It may not be for a rodeo or a game of golf in Saskatchewan, but in someways the Wild need to be thinking along those lines tonight as they head up to Alberta to play the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. The Wild need to think about wrangling in their plummeting post-season hopes and that must start with a solid effort between the pipes. In Minnesota's most recent game, the Wild had a poor performance from Niklas Backstrom and it doomed the Wild to a 7-4 loss at the hands of the speedy Avalanche. Simply put the Wild cannot have sub par goaltending and some wonder if the most recent performances of Backstrom is a sign that he is wearing down. His goals against average has steadily increased and his once gaudy save percentage has steadily worn away. Many questioned Wild Head Coach Todd Richards non-decision in swapping out Backstrom sooner, instead leaving him out there to struggle as the Avs lit him up for 7 goals. It certainly isn't a situation that endears a coach to his goaltender when he allows him to endure such humiliation. So will the humiliation continue or will the Wild refocus and rope in the wayward Flames this evening?
Minnesota had the first quality scoring chance of the game as the Wild's energy line drew an early turnover as Eric Nystrom's forechecking created a steal for John Madden who fired a backhander that was steered wide by Miikka Kiprusoff. The Wild was moving its feet well to start the game, taking every opporting to fire shots on goal as Marek Zidlicky blistered a slap shot that missed high. The State of Hockey continued to attack and after eluding a hit, Nystrom would carry the puck to the net where he tried to stuff a backhand but was stonewalled by Kiprusoff who held on despite having Matt Kassian and Brad Staubitz also crashing towards his crease. The level of hustle was only lacking a little puck luck as the 2nd line had a solid shift where Martin Havlat who centered the puck despite being in the process of falling to the ice but unforunately no one was there to receive this nice hustle play. The Flames struggled to get much going offensively early on as they tried to remedy that with some puck battles along the boards before setting up a blast from the point by Mark Giordano that reached Jose Theodore who was well screened but he was able to make the save. Minnesota would earn a power play after a hooking penalty by Robyn Regehr. The Wild struggled to get the puck to settle on the ice, and this caused them to mison a few early scoring opportunities. Eventually the Wild managed to set up a close range shot by Andrew Brunette who shoveled a few shots at Kiprusoff that he shut down, Minnesota would regroup and had a great chance on a little give and go between Martin Havlat and Patrick O'Sullivan whose bouncing pass nearly eluded the Calgary goaltender. The Wild also had to defend against a few shorthanded chances as Mikael Backlund drove to the crease where his attempt was steered wide by Theodore. The Flames continued to hustle and and a quick little pass by Iginla ended up in a great chance for Alex Tanguay who was stymied by the Wild goalie. The Wild started to increase its level of hustle and Minnesota would continue to show their simplified attack as Martin Havlat wristed a shot on goal that Kiprusoff would cover, and after the stop Regehr would give a few shoves to Kyle Brodziak. A few moments later, Cal Clutterbuck bounced off a check by Brendan Mikkelson and skated down beneath the goal line before feeding a pass into the slot where Antti Miettinen tried to jam a shot by fellow Finn Kiprusoff but he'd make the big save. At times the Wild was making the game tougher than it needed to be as Havlat was guilty of a few weak passes that led to easy turnovers for the Flames. The Flames started to pour it on late, dumping the puck deep and establishing the forecheck as Backlund got set up in the slot where he spun and fired a backhander that was directed to the corner by Theodore. Minnesota started to show some grit as Mikko Koivu put his shoulder into Olli Jokinen that sent him falling to the ice, and the top line would go on the attack where Brunette dished a pass to Koivu who got off a quick wrist shot that was denied by Kiprusoff. The Wild seemed to have a bit more jump in his skates as Matt Cullen made a nice steal near the blueline where Havlat would take the loose biscuit and he'd drive straight to the Calgary goal where he tried to push a shot 5-hole on Kiprusoff but he would close down the opening and cover up for a whistle. The Wild kept working as a nice win for the puck along the boards by Cam Barker as he managed to kick it loose to Brodziak who sent a pass back to Jared Spurgeon who wound up and ripped a slapper that was easily steered wide by the Calgary puckstopper. Minnesota would take a late penalty when Cal Clutterbuck felt more or less forced to slash the stick of Jokinen who looked to have an uncontested shot from the slot, but he'd shatter Jokinen's twig for the obvious penalty. The Wild's penalty kill was aggressive and challenged well in the Calgary zone and the game would remain scoreless, with the Flames still holding a minute left of power play time to start the 2nd period.
