Author's Note: I would like to start out and offer a sincere apology to our readership. Due to a technical issue (an article formatting problem) that was my fault the State of Hockey News did not cover yesterday's game against the Atlanta Thrashers as it normally would. In my 4 1/2 seasons of writing about all things Wild hockey this is the first game that I have failed to cover and I offer my apology for the mishap. In a way though, that apology serves as a nice segue into a discussion about last night's game against the aforementioned Atlanta Thrashers. In what seemed to be a virtually empty Phillips Arena, the Minnesota Wild sleepwalked through most of the first two periods of the game until finally waking up in the 3rd. The Thrashers dominated the Wild in virtually every respect; they skated harder and battled more along the boards and won all of the races to the loose pucks while the Minnesota defense looked to have its skates mired in quicksand and a sub-par effort between the pipes by Niklas Backstrom who flopped around his crease more than a walleye does when I bring it into the boat. By the time the Wild really started to skate, hit, battle it was too late and they made Ondrej Pavelec look like an NHL All Star. While Minnesota managed to put up 30 shots, which was something it had not done in a while most of those shots came long after the game really had slipped away from them. So maybe in that respect, the Minnesota Wild owe us fans back in the State of Hockey and beyond a huge apology for such a paltry performance. Oddly enough, the one Wild player who seemed to show energy and gusto all game long was Antti Miettinen who was in his first game back after sitting 5-games with concussion-like symptoms. The only thing more sad than the Wild's performance last night was the attendance to the game. The official attendance reading was 10,055 and I know that had nothing to do with actual fans in attendance which was far below that figure; several thousand below by the near empty sections that were in plain view. So where do we go from here?
The Wild now take their crushed egos to Florida where they face a classic Jekyll & Hyde team in the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are very tough to read. There record is miserable, bottom of a much improved Southeast Division. However, when you look at them statistically in some ways they look like they will be an extremely difficult matchup for the Wild by being fairly high scoring and a with a great penalty kill on top of the fact they're one of the least penalized teams in the NHL, but when you get down to looking at individual matchups the Wild's chances greatly improve and one could argue Minnesota has superior talent from top to bottom. But as ESPN's Chris Berman always says, "That's why they play the games" as they aren't won just on how strong you look on paper. Yet its a team game, and Panther's Head Coach Peter DeBoer has his players buying into a hard working system that can neutralize deficiencies in terms of talent and skill and the Wild must be prepared to play their best or they could face a repeat of last night's 6-1 debacle. So which Wild team will show up; the one that surprised many by earning wins against the Sharks and Capitals or the team that got stomped last night in Atlanta?
The Wild tried to show more hustle from the drop of the puck, as they tried to get off to a better start than they had the previous evening. Florida would try to challenge the Wild with its first line of Stephen Weiss, Michael Frolik and big Shawn Matthias, together they put a lot of pressure on Minnesota as it had young promising blueliner Marco Scandella making his NHL debut. The Wild were chasing around its own zone, but Clayton Stoner was finally able to retrieve the puck and clear the zone. Minnesota struggled to make much happen in the Florida zone as they seemed to have a hard time with the Panthers' speed. The Wild finally managed to create a little trouble on the forecheck with its 4th line of Brad Staubitz, Cody Almond and Kyle Brodziak, as they manage to set up a chance for Staubitz near the crease that he chipped wide of the goal. The Panthers would go on the attack and through lots of persistence they'd find the back of the Wild net. Off an initial point shot by Dmitri Kulikov that was stopped by Jose Theodore, and the rebound would be moved around and Chris Higgins would chip a shot that was again stopped by the sprawling Wild goaltender but again a rebound was created and this time Higgins managed to lift a backhand shot by the flailing goalie to give Florida a 1-0 lead. The pain would not stop there, as just moments later the puck would be carried into the Wild zone by Rostislav Olesz who slid a backhand pass to a crashing Mike Santorelli who tapped a puck behind a stretching Theodore who had no chance to give the Panthers a 2-0 advantage. Perhaps sensing the game was already getting away from them, Wild Head Coach Todd Richards called a timeout to discuss things with his team. The Wild sowed a little more jump in their skates and Cal Clutterbuck tried to get his team going by entering the Florida zone, winding up and blasting a slap shot as Casey Wellman crashed the crease which sent his shadowing defenseman Dennis Wideman into the goal. Clutterbuck began to point to the official as though he had scored and on the review as Wideman interfered with Wellman's path to