The Chinese symbol for misfortune is also the symbol for opportunity. Right now, former Wild 2nd round draft pick Patrick O'Sullivan it would be leaning on misfortune as he was waived by Minnesota where no one in the league claimed him. Having cleared waivers O'Sullivan chose to join Minnesota's American Hockey League affiliate in Houston. No doubt getting placed on waivers twice in a season has to be a definite shot to the ego, but it also brings into question whether O'Sullivan has much of an NHL career. The once promising prospect who scored 47 goals for the Houston Aeros back in 2005-06, and then had a great first full year in the league scoring 22 goals and 53 points with the Los Angeles Kings after he had been dealt in the Pavol Demitra trade. In fact, it was O'Sullivan's apparent potential that had some Wild fans worried that the trade may have cost Minnesota a future star-level talent. Obviously that did not happen, as O'Sullivan's welcome in Los Angeles turned sour and he was traded to a struggling Edmonton team. The Oilers, who were a team looking for any kind of hope which made for a great chance for O'Sullivan to impress instead was another disappointment. Some of the Oilers fans called him the unflattering nickname of "ghost" for the infrequent times you actually noticed him on the ice. The Oilers shipped O'Sullivan to Phoenix who immediately bought him out and then he ended up with the Carolina Hurricanes where he signed a 2-way contract which was another team in desperate need for some talent and a little experience but he was a consistent healthy scratch so they placed him on waivers and he was picked up by the Wild. I have to agree with Minneapolis Star Tribune's Michael Russo that his days in the NHL may be over. This wasn't a player who couldn't stick on the Detroit Red Wings or the Vancouver Canucks, this is a player who has failed to stick with teams who are looking for skill, scoring and something positive they can work with and while he had a goal and 7 points in 21 games he did not take nearly enough opportunities to shoot the puck and it was his failure to be a finisher that forced the team's hand to place him on waivers. Yet its tough to argue with the Wild's decision as O'Sullivan appears to be the same player I saw play during that outstanding year in Houston where he stayed on the periphery of plays and cherry picked. That unwillingness to get your nose dirty can be forgiven if you're finishing your offensive chances and he wasn't so in the big picture the Wild wasn't getting that much so they felt justified in placing him on waivers. The Wild were desperate for a jolt of offense and with Pierre-Marc Bouchard as well as last year's leading scorer Guillaume Latendresse out of the lineup long-term they felt O'Sullivan just might be able to provide that. The opportunity was there and now its gone.
Tonight's game is a similar situation for the Wild. Minnesota is coming off 2 straight losses after having a 4-game winning streak. It has been the team's modus operendi to take steps back for everyone they take forward and Wild fans are cautiously pessimistic that could happen again as the Colorado Avalanche come to town tonight and the much-hated Vancouver Canucks on Sunday. Minnesota will soon be back on the road after this 2-game homestand so will the Wild be the symbol of misfortune or of opportunity?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Wild had good energy and hustle throughout most of the period, but there is a clear difference between the two clubs ability to skate. Minnesota has only a few players that can really fly, while the Avalanche has a plethora of terrific skaters and it made a big difference on the first goal. A strange bounce off the glass, and add into a rookie defenseman (Scandella) getting caught a little too far up ice and you have an uncontested breakaway for Kevin Porter and he beats Anton Khudobin to put Minnesota behind the 8-ball early. Minnesota didn't give up, they really started to pour it on and they were able to create some of its best pressure at even strength that we've seen all season. Lots of great passing and puck possession setting up a few terrific chances but when the team needed to finish it couldn't bury the biscuit. Kyle Brodziak looked as though he had Craig Anderson beat but he shot it wide of the mark. Marco Scandella would tee up a slapper that struck the right post. However to stay with the theme about opportunity, the missed chances by the Wild would be repaid with another Avalanche goal late in the period. The Wild battled well throughout most of the power play, but the puck would move down towards Milan Hejduk who took his chances with not a lot of net to look at but he found it and the goal really deflated the crowd and the team. Minnesota had one last great shift by its 3rd line where Eric Nystrom lit up Ryan O'Byrne on a big hit and the Wild created some havoc late but still had to feel it deserved better than to be down 2-0 despite outshooting Colorado 9 to 7. Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Chuck Kobasew and Kyle Brodziak had great jump through the first period. Defensively I thought Clayton Stoner had a good period, playing physical and poised in the defensive zone. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen looked to be the Wild's best scoring threat early in this game.