The Flames would go immediately on the attack as they had nearly a full minute of power play time left, and Niklas Hagman directed a shot on goal that was blocked wide by Theodore. Minnesota's penalty killers kept the Flames to the perimeter and Calgary would struggle to hold the zone and the Wild were able to get the big early kill. Moments later Minnesota had a promising scoring chance as Mikko Koivu set up Andrew Brunette with a nice little pass but as he moved in on Kiprusoff he'd try to dish it over to a wide open O'Sullivan but the puck was intercepted by a diving play by Bouwmeester. The missed opportunity would come back to haunt the Wild as Jarome Iginla worked the puck down beneath the goal line before carrying it out in front where he backhanded a pass to a wide open Jay Bouwmeester who was patient, drawing Theodore to fall to the ice and he fired a backhander into the gaping net to give the Flames a 1-0 lead. The pain would only get worse as a long range shot by Rene Bourque that caromed off the boards and back out into the slot where it was pounced upon by Iginla who beat Theodore to make it 2-0 Flames. After having given up 2 goals in 18 seconds of play Wild Head Coach Todd Richards had seen enough to call a timeout where you could tell he was ripping into his team's lack of initiative on its scoring opportunity as he tried to turn things around. The Wild you could tell were trying to regroup mentally, but the Flames were going to continue to try to press the attack and as the Flames tried to swarm the Minnesota crease as Tim Jackman put some snow into the face of Theodore, young enforcer Matt Kassian tried to goad him into a fight but Jackman just smiled and skated back to his bench. The game would open up a bit more as both teams would trade rushes with one another. Minnesota tried to use some physical play to neutralize the Calgary's forechecking effort as Greg Zanon leveled Alex Tanguay with a bit hit. The Wild had its best scoring chance to this point in the period as Matt Cullen skated into the Calgary zone and he flung a dump in, which was tracked down by Havlat who turned back along the wall before sliding a pass to a wide open Marek Zidlicky who was pinching in and he looked as though he had Kiprusoff at a bad angle but he'd manage to make the stop and the possession was ultimately thwarted by a hand pass. Minnesota would try to keep up its momentum it created from the scoring chance as the 4th line was throwing its weight around as Staubitz leveled Mikkelson, but the aggressive stance of the Wild nearly cost them as Tanguay found some open space and his snap shot did not miss by much. The Wild would earn a level of reprieve as Matt Stajan hooked down Patrick O'Sullivan giving Minnesota just its 2nd power play of the game. Minnesota would have great trouble getting established in the Flames' zone, but they finally was able to set up a rocket from the point by Zidlicky which was gloved by Kiprusoff. The Wild were unable to capitalize on the power play, as Havlat tried to set up O'Sullivan who just wanted to stand near the crease and he just turned and watched as the Flames were able to skate the puck out of danger. The Flames seemed content to play it safe and wait for an opportunity to counter attack as Rene Bourque weathered a check, and then attempted a wrap around that went skittering through the crease. The Wild tried to go on the attack one last time as Martin Havlat worked a small little play with Mikko Koivu near the Calgary blue line where Koivu drove a shot on goal that led to a big rebound but Kiprusoff was able to keep Cullen's rebound attempt out and Minnesota would trail 2-0 going into the 3rd period.
