The Wild come into tonight's game in a pretty good mood after showing great resiliency in a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime road victory over the Detroit Red Wings. No one will accuse Minnesota of playing pretty hockey, but they certainly are playing smart, responsible hockey and while that may not mesh with "high speed up-tempo" game that fans were promised two years ago but it has been winning games (knock on wood) and at the end of the day that's what really counts. So how will Wild fans and players welcome their former teammates? Will they welcome them with a loss or will the good feelings from last night cloud their effort and squander an opportunity to gain another two points in the standings?
Minnesota looked assertive to start the game although so was Gaborik as he delivered an early hit to Greg Zanon to start the game. The Wild counter attacked and Matt Cullen fired a snap shot that was blocked aside by Martin Biron. A few moments later there was a serenade of boo's as Boogaard tried to run Marco Scandella. Gaborik was also taking his chances to get involved as he recieved a long outlet pass and found some space and his wrister was directed wide by the leg of Niklas Backstrom. Minnesota was moving very well, and a dump in would carom off of a linesman and go right to Martin Havlat who turned and took the puck out of the offensive zone before finding Cam Barker with a pass and he skated in and blasted a slapper that was deflected wide to the right and the puck would climb off the boards and the puck would flutter back down to the ice where Cullen tapped a shot wide of the mark. Minnesota was moving very well, winning many of the races to the loose puck and they were creating havoc with all of its lines as Robbie Earl tried to take advantage of a screen by Brad Stauibitz but Biron would somehow find the puck and hold on for the save. New York would rally back, and they had a tremendous opportunity themselves as Marc Staal ripped a wrist shot that was knocked down by Backstrom and as Rangers and Wild players tried jamming at the puck with Frolov throwing another wrister on goal against a sprawling Wild goaltender and somehow he was able to make the save. A few moments later the Rangers tried to use some of its big bodies to create some offense and it was working as it drew an interference penalty on Marek Zidlicky. On the power play, the Rangers struggled as Minnesota's passive pressure worked well to muck up play along the boards and they were able to repeatedly clear the zone without too much difficulty. New York tried to dump the puck in, but the Wild were retreating well and then chipping it out of the offensive zone and Minnesota got the early kill. The Rangers would try to turn the tables on the Wild with a solid forecheck of its own, but it was perhaps a little too aggressive as Ruslan Fedotenko was called for tripping Scandella giving Minnesota its 1st power play. The Wild were moving well as they moved the puck quickly from Koivu to Andrew Brunette back to Cullen who stepped into a slapper that was gloved by Biron. Minnesota was still fairly content to just create opportunities from the point. The Wild's power play really started to work the cross-ice passes, stretching out the Rangers' penalty kill setting up a great back door play to Zidlicky who one-timed a snap shot that was denied by Biron. Moments after the failed Wild power play, Gaborik tried to mount a rush with a chorus of boo's in the background only to be stood up and knocked down by a nice forearm by Cam Barker that was celebrated with cheers. Robbie Earl and the 4th line was being its pesky self and Earl would steal an attempted clear by Biron but unfortunately he was unable to turn that turnover into a scoring chance. Both teams would trade a few ineffective rushes and the period would end with both teams tied at 0-0 going into the 2nd period.
