wild's 1-0 lead going into the 2nd period. It was a reasonable period for the Wild but I hope they find a way to sustain their forecheck a bit more than they did in the 1st. It was lots of end to end, which really is the kind of game that favors Edmonton's collection of speedy, skilled young forwards. Prosser never returned after the big hit he took from Hendricks so the Wild will have to soldier on a defenseman down. Shots were 6-6 in the period.
2nd Period Thoughts: The action was fast and intense throughout as both clubs kept trading rushes with one another. It wasn't as out of control and frantic, as Minnesota seemed to control the pace of action. The Wild were creating turnovers in the neutral zone and then attacking off the rush and Ben Scrivens' found himself pretty busy in his end. The Wild's pressure continued until Nino Niederreiter was tagged with a hooking penalty. On the penalty kill, the Wild were again solid as they collapsed well around Kuemper and denied the Oilers from having anything in the middle of the ice forcing Edmonton to settle for shots from the perimeter. Kuemper looked confident and efficient in his crease, absorbing the puck and denying the Oilers from having 2nd chance opportunities. Minnesota would then renew its attack on the Oilers, counter punching with takeaways in the neutral zone and they'd add to their lead. A nice play by Erik Haula to skate down low as he'd swoop behind the Oilers goal before feeding it back out front that rolled a bit as Stephane Veilleux stepped into a slap shot that beat Scrivens and it was 2-0. The goal turned the sellout Oilers' crowd silent and Luke Gadzic tried to get the crowd and his team back into the game as he dropped the gloves with Clayton Stoner. It was a one-sided fight as Gazdic took control early, throwing some huge right handed hooks that were landing effectively. Stoner tried to answer back with a few punches of his own but Gazdic clearly won the fight with a big right handed punch that sent him to the ice. Stoner would get up with a finger rather gruesomely tilted the wrong direction and he'd head to the locker room instead of the penalty box. With the Wild holding a two goal lead, I wasn't happy with the fact they kind of took their foot off the gas at this point and they seemed content to just defend their lead. The Oilers continued to take runs at Wild players with little response from Minnesota. Minnesota would take a penalty late in the period as Haula cleared a puck up into the stands for a delay of game penalty. On the power play the Wild made it look pretty easy as they repeatedly intercepted passes and got simple clears of the zone. Minnesota's hustle gave the Oilers very little time and space to work with the puck and they'd take their 2-0 lead into the 2nd intermission. A pretty good period for the Wild minus the Stoner fight. I would've liked to have seen the Wild keep up the pressure but they didn't totally relax allowing the Oilers back into the game either. Shots were 10 apiece.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would kill off the remainder of the Oiler's power play that carried over from the 2nd period. The Wild were playing responsibly, working the puck deep and not taking any undue risks to create offense. Minnesota was hustling well and backchecking with purpose as they disrupted the Oilers' attempts to counter attack with good active sticks. The Oilers' crowd was getting anxious as Minnesota remained patient as they waited for the right opportunity to alleviate pressure with a well executed break out. Edmonton started to pinch and take some extra chances and the Wild would counter with its 2nd line. Charlie Coyle would use his big frame to protect the puck and he'd move in from behind the goal and sweep a shot on goal that was stopped by Scrivens as Niederreiter crashed the net and the puck bounced out to Dany Heatley who banged it home from his knees to make it 3-0. In the minute or so after Heatley's goal, Hendricks would again deliver a hit from behind on Stoner that drew the ire of the Wild defenseman and he'd turn and go after Hendricks prompting the former Capitals' forward to drop the gloves with Stoner obliging even though he couldn't start throwing himself. The officials wisely moved in before any punches were thrown, but kudos to Stoner for being willing to stand up for himself like that with a dislocated finger. The Wild continued to frustrate the Oilers; even on another power play after a Keith Ballard hooking penalty it was Minnesota who had the better share of the scoring chances as Parise turned on the jets as he stepped into the slot and he'd fire a shot that was nabbed by Scrivens. The Oilers' fans were not happy and the boo's started to rain down from Rexall Place as their club was on the brink of another loss. Edmonton was just going through the motions while the Wild defended and got Kuemper the shutout, 3-0.
Kuemper had 21 saves in the victory, and looked sharp even though he didn't have to make a lot of high quality saves in this game. Defensively, the Wild played very well in front of him as defenseman did a nice job of sweeping away the few rebounds Kuemper gave up and Minnesota's forwards were backchecking very well. I thought the Wild weathered the Oilers' physical storm pretty well, and they made smart plays to work the puck out of the offensive zone without too much drama. Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Spurgeon and Ballard all looked sharp tonight. The penalty kill finished a perfect 4-for-4 and never really allowed the Oilers' power play to create any sort of positive momentum in this game.
Offensively, the Wild was ok. 21 shots on goal was probably less than what they deserved but they capitalized on their chances to put this one away earning contributions from the 1st, 2nd and 4th lines tonight. The chemistry Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville is too good not to utilize in my opinion and they connected on the first goal but I love the speed of this unit and their ability to create space in the offensive zone. I also thought the 2nd line of Dany Heatley, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle had a very good game. They did a good job of using their big bodies to work the puck deep and they managed to bang home a goal to really put the game away. This line was hustling well and being pesky on the forecheck. The power play was a bit rough, but that will improve as they get more chances.
The only real place for the team to improve beyond getting more shots on goal was the fact they took too many penalties. The Wild would be wise to avoid taking that many trips to the penalty box against Vancouver. The Wild still have lots to feel good about. The team had a good effort from all of its lines and looked focus in its return from the Olympic break. Hopefully they can follow up tonight's win with another against the Canucks tomorrow!
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Torrey Mitchell, Stephane Veilleux, Erik Haula, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner. Niklas Backstrom backed up Darcy Kuemper. Mike Rupp, Steven Kampfer and John Curry were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Darcy Kuemper, 2nd Star Mikael Granlund, 3rd Star Matt Hendricks
~ Attendance was 16,839 at Rexall Place.
Wild Prospect Report:
D – Mathew Dumba (Portland, WHL) ~ The Portland winning machine keeps rolling along as they pulled off a 2-1 shootout victory over the Everett Silvertips on Sunday. Dumba had 2 PIM's and finished the night a +1 in the win. The Calgary-native has 3 goals, 14 points, 28 PIM's and a +22 in 18 games played with the Winterhawks this season.
RW – Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ Owen Sound is trying to establish itself as a contender for an OHL title but the Attack was put in its place on Monday night in a 6-3 loss. The Newmarket, Ontario-native had a bit of a rough night as had an assist and finished the game a -3. Gabriel has 10 goals, 39 points, 84 PIM's and +1 in 51 games played this season.
Boys High School Hockey Report:
A number of teams tonight punched their tickets to Xcel Energy Center. We'd like to congratulate all of the section winners as well as those clubs who qualified for their respecctive section finals as that's no small feat in itself. Here are a few who did so in no particular order.
1A – New Prague Trojans (def. Mankato West)
2A – Orono Spartans (def. Breck)
3A – Luverne Cardinals (def. New Ulm)
5A – Chisago Lakes Wildcats (def. Princeton)
6A – St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders (def. Alexandria)
8A – East Grand Forks Green Wave (def. Warroad)
1AA – Lakeville North Panthers (def. Farmington)
3AA – Eagan Wildcats (def. St. Thomas Academy)
7AA – Duluth East Greyhounds (def. Elk River / Zimmerman)