2nd Period Thoughts: The feeling of initiative the team had in the 1st period left it in the 2nd period. The Wild were too passive and trying to be too fancy with the puck. After the scary moment of watching Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly losing an edge and careening into the boards, where he would be taken off the ice on a stretcher. Perhaps O'Reilly's injury served to deflate the Wild (who were on a power play at the time) who struggled to create much more than a few token shots form the perimeter. Minnesota would even be fortunate enough to extend their power play when Adam Foote would be tagged with a roughing minor. However with the extra time the Wild were far too relaxed and most of their power play was thwarted with simple puck pressure that made Minnesota struggle to even carry the puck past the red line let alone operate in the Avalanche zone. You could hear the boo birds start up towards the tail end of the power play as it resembled Keystone Cops as Wild defenseman were nearly bumping into one another as they attempted to bring the puck up through the neutral zone. The Wild were also unlucky in the few instances it decided to pull the trigger as Cal Clutterbuck (who had been invisible to this point) rifled a slapper that rang off the pipe. Minnesota would start to turn on the pressure a bit, who clearly were trying to put shots up high on Anderson but few that could be called a quality chance. Minnesota's lucky would take a turn for the worse when Tomas Fleischmann dumped a puck on goal that skittered along the ice that beat Khudobin to give the Avalanche a 3-0 lead as the Russian goalie held his head in shame. The boos would be heard again in the closing seconds late in the game as the Wild left the ice trailing by 3. Everyone on the team was floating around and no one was really looking to shoot. Not a good effort in a frustrating period where the Wild really needed to start clawing its way back into the game.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota had a good start, hustling well with the top line providing some offensive pressure early as the Avalanche were content to just let the Wild operate in their zone. Koivu, Brunette were setting up Miettinen who was struggling to connect on some great set ups but the line was persistent and the Wild captain drew a tripping penalty on Paul Stastny. On the power play Minnesota moved the puck very well setting up some shots on goal but couldn't solve Anderson. Just after the power play expired, the Wild finally got on the scoreboard on a real pretty play by Mikko Koivu behind the Avalanche goal where he faked out the Colorado defense with a spin-a-rama pass to Brunette who shoveled it home. The Wild tried to add to the goal but Colorado would step up its defensive play and they were able to thwart many of Minnesota's attempts to enter the Avalanche zone with speed. Minnesota had some good opportunities late, most notably a few nice plays by Eric Nystrom that created some opportunities for Brodziak and Clutterbuck respectively that just couldn't put find the back of the goal. The Wild would pull Khudobin for an extra attacker but bad luck continued to find Minnesota as Ryan Wilson chipped a puck out of the zone off the boards and the puck would find its way into the empty net to give the Avs a 4-1 win. I like the effort Minnesota had in the 3rd period but where was that in the 2nd period? Martin Havlat was almost completely invisible until last few minutes of the 3rd period where he attempted to dangle but like Marian Gaborik from the past the Avalanche recognized when Havlat had the puck the easiest way to stop him is to simply just stand him up and sweep it away from him. Nystrom was again a physical force throughout the period, throwing his body around and using his frame to protect the puck and take it to the crease.
The game was frustrating in many ways. Minnesota was far too passive and their is no excuse for the team to relax the way it did in the 2nd period. The 2nd period has been a struggle all season long for the Wild, and for whatever reason they lack intensity and a sense of urgency and while the game-winning goal for Colorado was not scored in that period the team wasted valuable time. The Wild's woes at home continue and the team must attempt to take advantage of the home crowd. Wild fans want to stand and cheer for this team but that intensity must be rewarded. They want to see a team that is challenging, battling all over the ice and intense from start to finish and all to often this year the team takes periods off; especially the 2nd period. The team had plenty of rest, there is no excuse for being unable to put together a 60-minute effort against a division rival who sits just above them in the standings. How much more incentive does the team need?
I have little doubt some fans will criticize the play of Anton Khudobin and claim that he sabotaged the team's chances to win. They'll point to the fact Khudobin allowed 3 goals on 17 shots, but I still don't buy it. With the exception of the bouncing puck, the two goals scored on him in the 1st period were on real quality shots by Kevin Porter and Milan Hejduk. Hejduk had almost nothing to shoot at and positionally Khudobin was doing all of the right things but the veteran found the small window top shelf. I am sure Khudobin will feel a bit haunted by the bouncing puck goal, but to his credit he did not completely crumble. He made some good stops down the stretch but I would not be surprised if Head Coach Todd Richards goes with Matthew Hackett on Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks who are playing as good as any team in the NHL right now.