Minnesota would have a tremendous scoring chance to start the game as a misplay of the puck by Marc Staal turned into a 2-on-1 for Havlat and Nystrom. As Havlat carried it into the zone, the Rangers' Dan Girardi dropped to the ice to try to disrupt a cross ice pass and Havlat's pass was off the mark to the frustration of the crowd. A few moments later, Marco Scandella would make a nice defensive play shutting down Frolov and Minnesota would go on the counter attack but again were unable to generate a shot on goal. The Wild's 4th line continued to do good work as forced a turnover from the Rangers' Steve Eminger which worked its way to Robbie Earl who fired a quick snap shot that was snatched out of the air by Biron. Minnesota would get into trouble as Martin Havlat woudl high stick Ryan Callahan in the face as he attempted to lift his stick for an obvious penalty. Minnesota would go on the attack despite being a man down as Brent Burns went on a one-man rush as he fired a backhander wide of the goal. The Rangers power play was able to get set up and they had a few quality chances including a flurry near the net where Gaborik had a few shots at point-blank range that Backstrom denied before reaching out to cover up. Minnesota would get the kill, and the pace of the game would slow down a bit. The Wild tried to create some offense as Barker blasted a shot from the point that was absorbed by Biron. The 2nd line of Havlat, Madden and Nystrom continued to apply pressure in the Rangers' zone as Madden flung a shot on goal and Biron would deny a close range chance by Nystrom. The Rangers would start to assert themselves physically, as Derek Boogaard ran Robbie Earl causing the Wild to get disrupted in its own zone leading to a Matt Gilroy shot that yielded a big rebound and Artem Anisimov buried the rebound to put New York up 1-0. The goal seemed to take the wind out of the Wild's sails as they struggled to execute in the offensive zone. It would not get much better for the Wild as Brent Burns earned a marginal tripping penalty when he swept by New York's Erik Christensen giving the Rangers another power play. New York would race into the zone as Marian Gaborik carried it in and found Michael Del Zotto with nice pass and the skilled defenseman patiently waited as Backstrom laid out to make the stop and he lifted a wrister into the near open net to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead to a huge chorus of boo's still annoyed at what they felt was a weak penalty. The Wild seemed to be in a haze and the Rangers nearly added to its lead a a few minutes later after some hard work by Brandon Prust down low behind the Minnesota goal before dishing it back to Ruslan Fedotenko in the slot who rang a shot off the pipe. Yet it would not be long before the Rangers found the back of the net as a faceoff win in the Wild zone was pushed back out to Girardi who fired a slapper wide of the goal that was gathered up by Alexander Frolov who quickly stuffed home a wrap around to put New York up 3-0. However bad luck for the Wild seemed to get even worse as Hastings, Minnesota-native Derek Stepan found some space behind the Minnesota defense and he'd race in all alone on the breakaway but Backstrom shut him down. In the very next shift, Mikko Koivu would flip a puck into the crowd giving the Rangers another power play. Minnesota would earn a small level of reprieve when Brandon Dubinsky inadvertently ran over Niklas Backstrom for an easy goaltender interference call to make it 4-on-4 and the period would end a few seconds later with a few boo's cascading down towards the Wild as they now trailed 3-0 going into the 3rd.
The 3rd period would start with both teams 4-on-4 for nearl a minute and a half. The Wild were looking to press the attack right away as put out a line of Madden, Havlat, Zidlicky and Zanon and it was Havlat's pass to a sneaking Zidlicky that failed to click. Minnesota would finally find some space as Cal Clutterbuck raced in and unloaded a slap shot that Biron got enough of to directed it aside. The Wild had a brief power play where they set up Andrew Brunette near the crease but his forehand chance was easily blocked aside by Biron. You could sense the level of urgency out of the Wild as they were taking every opportunity to mount a rush. The aggressive Wild attack would give the Rangers some chances to counter attack and after a failed rush the Rangers created a 2-on-1 and Backstrom would make a fine save on Stepan. Moments later, another failed Wild pinch turned into offense for the Rangers as Brandon Dubinsky raced in on a breakaway who made a nice little deke before sliding a forehand underneath the outstretched leg pad of Backstrom to put New York up 4-0. The goal only made the need for the Wild to score that much greater so they continued to take every opportunity to try to go on the attack. The Rangers were playing patient hockey, but Minnesota would get lucky as Eminger got a high stick into the face of Nystrom giving the Wild a much-needed power play. The Rangers were denying space and time and using their sticks well to take away passing and shooting lanes. However when Minnesota was able to get possession they were trying cross-ice passes but the Rangers were disrupting those passes very effectively and the Wild were not able to create much offensive pressure at all. Minnesota tried to ratchet up their physical game but they were always a half step to slow to turn their hits into turnovers. New York was content to dump the puck deep and change forcing the Wild to carry the puck up the full length of the ice. Clutterbuck was throwing his body around as he rocked Gilroy