Would the Wild be able to re-focus after earning a solid victory against the Predators or would they resemble a person snoozing after a big Thanksgiving meal?
The game had a furious pace to start the game as the Avalanche were flying around the ice early. Minnesota would have the first scoring chance of the game as Matt Cullen led a 3-on-2 but his sharp angle wrist shot was gloved rather easily by Peter Budaj. The Avalanche would answer back with a scoring chance of its own as some cycling of the puck by Daniel Winnik and Milan Hejduk led to a set up of Paul Stastny who turned and fired a quick shot that surprised Niklas Backstrom to give Colorado a 1-0 lead just over a minute into the game. Colorado was forechecking very well while the Wild seemed to be standing still and reaching just hoping to keep up as Ryan O'Reilly lifted a backhand just up and over the Minnesota goal. Colorado's Kevin Shattenkirk would feel the pain as he was leveled into the boards by a nice hit delivered by Robbie Earl who was racing in on the Wild forecheck. The Avalanche forecheck was so oppressive to the Wild, all they were able to do was to chip the puck out of the zone and wait for Colorado to regroup and renew its assault in the Minnesota zone. Minnesota would recieve a break in a bad way as a big slap shot by John-Michael Liles struck his teammate Winnik who fell to the ice in pain and the Wild went on the counterattack. Mikko Koivu had two quick chances before relaying it back to the point where Nick Schultz dished it over to Brent Burns who wristed a long shot on goal that was stopped by Budaj as Brunette and Koivu tried to pounce before the Colorado puckstopper was able to draw a whistle. Minnesota would win the ensuing draw and Patrick O'Sullivan ripped a backhand on goal that was steered wide by Budaj. The Wild really started to pour it on at this point in the game shift after shift as the 2nd line of Martin Havlat, Kyle Brodziak and Cullen would cycle the puck creating a few long-range shots on goal, but that was followed up by a great shift by the top line where O'Sullivan made a nice little move to the net but his wrister would miss just high over the Colorado goal. Minnesota was also showing much better support in its own zone as well as it was backchecking and matching the Avalanche's speed as Antti Miettinen was flying all over the ice, but Colorado was always quick to take advantage of open portions of the ice as they took advantage of a line change to free O'Reilly for a slapper that was held onto by Backstrom. The game would shift in speed and complexion as both teams seemed to want to establish some puck possession and this style of play also led to some great physicality as Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz started to deliver some great hits. The Wild were counter punching and a steal in the neutral zone by Antti Miettinen set up a surprising 1-on-1 chance and oddly enough Avalanche defenseman Scott Hannan moved towards a trailing Cal Clutterbuck giving Miettinen an open lane but he would not take the shot instead opting to dish it back to Clutterbuck who fanned on a shot the fluttered towards Budaj before being redirected by Miettinen to tie the game 1-1. I have to admit I was almost going to pull my hair out watching Miettinen pass up on what appeared to be such an obvious shooting opportunity but it worked out in the end. The Wild were feeling momentum shift in its favor as Burns stepped up to support the play before rifling a quick wrister that was snagged out of the air by a fancy glove save by Budaj. The Avalanche would earn its first power play when Brad Staubitz tripped up Ryan O'Reilly. The Avalanche were looking to create offense with speed as Liles raced into the Wild zone firing a shot that was knocked down by Backstrom before being carried out of harm's way by Nick Schultz. The Wild's penalty kill was challenging Colorado through the neutral zone and the Avalanche were settling for long range shots that Backstrom was having little difficulty stopping. Colorado started to criss-cross a bit as Stastny set up Liles who fired a shot high over the Wild goal as he had a lot of open net to look at but Minnesota would earn the big kill. As soon as the penalty was killed the Wild went right on the attack as Andrew Brunette set up a pinching Marek Zidlicky for a quick shot that was stopped by Budaj but as the Avalanche tried to clear the zone Zidlicky would hold the line and then skate in and set up a shot by Brunette that was deflected up into the netting. The Avalanche tried to counter attack but they would take a late penalty that would prove to be very costly as Kevin Porter got his stick into the face of Brent Burns. On the initial draw, Mikko Koivu drew the puck back to Matt Cullen who was playing the point and he skated towards the high slot and he unloaded a slapper that beat a well-screened Budaj to put the Wild up 2-1 with less than 30 seconds to go in the period.