If Minnesota felt a little overwhelmed by the Avalanche, the Canucks have been firing on all cylinders and their scoring depth and stingy defense will make for a tall challenge for the Wild. So again, tonight's misfortune creates an opportunity for some redemption if they can pull off an upset on Sunday. The 4-game winning streak is already a distant memory as the Wild have now dropped 3 straight. The Wild will get no sympathy if it decides to feel sorry for itself to have another paltry effort at home. The only way its going to get out of its rut is to put its past behind it and go into Sunday's game determined to outwork the Canucks.
~ The Wild lineup tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, Brad Staubitz, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Chuck Kobasew, Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Martin Havlat, Kyle Brodziak, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Greg Zanon, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner and Brent Burns. Matthew Hackett backed up Anton Khudobin. Cam Barker is the lone healthy scratch. Goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore are both battling hip injuries. Marek Zidlicky is still out with a shoulder injury and Guillaume Latendresse is still rehabbing from November surgery.
~ Anton Khudobin wore #35 for the Wild.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let's Play Hockey were: 1st Star Craig Anderson, 2nd Star Milan Hejduk, 3rd Star Andrew Brunette
~ Attendance for tonight's game was 18,215 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The Aeros would earn their 3rd straight victory in a back and forth affair as they defeated former IHL-rival Chicago Wolves 4-3 in a shootout. Houston would earn an early lead when Jon DiSalvatore took a pass from Brandon Buck and he ripped a shot by Peter Mannino. The Wolves answered right back as Andre Deveaux notched his 13th goal of the season, tipping a point blast by Paul Postma by Josh Tordjman who was making his first ever start for the Aeros. Houston would pour it on in the 2nd period and re-take the lead when Carson McMillan who backhanded a shot to give the Aeros a 2-1 lead. The lead would last just over 2 minutes as Jason Krog buried a shot by Tordjman to tie the game in the 2nd period despite being out shot 15-3 in the 2nd. The Wolves would take the lead for the first time when Nigel Dawes fired home his 21st goal of the season that appeared to put the Aeros road effort in doubt. Houston would tie the game again, as Chad Rau found a little space before ripping a wrister by Mannino to equalize it at 3-3. The game would go to a shootout where the Aeros got just one goal, on a pretty backhand to forehand move by DiSalvatore, and Tordjman stopped all 5 shots he faced to give Houston the victory. Tordjman had 19 saves in the win.
WCHA Men's Hockey Preview:
Denver (13-5-4, 2nd in WCHA) at Minnesota State (10-8-4, 10th in WCHA) ~ The Pioneers travel to Mankato to take on Minnesota State in what could be a bit of a trap game for Denver. Denver should have more than enough firepower to win, but they may overlook the Mavericks who have one of the better offensive defenseman in the WCHA in senior Kurt Davis who leads Minnesota State in scoring with 7 goals and 17 points. Former St. Paul Johnson star Michael Dorr has been heating up as of late, but most likely the Mavericks will have their hands full trying to stop the quick striking Pioneers led two members of this year's World Junior Championship's Team USA squad in sophomore Drew Shore (11 goals, 25 points), as well as freshman and Wild prospect Jason Zucker (14 goals, 21points). If Minnesota State can slow the game down and turn it into a defensive battle because they will be in for a rout if they attempt to trade rushes with Denver. Minnesota State's Phil Cook must stand on his head in order to pull off the upset. (Update: This was a thrilling back and forth affair where host Minnesota State took a lead just under 2 minutes left in the game on a goal from Justin Jokinen, but the Pioneers would tie the game just 30 seconds later on a tally by Kyle Ostrow. Wild prospect Jason Zucker had a goal and an assist in the game.)