with a big hit. Zidlicky would take a lazy hooking penalty. On the penalty kill, perhaps showing a little bit of frustration, Brent Burns levled Ryan Callahan with a big hit, but Minnesota was hustling well and a great play by Kyle Brodziak to avoid an attempted hip check by Del Zotto allowed him to set up Cullen for a nice tap in shorthanded goal to cut the Rngers lead to three, 4-1. The Wild were still aggressive on the penalty kill as they were looking for opportunities to create turnovers but their aggressiveness would be used against them as the Rangers got the Wild moving and then working against the grain back to Fedotenko who buried a chance just as the power play expired to give New York a 5-1 lead. Minnesota tried to go back on the attack and Robbie Earl won a race for a loose puck and push it to Brodziak who dished into the slot where Martin Havlat tried to fire a shot through the 5-hole but it would be shut down by Biron. Minnesota would continue to press and after winning a draw in the Rangers' zone Martin Havlat would take the puck and turn towards the net and fire it and it snuck in behind the shoulder of Biron to make it a 5-2 New York lead. The Wild were still attacking and a long range wrister by Havlat created a rebound that Nystrom pounced upon that had Biron on his back and the puck was lying in the crease as Zidlicky tried to jam it home but Biron was able to snow angel to make the stop. About a minute later the Wild continued to work hard in the offensive zone and they were able to draw a high sticking call on Del Zotto giving Minnesota a crucial power play. Minnesota's Head Coach Todd Richards would take a timeout to discuss this big man advantage with his team while the Rangers bench boss John Tortorella took his opportunity to complain to the official about the call on Del Zotto. The Rangers penalty kill challenged well in the neutral zone making it very difficult for the Wild to get set up. With about a minute left, the Wild pulled Niklas Backstrom for an extra attacker but all they could manage was a few long range shots that never even reached Biron and Minnesota would fall 5-2.
Niklas Backstrom was 'ok' making 25 saves in the loss. The goals he gave up were quality chances and he kept Minnesota in the game until midway through the 2nd period. At that point the Wild stopped moving its feet and began to give up the odd-man chances that haunted Backstrom last season. Defensively the Wild struggled when the Rangers got physical in their own zone and that seemed to get Minnesota out of its game and they were able to generate scoring chances. The more physical the Rangers were, the less likely the Wild's defense was able to sweep away the rebounds and these were what New York pounced upon to more or less beat Minnesota in the 2nd period where they were outshot 14 to 4.
Offensively the Wild had too little too late and I am not sure why but they struggle to do much of anything in the 2nd period of games. This really puts a ton of pressure on the Wild's defense and goaltending to preserve a chance to win the game. The Wild you could say had only themselves to blame. Martin Havlat especially was passing up opportunities to shoot the puck and yes I know how annoying it is to hear fans yell "shoooot!" constantly all game but this team needs to put more shots on goal. At the very least to keep teams honest defensively. Havlat's goal was due in part to perhaps surprise over the fact he decided to actually shoot the puck , and he will find out his teammates will be more open if he takes his opportunities to shoot when he has them. Another player who needs to get more involved offensively is Mikko Koivu. Koivu must make himself a factor offensively and could stand to be a bit more greedy with the puck and take his chances to fire it on net.
Part of what made this game frustrating is the strong way it started the game and then it seemed to just relax in the 2nd period. In the 1st the Wild were forechecking well and winning battles for the loose pucks. The 4th line of Brad Staubitz, Kyle Brodziak and Robbie Earl had some great shifts where they gave the Rangers some problems. I am not saying this was the worst game the team played but they waited until the 3rd period to finally show some urgency and by then it was far too late. The late 3rd period rally was nice but it made you ask yourself, where was that in the 2nd period? Certainly the Wild will have to do some soul searching for the answer to that question before their next game against Philadelphia (at home) on Wednesday.
Before I set up the Philadelphia game anymore, I have to mention the bizarre broadcast I witnessed as part of NHL Center Ice. I watched the New York Rangers' MSG Network feed tonight, and it must be a bargain basement version of it as instead of cutting away to New York during intermission or other stoppages for commercials you stayed at the game as the camera panned about the arena randomly as you heard MSG broadcasters talk with the producers. From hearing Rosen and Michelletti talking through the national anthem as they tried to get their headphones / microphones configured correctly. It was hilarious to hear the off-color comments by MSG broadcasters Sam Rosen, Minnesota-native Joe Micheletti and in game reporter John Giannone while they thought they were not 'on the aire.' The best comment of the night was delivered by Giannone who was commenting on the ice time of Marian Gaborik who as of during the 2nd intermission led all Rangers forwards in ice time at 13:24, where Giannone opined, "wow, Gaborik has 13:24 of ice time, he's playing well tonight, like he cares." It was priceless and so true.