the puck, he put his glove over the puck which managed to trickle through the pads of Tomas Vokoun and was on its way to sliding into the goal and he'd push it out of harm's way. The play would be reviewed and despite all of the incriminating evidence the Wild did not earn an interference call or a penalty shot for Wideman's obvious closing of the hand over the puck. Sounds like the perfect case in point for the coaches' challenge that was vetoed down by the NHL's GM's after being proposed ironically by Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon. The Wild would go back out with a little bit of focus and anger in their game and their hustle would draw a holding penalty on Mike Weaver as he grappled with Wellman. On the power play the Wild struggled against an aggressive and challenging Panthers' penalty kill, most notably the strong forechecking pressure of Chris Higgins who nearly scored shorthanded after dangling around Matt Cullen but was bailed out by two fine saves by Theodore. The Wild would finally get established into the Panthers' zone but then the player movement stopped so all Cam Barker could do was try to move a little to get an open shooting lane. A few minutes later the Wild would get a little lucky as Steve Bernier lost track of where he was and he knocked down Jose Theodore for an easy goaltender interference penalty. Minnesota again struggled to get set up as the Panthers challenged well through the neutral zone, but the Wild showed good persistence. Minnesota nearly connected on a nice little tic-tac-toe play to Casey Wellman who pulled the trigger on a one timer that was snagged out of the air by a nice glove save by Vokoun. The Wild continued to work and they won the faceoff, drawing it back to Nick Schultz who took his time and blistered a slapper that Vokoun stopped but Clutterbuck was waiting right at the top of the crease to tap home the rebound to cut the lead in half, 2-1 on the power play tally. Minnesota's Clayton Stoner would take a lazy tripping penalty late in the period to give the Panthers a nearly full power play to start the 2nd but the Wild had to feel a little fortunate to just be down by one, after being outshot 13 to 8.
The Panthers would start the 2nd with nearly a full power play to work with but Minnesota's penalty killers were solid early, even managing to create a few shorthanded chances as John Madden carried the puck into the offensive zone with speed where he flung a shot on goal that Vokoun coverd for a whistle. Minnesota would show some good effort along the boards and when the Panthers tried to work the puck out towards the Minnesota crease, David Booth had the puck poke checked away from him after a nice effort by Brent Burns. The Wild got the big early kill, but just as the power play ended, Florida had a great scoring chance as Shawn Matthias was stonewalled by a great close-in save by Theodore. The Panthers were really applying some serious pressure near the Wild rease as Steve Bernier and Higgins took the puck to the Wild crease where Theodore used his stick to make another big save early in the period. Florida continued to dominate time of possession as they seemed to be on a constant power play moving with relative impunity as a very tired Wild 4th line tried to defend against the speedy Panthers forwards. The Panthers would have another fine scoring chance as Bryan Allen stepped into a slapper that was fought off by Theodore as he had a puck bearing down on his head being just able to block the puck out of harm's way. A few minutes later Florida had a 3-on-2 chance that ultimately ended up on the stick of Frolik in the high slot and his wrister would be deflected up and over the goal by the stick of Theodore. Minnesota would counter attack as Wellman dumped the puck deep down to Cullen who dished it off to Clutterbuck who skated down low behind the Florida goal before threading a pass to Wellman who fanned on a shot that weakly made its way to Vokoun for an easy save. Florida would go back on the offensive, again working hard near the Minnesota crease drawing a cross checking penalty on Greg Zanon. On the penalty kill the Wild got terrific work from John Madden and Matt Cullen who kept the Panthers to the perimeter, and even managing to create a little offensive pressure shorthanded that was enough to frustrate the Florida power play. As the power play was killed off, the Wild would gon a 2-on-1 between Koivu and Zanon and it was the Wild captain setting up Zanon for a quick shot that skittered just wide of the mark. Florida wasted little itme going back on the attack and Theodore again found himself under siege and predictably Wild ended up back on the kill as Stoner earned a holding penalty. The Wild's penalty killers were aggressive, challenging Florida well and showing great hustle in races for the puck and causing the Panthers plenty of angst as Minnesota would force another opposing man advantage to accomplis nothing. The Panthers were certainly doing everything they can to get the puck into Scandella's posession as he was a turnover machine and this would in turn force Theodore to come up with some more big saves. Minnesota struggled to find much open space in the Florida zone and simply was not able to create much other than a few shots from long range and sort of like the 1st period the Wild had to feel lucky to still only be trailing by one going into the 3rd.