Minnesota (9-8-3, 6th in WCHA) at North Dakota (16-5-2, 1st in WCHA) ~ There is no doubt about it, the Golden Gophers need to at least split this series. In what has become an all too familiar pattern for "Minnesota's Pride on Ice" the Gophers find themselves in the middle of the WCHA standings, needing to push its way up the rankings if it expects to be rewarded with a bearth in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota travels to Ralph Englestadt Arena in Grand Forks, where they have traditionally struggled. The Fighting Sioux are a team trying to keep their place atop the WCHA and they have a fast, physical and potent team to do just that. Senior Matt Frattin leads the way for North Dakota with 20 goals and 28 points. The Golden Gophers are going to have to neutralize what will be a very hostile crowd and the best way to do that is to cash in on its opportunities and limit North Dakota's scoring chances as much as possible. Senior Jay Bariball's leadership as well as his scoring (11 goals, 21points) will be essential if the Gophers are to pull off an upset. (UPDATE: Minnesota earned a huge 3-2 win in game one after a pretty wrist shot by Nico Sacchetti)
Colorado College (12-9-1, 5th in WCHA) at Alaska-Anchorage (5-10-3, 9th in WCHA) ~ On paper, this looks like a one-sided match up but out of perhaps all of the teams in the WCHA the one that seems to be the most capable of surprise win is the Alaska Anchorage Seawolves. Especially when the Seawolves are at home, they are at their best and can beat just about anyone as evidenced by victories over Wisconsin, St. Cloud State and a tie against Denver. This scrappy effort of Alaska-Anchorage should come as no secret to Colorado College who tasted a 4-3 home loss to the Seawolves back on November, 26th. Colorado College will hope to take a level of revenge by earning a road sweep, and they have the firepower to do so with senior forward and Cloquet, MN-native Tyler Johnson (14 goals, 23 points) and shifty freshman playmaker Jaden Schwartz (11 goals, 26 points). The Seawolves will try to frustrate the Tigers with great defense, winning the physical battles along the boards as senior Tommy Grant (8 goals, 15 points) carries the mail offensively for Alaska-Anchorage. (UPDATE: Tommy Grant led the way in the first game of the series scoring twice as they overwhelmed Colorado College in a 4-1 victory.)
Wisconsin (14-7-3, 7th in WCHA) at Minnesota-Duluth (14-4-3, 3rd in WCHA) ~ I have a feeling this will be the best showdown of the weekend in the WCHA. Wisconsin has surprised many after their mass of graduations that saw their best blueliner Brendan Smith turn pro early and the school's first Hobey Baker Award winner Blake Geoffrion graduate. The Badgers replaced Brendan Smith with sophomore Justin Schultz who is off to an outstanding season with 13 goals and 30 points and Blake Geoffrion was swapped with fellow Sophomore Craig Smith (13 goals, 31 points). However the Badgers are going to have their hands full with the high powered Bulldogs attack led by forwards junior Jack Connolly (9 goals, 31 points) and senior Justin Fontaine (12 goals, 28 points). Badgers Head Coach Mike Eaves embraces a puck possession, defensive brand of hockey but this series has the potential to be a real barn burner on the scoreboard. (UPDATE: The Bulldogs prevail in the first game, 2-0 on power play goals from Fontaine and Mike Connolly.)
Bemidji State (8-11-1, 11th in WCHA) at Nebraska-Omaha (12-7-1, 4th in WCHA) ~ Mavericks' head coach Dean Blais will have his troops focused as Bemidji State comes to Omaha. The Beavers have a very unique distinction in the WCHA, they are the only team to have swept Nebraska-Omaha and without question the Mavericks hope to return the favor, especially after being swept in a non-conference game against Quinnipiac at the end of 2010. After a red hot start, the Mavericks have cooled off while Bemidji State seems to be finding its form. Bemidji State is led by Verona, Wisconsin-native, sophomore Jordan George (9 goals, 21points) along with seniors Matt Read and Ian Lowe who have struggled against the oppositions top lines. Nebraska-Omaha has a fast and physical group of forwards led by seniors Joey Martin (5 goals, 22 assists) and New Prague, Minnesota's Matt Ambroz (10 goals, 21 points). A sweep by either team could help boost / doom the other but I believe we'll see a split. (UPDATE: The first game was the hard fought battle that was expected as the two clubs earned a 2-2 tie on goals from Radoslav Illo and Ryan Cramer for the Beavers and two tallies from Ambroz.)
St. Lawrence (6-10-3, 10th in ECAC) at Michigan Tech (3-15-2, 12th in WCHA) ~ In the lone non-conference match up, ECAC's St. Lawrence makes the trip to Houghton to take on the Huskies. Both teams are struggling through tough seasons that have them at or near the bottom of their respective league standings. Both teams have lots of freshman and sophomores playing lots of minutes and that is a recipe for mistakes. This series is truly a toss up. Proving my point about these teams leaning heavily on underclassman is the fact that both teams leading scorers are freshman. For the Huskies its Milos Gordic (10 goals, 15 points) and for St. Lawrence its Greg Carey (12 goals, 18 points) carriyng the mail offensively. (UPDATE: Michigan Tech would score two goals late to earn a 4-4 tie the first game of the series in a game that had plenty of lead changes.)