The Wild will have a tough one on Wednesday when the Flyers come to town. The Flyers are a strong, physical team that Minnesota typically struggles agains and they have a lot of different weapons they can beat you with. Minnesota cannot afford to just coast one period if they expect to beat one of the better teams in the league like the Flyers are. Minnesota must find a way to give that 60-minute effort but still defensively responsible as it has during the last 10 games or so. Back to back's are not easy to win, but they can't complain as the Rangers were coming off a back to back of their own. No excuses, they have to be better.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Brad Staubitz, John Madden, Kyle Brodziak, Casey Wellman, Robbie Earl, Nick Schultz, Cam Barker, Marco Scandella, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns. Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom. Clayton Stoner was the lone healthy scratch, while Guillaume Latendresse and Chuck Kobasew were out of the lineup with groin injuries. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, allegedly close to returning to the team for a full month now is still out of the lineup as he hopes to get himself completely over his post-concussion symptoms.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let's Play Hockey were: 1st Star Dan Girardi, 2nd Star Marc Staal, 3rd Star Brent Burns
~ Attendance for tonight's game was 18,695 which marks the first sellout since the season opener.
~ The Wild's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros also fell this evening by a score of 5-2 against rival Chicago who currently sits in last place in the West. After going scoreless in the 1st period, the Wolves beat Anton Khudobin for 3 goals in quick succession before Head Coach Mike Yeo tried to change things up by going to former Mississauga Ice Dogs (a former teammate of Wild draft pick Patrick O'Sullivan) Michael Ouzas. Ouzas did not fare much better giving up a power play goal to Chicago's Nigel Dawes. The Wolves would add one more in the 3rd period as AHL scoring machine Jason Krog notched just his 3rd goal of the season to give Chicago a commanding 5-0 lead. The Aeros would try to rally back much the same way the Wild did late in the game and managed to beat former Denver Pioneer netminder Peter Mannino twice as Colton Gillies and Peter Kalus found the back of the net. Ouzas stopped 13 of 15 shots he faced while Khudobin earned the loss after giving up 3 goals on just 9 shots.
~ I was recently listening to a broadcast of a Kelowna Rockets game, where Wild scout Paul Charles talked about Brett Bulmer who said he was pleased with the improvement in consistency of the budding power forward from the first time they visited him after sending him back to junior from the team's training camp. He explained why the team really felt strongly they should move up to draft Bulmer who has a lot of tools they wanted for the Wild, to quote Charles, "he had a lot of things we really need in Minnesota" describing Bulmer as a 'nasty guy on the ice.'
Wild Prospect Report:
LW - Jason Zucker ~ Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
2010-11 Stats: 14GP 9G 4A = 13pts 24 PIM's
In a recent issue, the Hockey News mentioned some of the top freshman in NCAA hockey this season but one that was omitted was left winger Jason Zucker. Zucker has been an offensive force for the Pioneers thus far this season, currently 2nd on the team in points and tied for the lead in goals. The Las Vegas-trained player possesses a lot of speed and plays a high energy game very reminiscent of Cal Clutterbuck as he loves to throw his smallish frame around delivering hits with great frequency. After spending last season with the U.S. National Development Program where he was more of a secondary scoring option, few probably thought Zucker was going to be such a key offensive contributor so early into his collegiate career. Like Clutterbuck, Zucker's speed allows him to play a solid two-way game and in his most recent game Zucker added a goal and an assist in a 3-1 Denver win over WCHA newcomer Bemidji State.
G - Darcy Kuemper ~ Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
2010-11 Stats: 21GP 15W-4L-1OTL 1.79GAA .933%SP 3SO
Darcy Kuemper continues to play great for the Red Deer, and no doubt Wild management have to be extremely happy with his play this season. The Rebels have improved in front of him, but he has been simply the best goaltender in the WHL this season. The big 6'4", 205lbs frame covers a lot of net on his own and he is your prototypical NHL netminder with size and decent athleticism. The Rebels have sent Bolton Pouliot, Kuemper's backup back down to Jr.A and added another goaltender but they're going to spend most of their time just opening the door to the bench as the Wild prospect will be taking care most of the responsibilities. It will be interesting to see if Keumper can keep up this high level of play for the rest of the season.