The Wild tried to start the 3rd by initiating the offense as the top line went to work with some hustle along the boards where Brent Burns unloaded a slapper that did not miss by much as Andrew Brunette attempted a screen of Tomas Vokoun. Moments later, Matt Cullen would showcase his skill with a pretty spin-a-rama move around Florida's Keaton Ellerby before lifting a backhander that was steered aside by Vokoun. As if on cue, Florida would dump the puck deep and chase it and this strategy was effective as Minnesota's blueliners struggled to retrieve the biscuit and this would draw a hooking penalty on Cam Barker. Minnesota's penalty kill was again strong, but this time Florida would have a great opportunity as they nearly cashed in as Chris Higgins rang a shot off the post over a sprawling Jose Theodore. The Wild would draw a penalty of their own as Eric Nystrom was hit up high and from behind by Steve Bernier who did not think he deserved a boarding penalty. On the power play Minnesota tried a few quick bang-bang plays as Casey Wellman nearly was able to redirect a pass by Martin Havlat but he pushed his shot just wide of the mark. The Wild would come up empty on the power play and Minnesota would continue to press the attack as Cullen nearly was able to redirect a Wellman shot by Vokoun who blocked it to the corner. One of the best opportunities for the Wild happened a few minutes later as a terrible turnover in the Florida zone by Dmiti Kulikov early turned into a great scoring chance for Martin Havlat but he'd cough up the puck as he headed towards the slot and would not even register a shot on goal. The Florida Panthers were counterpunching pretty well against the Wild who were pinching and making long outlet passes and that nearly came back to bite them as Michael Frolik found some space in the Minnesota zone and he'd lift a shot that just went up and over the goal. Late in the game the Wild clearly were running out of gas, and just didn't have the legs to get away from the Panthers forecheck. It was painful to watch as the Panthers bottled up the Wild in the zone as all they could do was glide after the hard charging Florida squad. Frolik would hammer a slapper that was gloved out of the air by a pretty save by Theodore who earned a congratulatory pat on the head by Florida's Cory Stillman. Even when the Wild did have a little jump they seemed to hesitate and quickly lose the time and space they may have had. Minnesota would draw a whistle in the Panthers zone as Antti Miettinen blasted a slapper that was gloved by Vokoun but unfortunately the Wild were unable to win the ensuing draw. With just over a minute left the Wild pulled Jose Theodore for an extra attacker. It didn't seem to matter much as Minnesota just didn't have the speed to win the races to the loose pucks and the best chance came off a point shot from Cam Barker that was deflected that had Vokoun beat but it still missed wide. The Wild just couldn't make it happen and they'd fall 2-1. At the end of the game there was a little controversy as Burns fired a shot late that the Panthers did not like and he was confronted by Steve Bernier. Burns would get the knob of his stick into the face of Bernier and the former Canuck collapsed to the ice while his teammates moved in to defend their comrade and the officials were quick to prevent this from becoming an all out brawl. This may seem like speculation but I think Burns could see a suspension (a game or two at the most), especially if Bernier is hurt badly.
You certainly could not blame Jose Theodore for the outcome, as he made 25 saves in the loss. He kept Minnesota in the game at many points when it never should have been. Defensively he was at times victimized by lazy play or just inexperience as Marco Scandella looked like a deer in headlights most of the game. Florida took full advantage of Scandella's debut by dumping the puck towards him and forcing the youngster to make plays under duress. I thought Clayton Stoner had a relatively decent game, was physical and made smart plays with the puck. The rest of the Wild's defense was just average at best. On the penalty kill the Wild tired themselves out in the 2nd period so they just didn't have the legs to press the way they needed to offensively in the 3rd.
Offensively I'd be giving Allan Walsh a call and asking him where this "elite" player is, and of course I am talking about Martin Havlat whose choke job late really cost Minnesota a golden opportunity late in the game. The Wild may take issue with the controversial "hand on the puck" in the first period which could've been a crucial goal if Wideman doesn't make the stop. Minnesota really struggled to create quality scoring chances late, and unfortunately the Wild's key offensive cogs do not seem to have a lot of variety to their style. If Casey Wellman really wants to help the Wild here's my simple piece of advice, shoot the puck. Stop worrying about creating chances for others, shoot and let them pounce on your rebounds. Dancing around and passing up shooting opportunities when you're down a goal was another reason the Wild came up short in this game. He wasn't the only player guilty of this; even veterans like John Madden passed up great opportunities to shoot to instead try a low probability pass. There is a reason Cal Clutterbuck has been involved in the scoring, he isn't afraid to take shots when he has the chance. This team needs to just put as many pucks as it can on goal. Tomas Vokoun really was not tested all that often down the stretch and you may chalk that up to fatigue but passive play didn't help either.