The Wild tried to apply pressure with its 2nd line of Havlat, Brodziak and Cullen to start the game but Havlat's centering pass never reached Cullen as he was leveled by a big hit near the Avalanche crease. Minnesota was playing aggressively as Zidlicky was pinching again this time passing a puck from beneath the Colorado goal line to Andrew Brunette who tried to set up O'Sullivan for a quick shot, and the Avalanche tried to counter ask Stastny fired a shot that was popped up into the air by Backstrom before being controlled by the skate of Cam Barker before it was escorted out of the zone. The Avalanche were starting to ramp up its speed and a turnover in the neutral zone turned into a 2-on-1 as Greg Mauldin found some space behind the Wild defense and he beat Backstrom 5-hole to tie the game at 2-2 on a nice play in transition. Minnesota did not help its cause as Marek Zidlicky took an interference penalty as he held up Paul Stastny off the ensuing faceoff giving the Avalanche its 2nd power play of the game. The Wild did a nice job of denying time and space and harassing the Avalanche keeping them at bey for the first half of the man advantage. The Avalanche would begin to move its feet in some plays down low that had the Wild scrambling but Backstrom was able to make the saves and the Wild were able to clear the zone as it circled the wagons near its goalie. Minnesota tried to go on the attack but an ill-advised cross ice pass by Nick Schultz turned into a 2-on-1 for the Avalanche and in a desperate play Brent Burns slid on the ice to deny the pass and then corralled the puck enough to be able to sweep it out of harm's way but Schultz would compound his mistake as he took down a Colorado forward for an interference penalty giving the Avs its 3rd power play of the game. The Avalanche again tried to work neutral zone with speed as Matt Duchene raced into the Wild zone only to be shut down by the leg pad of Niklas Backstrom but Colorado persisted and a play down low by Chris Stewart to feed a pass back to Milan Hejduk led to a quick shot that was in the back of the Minnesota net to give his team a 3-2 lead. Wild Head Coach Todd Richards gave Nick Schultz a death stare as he exited the penalty box. The pain would get worse just a few moments later as the Avalanche would continue to swarm in the Wild zone and long shot by Cody McLeod was stopped by Backstrom but Mauldin would move in and lift a shot over a sprawling Backstrom to lift the Avs to a 4-2 lead. Minnesota tried to press the attack but the Avs were quick to throw it back in the Wild space as their risks would come back to bite them as a terrible decision to attempt a long diagonal outlet pass by John Madden turned into an easy steal that was dished back to Shattenkirk who rifled a snap shot by Backstrom as Colorado now found itself up 5-2. The Wild would finally create some sustained offensive pressure as the 2nd line worked hard along the boards to create a few chances for Martin Havlat, including one quick wrister which Budaj had lost track of but the puck stayed out of the net. The Avalanche threw out its energy line and their hustle frustrated the Wild, so much so that Justin Falk in a rare show of anger tried to goad Greg Mauldin into a fight but the speedy forward wanted nothing to do with it. Minnesota would cut into the Avalanche lead on a delayed penalty when Kyle Brodziak was tripped up in the neutral zone that was carried into the Colorado zone before being dropped back to Brodziak who had no other options so he fired a snap shot that trickled through Budaj to roll over the goal line to cut the lead to two, 5-3. The Wild tried to build on its most recent tally, as a modified line of O'Sullivan, Clutterbuck and Madden set up O'Sullivan for a big shot that was popped up over the goal by Budaj. The Avalanche would try to counter attack but Backstrom would come up with a huge leg pad save. Tempers started to flare a bit too as Ryan O'Byrne and Eric Nystrom chatted a bit after a big hit O'Byrne delivered to Nystrom but they would not drop the gloves and right off the next face off ensued a bizarre tilt between Chris Stewart and Kyle Brodziak. You could tell right from the start that Brodziak really wasn't wanting to fight as both circled once another before Stewart engaged and started throwing right hands that were landing on the back of Brodziak. Stewart clearly was more comfortable in this situation as he tore off the helmet of Brodziak as he kept trying to pummel the back of the head of the Wild forward, and perhaps out of a need to do something Brodziak tried to fire a few right hands of his own before he just opted for a take down with Stewart landing on top of him. A clear win for Stewart. As he skated to the Colorado locker room, Stewart mocked the Wild bench while Cal Clutterbuck and others chirped back ask for their own fights. The fight clearly sparked the Wild bench and they came out with energy in the closing seconds of the period as Havlat created a number of great scoring opportunities; the best of which where Havlat managed to get a shot off from his back that Budaj was just able to get a piece of as Minnesota swarmed all over the Colorado zone.
