No matter what it always feels great to get back into the arena. The energy of the crowd, the sound of skates, sticks, and players communicating with their teammates just makes you fall in love with the game all over again. I love my NHL Center Ice, but being there is so much better. If you haven't been to a game please take in a game and you'll see what I mean. Well enough of that shameless advertisement for NHL hockey. Now for what I saw in this game.
The Wild were a little shakey to start the game as the Predators had good jump that nearly conspired to put Minnesota in a hole early. After Steve Sullivan rang a shot off the post and then on an early power play where Patric Hornqvist just couldn't get the blade of his stick on a bouncing puck for what should've been an easy tap in goal. That missed opportunity was huge for the Wild who seemed to have taken my advice of playing a more simplified offense where they were taking every opportunity to put the puck on goal and hope for the best. It was certainly true in each of the 3 goals the Wild scored in the 1st period. The first on a nice little individual play by Marek Zidlicky who sort of lulled Pekka Rinne into a false sense of security by banking a shot off the side of the goal and then gathering up the puck and lifting it short side by a stunned Predators goaltender to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. Minnesota continued to attempt simple plays and a quick shot on goal by Patrick O'Sullivan turned into an opportunity off a rebound by Andrew Brunette who kept chopping at the puck until he managed to chip it up and over Rinne to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead. You could even get a sense that the team was learning to buy into this as the game went on. Late in the period, Martin Havlat found himself all alone as he skated through the slot but instead of taking a shot he decided to pass the puck much to the frustration of the crowd. Just seconds later Havlat would get the puck back and instead of again dishing the biscuit he kept it made a pretty move around Alexander Sulzer and then beat Rinne with a nice little shot as he took the puck to the crease to give the Wild a commanding 3-0 lead causing Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz to go to Anders Lindback between the pipes to start the 2nd period.
For Havlat, the goal was a turning point. It seemed to spark newfound energy in his game and he was playing assertively for the rest of the night. Early in the 2nd, a steal by Havlat in the neutral zone turned into an odd-man rush and Havlat drew a defender towards him before threading a cross-ice pass to Matt Cullen who whiffed on a shot but he was followed up by Nick Schultz who fired a quick shot that eluded Lindback to lift the Wild to a 4-0 lead. You could sense the level of confidence growing as the Wild were even taking a few opportunities to create scoring chances in the 2nd period shorthanded as John Madden raced down the ice and rifled a heavy slap shot off the post. However after Schultz' tally the Wild did sort of sit back and this allowed the Predators to start to dominate the play. The Predators were forechecking well and moving the puck around as though they were on a power play as Jerrid Smithson nearly was able to shovel a shot by Jose Theodore. Theodore playing well absorbing the puck even as he had Hornqvist camping near his crease all night long. The relaxed style of play probably did not go over well with Wild coaches despite the fact they carried a 4-0 lead going into the 3rd period as they were outshot 14 to 7 in the 2nd.
In the 3rd the Wild would finally give up a goal, as the Predators were playing simple hockey as a big blast from point turned into a scramble near the crease as the puck bounced off the stick of Colin Wilson and the puck trickled out to Sullivan who pushed a shot just underneath the outstretched arm of Theodore and a sliding Schultz who tried to bail out his goalie. With the game at 4-1, the game would get a little more physical as Eric Nystrom would take a big hit from Jordin Tootoo, Nystrom did not like the hit and he said something to Tootoo that drew a quick slash and Nystrom tried to oblige by dropping the gloves and he'd grab the diminutive Predators agitator's jersey but he refused to drop his glove to a huge chorus of boo's who were disgusted at his act of gamesmanship. It was a pretty gutless thing for Tootoo to do, since he had clearly delivered a cheap hit to Nystrom who wanted him to answer for it. Tootoo would return to his bench while Nystrom recieved a minor for cross checking giving Nashville a much-needed power play. Just about 40 seconds into the Predators power play they'd get some more help when Zidlicky was called for tripping when he knocked down Martin Erat by getting his stick into winger's skates giving Nashville a long 5-on-3 advantage. During the penalty kill the Wild were doing a great job of denying passing and shooting lanes as they sat tight in their triangle and they would be fortunate with a few cross-ice setups that failed to click. The near sellout crowd would give an appreciative cheer as the Wild killed off the two man advantage. A few moments later, Wild fans would get a moment of revenge as well as Tootoo again tried to throw his body around as he ran Clayton Stoner, but the Wild defenseman would not let Tootoo skate away and he would drop the gloves and this time Tootoo was forced to do the same. Stoner was quickly firing right handed jabs, but the stocky Tootoo was throwing a few righthands of his own before opting for a takedown. Minnesota would add a goal late on a pretty diagonal pass off the rush by Matt Cullen to a crashing Havlat who tapped a shot by Lindback to give the Wild a 5-1 lead. The Predators would score late on a power play when Martin Erat unloaded a wicked slap shot to solidify what was a 5-2 Wild victory.