The Flames were outworking the Wild early to start the 3rd, keeping Minnesota bottled up in its zone with a solid forecheck. Minnesota tried to be fancy and dangle a bit as Havlat would try to toe drag around a defender but as he was going to fire it on goal he was hit by Bouwmeester. The Wild tried to go back to the simply their attack again as Clutterbuck and O'Sullivan took their chances to just fire long range shots on net. Minnesota would continue to take its chances and a nice steal near the Calgary blueline by Koivu turned into a long shot by Spurgeon that was blocked and pushed away by Kiprusoff but Brunette got on the rebound but his shot was kicked away by the Flames netminder. The Flames tried to counter with some offensive pressure of its own as Backlund tried to set up Jokinen but his shot was stopped by Theodore. Minnesota started to create some consistent pressure with its 2nd line as Martin Havlat set up Greg Zanon for a shot from the point that he wired on goal that was absorbed by Kiprusoff. Minnesota was still being a bit cute with the puck and this would lead to a dangerous scoring chance by the Flames as a steal by Iginla pushed a puck up to Stajan who fired a snap shot that was directed to the corner by Theodore. Nystrom would earn a disgruntled cheer from the Flames crowd as he drew a penalty. On the man advantage the Wild had a great opportunity early as Havlat fed a pass to O'Sullivan who redirected a shot on goal that was deflected up and over the net by the paddle of Kiprusoff and then O'Sullivan would be denied on a backhand chance near the crease. The Flames penalty kill was challengin the full length of the ice and Backlund came real close to registering a shorthanded goal. Minnesota would be unable to find the back of the net on the power play and you could sense some of the spirit of the Wild diminished after that missed opportunity. Minnesota's Nick Schultz would take an ill-timed hooking penalty on what could be argued was a fairly weak call. The Flames did not seem to care much about creating offense as they took the opportunity to kill off two minutes off the clock. Calgary was hustling well, and Minnesota just did not seem to have the legs to win the races to the loose pucks nor the energy to win the battles along the boards. Brent Burns would take a bad hooking penalty at 2:40 left in the period which effectively sealed the Wild's fate. Calgary was predictably patient on the man advantage again using it as opportunity to kill more time off the clock. They had a few shots on goal as Bouwmeester and Iginla showcased some good chemistry and Minnesota just stopped working and the Flames finally beat Theodore as Niklas Hagman skated into the slot and ripped a wrister high glove side to seal a 3-0 Calgary victory.
Jose Theodore cannot be blamed for the loss, giving up 3 goals on 31 shots. He certainly played well enough to keep the Wild in the game so that it had an opportunity to win this game. Defensively Minnesota again died in the 2nd period as the feet stopped moving and the Flames pounced to score twice in an 18-second span in the 2nd period. Penalties were not a huge problem for the Wild, but Minnesota was not getting great support from its blueline and Brent Burns had a sub par game. Jared Spurgeon looked like a rookie on the ice, a little soft on his skates but he didn't really hurt the team either and he may get another chance but in all honesty I am not sure why the team chose not to dress Justin Falk who could bring a little physicality along with good mobility instead of giving an untested rookie a shot in a game you really needed to win.
Offensively the Wild went away from the simplified just throw everything they can on the net, and instead started to play a fancy game and predictably the shots on goal started to stagnate. While some may say 32 shots on goal was solid, many of those chances were from long range and even on its close in chances the Flames defense was able to prevent many of the 2nd and 3rd chance opportunities. Minnesota victimized itself with some of its lazy passing which cost the team a few potential scoring chances off the rush where they had an advantage in numbers. One player who looks real lost and lacking confidence is team captain Mikko Koivu. A great example of this was in the closing seconds of the game where Koivu finally had some time and space to work with, and instead of just blazing a shot on goal he instead tried to deflect a shot off of Antti Miettinen who was not really in a good position to make such a play. Koivu must be a factor offensively if this team is going to seriously challenge for a playoff spot. Minnesota must continue to keep things simple offensively if they want to get their confidence rolling.