Minnesota was going on the attack right away as they were forechecking well to start the period where Martin Havlat tried to hold the zone and then fire a shot on goal. The Avalanche would counter attack and John-Michael Liles would bear down on Niklas Backstrom where he'd get off a backhand before being checked into the goal by Cam Barker before Barker ran into Backstrom. Wild Head Coach Todd Richards wanted a goaltender interference call which was ridiculous since it was clearly Barker who ran into Backstrom and his pleas were in vain. Minnesota was trying to sustain pressure no matter who was on the ice as Brad Staubitz showed some great initiative leading a rush up the ice, but Colorado appeared to be content with just lifting the puck out of the zone and forcing the Wild to carry it up the full length of the ice. Colorado would counter punch a little as Greg Mauldin used his speed effectively to eluded Nick Schultz before firing a puck towards the top of the crease where David Jones redirected it by Backstrom to give the Avalanche a 3-goal lead, 6-3. The Wild's aggressive style led perfectly to the Avalanche to counter attack and it was again Mauldin creating the play as he raced down the right side boards before flinging a wrister on goal that was stopped by Backstrom who gave up a big rebound before it was tapped home by Matt Duchene to make it 7-3 Avalanche. Minnesota would swap out Niklas Backstrom for Jose Theodore between the pipes. The Wild were starting to throw its body around probably out of frustration more than anything, as Cam Barker obliterated Clay Wilson with a huge hit, and moments later the Wild would get an amazingly weak boarding penalty on Staubitz for a very soft hit to Ryan O'Byrne who had Minnesota players chirping at him all night. The Wild would kill off the lethargic Avalanche power play, and then go back on the attack as Cal Clutterbuck fired a high shot that was tipped up into the air by Budaj and back down in his crease where he quickly covered up as Cullen, Clutterbuck and Brodziak waited near the crease. Minnesota stayed patient and the 2nd line would strike again as a nice assertive play by Martin Havlat worked his way around a defenseman and taking the puck near the crease before sliding a pass to Brodziak who finished nicely to cut the Avalanche lead back to three, 7-4. The Wild continued to assault the Colorado crease as Brent Burns started to dangle and make some plays and he'd follow up a long wrist shot by Brad Staubitz and he'd charge to the crease which turned into a small flurry before John-Michael Liles was able to cover it up. Liles would be tagged with a delay of game penalty much to his chagrin. The power play would be short-lived as Mikko Koivu would earn a tripping call when David Jones stepped on his stick and Koivu berated the official as he made his way to the penalty box. The Wild would earn a rare 4-on-3 power play as he had his stick slashed from him by Ryan O'Byrne. Todd Richards would call a timeout to talk things over, and Minnesota had some terrific power play chances right at the start as Brunette was set up well near the crease for a few close in shots but Budaj would shut the door. The Wild's power play was very crisp making quick passes setting up Marek Zidlicky with a shot that found the cross bar and out and that was as close as they would get as they fell 7-4.
Niklas Backstrom was not that great making 31 saves in the loss, and while that may sound decent he seemed to be fighting the puck for most of the night and his inability to control rebounds would allow this game to spiral out of reach. He certainly had some reasonable stops but he also had some mildly soft goals too that Minnesota simply could not overcome. In relief, Jose Theodore was perfect stopping the two shots he faced. Defensively the Wild got caught pinching and some poor penalties; particularly a completely unnecessary interference penalty on Nick Schultz that really turned this game around in a bad way. Minnesota did not support Backstrom all that well and did not sweep away the rebounds to prevent the Avalanche from having those 2nd chance opportunities. The Wild struggled to adapt to the excellent speed of the Avalanche's forwards who just appeared to have an extra few gears than Minnesota all game long. The penalty was just ok but not great, and against such a potent team as the Avalanche it needed to be perfect.