Theodore was excellent, making 32 saves in the win. Even when Theodore made a mistake, he hustled ot make up for it as he misplayed a puck that should've been an easy Predators goal but he raced back to his crease to deny Sullivan. Defensively the Wild played well enough to give Theodore clear views of the puck as well as working hard to sweep away the rebound opportunities which kept the Predators' at bey. Brent Burns, Clayton Stoner, Greg Zanon, Nick Schultz, and Marek Zidlicky all had solid games while Cam Barker was a bit suspect throughout most of the game.
One area where the Wild was horrible was on the power play. The Predators had more scoring chances than the Wild did, and in many ways it was an issue of focus and a lack of urgency. Minnesota was disorganized and all too often decided to dump and chase. Well let me rephrase that, it was certainly a lot of dumping but very little chasing and the result was the fact the Predators had little to no pressure placed on it during the Wild power play. One player who did not impress me even though he earned a point was Patrick O'Sullivan. He reminded me a lot of the player who I watched play in Houston 5 years ago, a floating cherry-picker who does little to retrieve the puck himself rather waiting on the periphery hoping his teammates set him up. That makes for a player who is very dependent on his linemates and with the Wild struggling to have talent I think that is asking a lot and is not a formula for consistent success. While O'Sullivan did not make a great impression on me, one player who continues to do so is Robbie Earl. His speed and willingness to play physical on the forecheck is something the team has sorely needed. As long as he stays with his simple forechecking style of game and takes his chances to shoot the puck I think he should have a place on the team.
The Wild have to feel very proud of its effort but it still could be better. It still was not a 60-minute effort. It was something like a 30-minute effort and while that was good enough against the offensively starved Predators that will not be enough against the better teams in the league. Yet a win is a win and it certainly gave the fans at home a lot to cheer about, this one included!
~ The Wild lineup for this evening was the following: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, John Madden, Martin Havlat, Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Patrick O'Sullivan, Brad Staubitz, Robbie Earl, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner, Cam Barker, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Justin Falk and Matt Kassian were the healthy scratches for the Wild while Guillaume Latendresse is out for the long term as he recovers from groin and sports hernia surgery and Chuck Kobasew is still struggling with his groin as well. Pierre-Marc Bouchard seems to still be in limbo and seems no closer to returning than he was a month ago as he is still complaining of pressure in his head whenever he skates.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let's Play Hockey were: 1st Star Martin Havlat, 2nd Star Marek Zidlicky, 3rd Star Jose Theodore
~ Last night's attendance was 17,814, and in a rather unusual and fitting side note the team broke the Guiness Book of World Record's for most persons with a mustasche at one place when over 1,100 mostachioed fans stormed the Xcel Energy Center ice after the game which included the Wild's Brent Burns and Nick Schultz who had helped inspire the event. The event was the culmination of "Movember" where players across the NHL had grown mustasches to raise awareness for prostate cancer.
~ The Houston Aeros fell 5-3 to their in-state arch rival the San Antonio Rampage. The Rampage and Aeros have turned into quite a rivalry with all the chippiness you'd expect. The Aeros jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a pretty power play goal by Casey Wellman. The Rampage answered back with a power play tally of its own when Tim Stapleton lit the lamp and then took the lead just 43 seconds into the 2nd period when Viktor Tihkonov found the twine behind Matthew Hackett. The Aeros would again use the power play to tie the game back up when Maxim Noreau blasted a shot by Al Montoya. San Antonio would go to a familiar face to Wild fans to re-take the lead when Andrew Ebbett scored and then prospect sniper Brett McLean rifled a shot by Hackett to extend the Rampage's lead to two, 4-2. The Aeros would cut the lead back to one when Brock McBride scored with just under 4:00 in regulation but it wasn't meant to be as Jed Ortmeyer scored on an empty neat to seal the 5-3 victory. Hackett had 21 saves in the loss.