On a sidenote, I don't see why the team chose to dress Matt Kassian and Brad Staubitz tonight when the Flames really only have one tough guy in Tim Jackman. Jackman was smart and did not oblige Kassian's challenge to fight.
Wild Head Coach Todd Richards felt the team played a good 1st period but had this to say about the 2nd period, "the style of the game changed, there was more flow and open ice and our defense was jumping up the ice and this fed into their momentum, but it was that 3-4 minutes where they got the two goals and its too bad because I liked the way we played in the 3rd." He also stated he thought Theodore played well enough for the Wild to have had a chance in this game. I personally am not happy with Richards' response. How many 2nd period collapses do we need to see as fans? I don't care if its for a short time or not, why did the team go away from what was working? That being a simplified attack and just throwing the puck on net looking for rebounds. How can you allow that to happen as a coach? The Wild used to have a nice little lead on Calgary in the standings who was doing a fine job of self destructing on its own, but now they have left them off the hook and are now tied with them at 24 points apiece. I am not looking forward to Wednesday's game against Phoenix, which is a solid well-coached counterattacking team in the Jacques Lemaire-mold. If Minnesota again tries to be fancy and cute on the rush it could find itself being blitzed by the desert dogs in a hurry.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, Patrick O'Sullivan, Cal Clutterbuck, John Madden, Matt Kassian, Brad Staubitz, Eric Nystrom, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker, Jared Spurgeon, Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Clayton Stoner and Justin Falk were the healthy scratches. Guillaume Latendresse is still out recovering from surgeries while Chuck Kobasew is expected to return soon after helping take care of his sick mother. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still hopeful of a return as he has been practicing but still is feeling some discomfort.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Miikka Kiprusoff, 2nd Star Jay Bouwmeester, 3rd Star Jarome Iginla
~ Jared Spurgeon who was celebrating his 21st birthday tonight wore #46 for the Wild, the first time anyone has worn that number in a regular season game in franchise history.
~ Tonight's attendance at Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome 19,289 even though there were more than a few empty seats visible.
Wild Prospect Report:
LW - Kris Foucault ~ Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
2010-11 Stats: 20GP 7G 8A = 15pts 23 PIM's -5
There hasn't been a lot that has gone right for the Calgary Hitmen this season. In what was supposed to be just a slightly down season has turned into a complete disaster. The team has not received the production it expected from its overagers like Jimmy Bubnick as well as Wild winger Kris Foucault. Yet this weekend there were signs that Foucault may be working his way out of his drought after scoring twice against a very strong Red Deer squad (ironically he scored both of his goals against Wild prospect goaltender Darcy Kuemper). His skating, stickhandling skills may remind some Wild fans of Martin Havlat as a player who can dazzle but also frustrate you by not playing to expectations. Still his battle with consistency is what will ultimately determine whether he is a viable prospect for the Wild or not. When he is focused he can be a very dominant player but when he's not he can be completely invisible.
F - Erik Haula ~ Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
2010-11 Stats: 14GP 3G 12A = 15pts 14 PIM's
It has been a while since the Minnesota Golden Gophers has had a foreign-born freshman play such a significant role so soon; in fact you may have heard of him, Thomas Vanek. However Haula is playing like a junior or senior demonstrating great creativity, assertiveness that has been lacking for quite a while for the maroon and gold. Haula has excellent speed and hockey sense and has had terrific chemistry with upper classmen Jay Barriball and Mike Hoeffel. He has the versatility to play all 3 forward positions as well as play a role both on the power play and the penalty kill. With that being said it should come as no real surprise that the Pori, Finland native is 2nd on the team in points. Haula also has the ability to deliver in the clutch as he scored a crucial goal in the Gophers 3-1 victory over #8 Michigan just as the Wolverines seemed to be close to mounting a comeback this weekend in the annual College Hockey Showcase.