Offensively had an ok performance, but its pinching was exposed by the speed of Colorado. To the Wild's credit, Minnesota was able to battle back with a diverse attack led by the 2nd line of Brodziak, Cullen and particularly Havlat who is playing with a lot of confidence right now must be considered the Wild's most dangerous offensive threat. He is using his skill to draw the defense towards him as well as creating some space for him to take his shots as well. One player who really has been quiet the last few weeks, and tonight he had one assist was the team's captain Mikko Koivu who really has to be considered a let down at this point in the season. His four goals this season are either matched or surpassed by such Wild luminaries as Kyle Brodziak (who scored twice tonight), Cal Clutterbuck, Antti Miettinen, and John Madden. No offense to these guys but Koivu needs to be closer to 10 right now. Sure Koivu's collecting a cool $3.75 million per season, but next year when he's making $7.29 million we'll have to see if that creates a little more heat than what he's been receiving from the Twin Cities media. The Wild did manage to put 32 shots on goal, one of its better performances in that category and a big reason why they were able to score 4 goals tonight, Brodziak's first goal was a perfect example of what can happen when you just take a shot when the chance presents itself.
Wild Head Coach Todd Richards was clearly not pleased, "(Backstrom) wasn't sharp, but the players in front didn't help him, I liked our first period but again the game gets away from us and we make a few bad decisions and we give up 26 shots in the 2nd period and that's way too many opportunities." Hard to argue with that, but the team has yet to figure out what is the problem in the 2nd. Richards asked the $64 question to reporters when he noted Brodziak's 2nd period fight but asking why it was necessary for that to happen for the team to get its energy going again. Richards says the team's enigmatic play in the 2nd has caused him to question many of his basic coaching practices; even whether to praise a team after a good period whether that causes his team to relax. Unfortunately I know precisely how Richards feels as I've had teams that have had similar consistent mental struggles and there is no simple answer. If there was it would've been fixed a long time ago. However there is one thing that needs to be said. Richards did express to the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Michael Russo that perhaps it was a mistake to keep Backstrom in as long as he did allowing the game to really get out of hand against a goaltender that was really struggling all game long. Let's not make this more than it was, it certainly was not a Patrick Roy situation between then Habs coach Mario Tremblay back in the mid 1990's but I doubt Backstrom wanted to stay out as long as he did. Richards probably should have made the switch when the Avalanche had taken the lead 3-2 early in the 2nd period but instead he waited and Minnesota was blitzed for a few more goals and the rout was on. The team seems to have some well-earned confidence in Jose Theodore and perhaps a switch could have salvaged the Wild's chances in this game but now we will never know. Yet it certainly was a decision you can question.
The Wild will fly to Calgary tomorrow to play against the Flames who are coming off a 4-1 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
~ Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, Eric Nystrom, Martin Havlat, John Madden, Patrick O'Sullivan, Matt Cullen, Brad Staubitz, Robbie Earl, Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Schultz, Justin Falk, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker and Brent Burns. Jose Theodore shared duties between the pipes with Niklas Backstrom who had the start. Clayton Stoner was the lone healthy scratch. Guillaume Latendresse still recovering from surgeries to his groin and a sports hernia while Chuck Kobasew has left the team to deal with personal issues. Pierre-Marc Bouchard recently asked Wild assistant coach Dave Barr to practice him extra hard as he hopes to get his way back into the lineup.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Greg Mauldin, 2nd Star Kevin Shattenkirk, 3rd Star Milan Hejduk
~ Tonight's attendance at Pepsi Center was 18,007.
~ The Houston Aeros had a big night from youngster Jared Spurgeon who helped give the Wild's affiliate a hard fought 2-1 shootout victory over its old IHL rival Milwaukee Admirals at Toyota Center in Houston. The Aeros got out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Spurgeon who blasted home a point shot on a nice feed by Casey Wellman. The lead would hold until the 3rd period when the Admirals were able to light the lamp when Aaron Johnson intercepted a clearing attempt and fired a wrister that eluded Anton Khudobin. The game tied at 1-1 would go into overtime with no decision so it moved onto a shootout. The Aeros scored first when Casey Wellman found the back of net behind Mark Dekanich. Khudobin was rock solid, stonewalling the Admirals' first 3 shooters before Chris Mueller was finally able to solve him. The firery Russian goalie would be perfect down the stretch denying defenseman Roman Josi and Jonathan Blum down the stretch and this would give young defenseman Spurgeon the chance to be a hero and he did not disappoint burying the chance to seal an Aeros victory. Khudobin had 28 saves in the victory.