Minnesota really needs to find a way to win Sunday against the Lightning after dropping two games to Florida and Atlanta respectively. I think if anything out of these last two games is the team's lack of speed is becoming more apparent. The Wild just doesn't seem to have that extra step of quickness to win the races to the puck or to put the opponent on their heels. Dumping the puck or chipping it in is more of a practice in turnovers than it is a way for the team to apply forechecking pressure. A classic example is Eric Nystrom who was brought here to be a forechecker, and he just doesn't seem to have the wheels to get to the pucks. If you can't get there, what use are you? He certainly isn't making up for it by helping out offensively or even defensively. He's been a major disappointment thus far. Tonight's effort was certainly better than what it had on Thursday but at the end of the day it was another missed opportunity at two points against a team outside of our division. Wild Head Coach Todd Richards was fairly blunt when he stated, "They were dumping the puck in and getting on the forecheck and we were turning pucks over and it was ending up in our net" and he credited the Panthers' skating as a big reason his team was on the defensive most of the night. Whether its what Richards was saying about his "big dogs being ready to play" or not, the team has to show up and play better than it did tonight if it expects to beat anyone let alone the Panthers or its next opponent, the Lightning.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, Matt Cullen, Martin Havlat, Casey Wellman, Cal Clutterbuck, Brad Staubitz, John Madden, Cody Almond, Kyle Brodziak, Eric Nystrom, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker and Marco Scandella. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Justin Falk was the lone healthy scratch while Guillaume Latendresse, Chuck Kobasew nursed groin injuries and Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still trying to comeback from a concussion he recieved a year ago.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Mike Santorelli, 2nd Star Chris Higgins, 3rd Star Dennis Wideman
~ Attendance for tonight's game was 15,043 at the Bank Atlantic Center.
Houston Aeros Report:
2010-11 Record: (6-5-1-2) 15pts 5th in AHL's West Division
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #17 Robbie Earl ~ 4G 5A = 9pts
2. #62 Jean-Michel Daoust ~ 3G 5A = 8pts
3. #19 Jarod Palmer ~ 2G 6A = 8pts
4. #6 Marco Scandella ~ 1G 7A = 8pts
5. #27 Carson McMillan ~ 3G 3A = 6pts
Top 3 PIM's:
1. #42 Matt Kassian ~ 32 PIM's
2. #12 Cody Almond ~ 32 PIM's
3. #29 Drew Bagnall ~ 31 PIM's
1. #30 Anton Khudobin (4-3-1) 1.96GAA .940%SP
2. #31 Matthew Hackett (2-3-1) 3.09GAA .903%SP
It has been an up and down season for the Aeros thus far. A rough start was followed up by a nice 4-game winning streak only to be tempered by a hard-fought 3-2 shootout loss to the Abbotsford Heat on Monday. In that game, the Aeros had a 2-1 lead going into the final minute before Flames prospect forward Greg Nemisz found the back of the net to tie the game and then Houston came up empty in the shootout to fall in a heartbreaker. The Aeros are currently sitting in 5th in an always tough West Division and it will be interesting to see if Head Coach Mike Yeo and his team can pull together another win streak like they had the previous week. As was the case last season, scoring is hard to come by and while new players like Jarod Palmer and 2nd year pro Carson McMillan have had surprisingly good starts the team still is in search of a true offensive workhorse. Scoring by committee works some of the time, but its hardly consistent enough to really challenge some of the West's better teams over the long haul of a season. The Aeros really need some of their veteran talent to step up their games, as Jean-Michel Daoust, Warren Peters, Jon DiSalvatore, Peter Kalus and Robbie Earl are helping out a little but they must realize that if they want to make it to the big show (whether with the Wild or someone else) a good impression in the AHL is likely in order to get that shot.
Two of the bright spots for the Aeros has been the nicely spread offensive production from its blueline which hosts a bunch of new faces. Youngsters Nate Prosser and especially Marco Scandella have gone a long way to help out last year's scoring workhorse Maxim Noreau from feeling all of the weight on his shoulders. The other bright spot has been the play between the pipes from Anton Khudobin. Khudobin who seems committed to his NHL dreams as well as being able to dominate at each level he competes at is off to a tremendous start posting a very stingy goals against underneath two goals per game and a gawdy save percentage of .940. Rookie pro Matthew Hackett is learning the pro ropes by learning under fire and knowing he will not have a lot of goal support but his numbers are reasonable for that transition from junior. The Aeros await a back-to-back away tilt against the Peoria Rivermen starting Saturday and ending on Sunday afternoon.