As a football coach, a few days into the season people will often approach me with that wonderful question, "Hey coach, how does the team look this year?!?!" In most cases, your team looks pretty solid; performing well against your 2nd teamers and for the most part able to execute your plays without much difficulty. Defensively your starters dominate your scout guys and you set up the environment for feeling pretty good about your chances. My answer to "How is the team looking this year" question is the same almost every year, "until we hit guys wearing different looking uniforms than our own will we won't find out what we really have." This may come as a surprise to those of you out there who have never coached but you will have players that can execute flawlessly at practice; be intense and do almost all of the right things at practice. Yet, once you place them against a real opponent they become hesitant, passive and play frazzled. Its quite frustrating, because at practice they dominate but in games they disappear. You hope at some point that the stellar practice performance can carry over to game night but more often than not you are left angry and befuddled a player's game can be so different from the day before.
Tonight the Wild will get a 'real' glimpse of some of the players on the 2011-12 version of its team. It certainly is not traveling to Edmonton with its likely starting lineup for the new season but that too is the nature of pre-season play. Players audition for spots and prove they deserve a longer look or perhaps are a better fit for a minor league club or simply are not going to work with what the organization wants to build. Some players will raise their game and give a performance that will demand a longer look while others will be forgettable or memorable for the wrong reasons giving the team the excuse it needs to make you a cut. Jobs and NHL careers are on the line. So what will Minnesota's first pre-season step look like; it certainly can not be any worse than last season where the team went winless through the exhibition portion of their schedule save one victory over a team from the Finnish Sm-Liiga Ilves Tampere.
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Technology, oh how it can be your best friend one minute and then your worst enemy the next. Without venting too much; an unexpected disruption with my Internet connection made me unable to follow the game as I had hoped to. So I apologize ahead of time if it seems very basic and not that great.
The Wild's "B" team faced off against the "B+" squad version of the Oilers as the other half of their team battled the Chicago Blackhawks. A bunch of teams' in the league (Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Columbus, and Vancouver) split their team and played games both home and away which made for a confusing night of scoreboard watching if I do say so myself. Minnesota got out to a fast start and just past the 2 minute mark for the back of the net on a wicked slap shot from the point by Edmonton-native Jared Spurgeon that eluded Nikolai Khabibulin. Newly acquired veteran pugilist, Darcy Hordichuk decided to try to spark his team so he challenged Matt Kassian (a guy who said he could last at least one round against Manny Pacquiao) and the former Kamloops Blazer obliged his request. The veteran Hordichuk lands a good first right handed haymaker that lands, but after that its all Kassian as he starts firing bombs that put the former Vancouver Canuck on the defensive eventually dropping Hordichuk on his 3rd punch. The fight ended in a decisive win for Kassian who never really under threat to lose. Edmonton would struggle as penalties piled up and the Wild would strike on the man advantage. Fridley's Jarod Palmer found a little space in the slot where he unleashed a quick snap shot that found the top shelf to put Minnesota up 2-0. The Wild would strike one more time in the 1st period after a pretty set up from down low by Guillaume Latendresse who dished it to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who had found open space just left of the crease and he snapped off a quick shot that beat Khabibulin top shelf to give Minnesota a commanding 3-0 lead going into the 2nd.
As much as the 1st period belonged to the Wild, the 2nd was dominated by the Edmonton Oilers. Matt Cullen would be tagged with a hooking call about 2 minutes in and the Wild seemed to be on their heels as the Oilers were really flying around the ice and causing Minnesota some problems defensively. Promising Oiler prospect Anton Lander got the Oilers on the board after backhanding a rebound by a sprawling Josh Harding who had made the first save on a blast from the point by Martin Marincin. Minnesota was really finding itself under siege as Edmonton was peppering Harding with shots throughout the first half of the period. Head Coach Mike Yeo would call in Josh Harding and replace him with Matthew Hackett. Edmonton was really trying to push the pace of play and the Oilers would cut the lead to one about 10 minutes later when Lander set up fellow Swede Magnus Paajarvi for a bang-bang play that had Paajarvi burying a snap shot by a sprawling Hackett. Lander, Paajarvi and Linus Omark were driving the Wild's defense crazy with their shiftiness with the puck. The Oilers would tie the game late in the period when a turnover in the neutral zone turned into a 2-on-1 for Edmonton prospects Taylor Fedun and Antti Tyrvainen and it was Fedun who set up Tyrvainen for the easy goal.
With the game tied at 3-3, the Wild would get out to a dubious start when Darroll Powe was given a 5-minute boarding call for a vicious hit he delivered to Taylor Fedun. That put the Oilers in prime position to take the lead, but the Wild's penalty kill and most importantly Matthew Hackett came up big and Edmonton had nothing to show for it. The Wild got a little help from the Oilers' prospect Cameron Abney who challenged Powe after his big hit. Still, the Wild should feel good they managed to kill off the 3 minute man advantage. Ultimately it was penalties that would haunt the Oilers as Taylor Hall inadvertently high sticked Justin Falk in the face giving Minnesota a power play late in the period. Jared Spurgeon wasted very little time, lighting the lamp just 5 seconds into the power play on a seeing eye wrist shot that eluded Tyler Bunz. The Oilers tried to push one last time, but Minnesota was skating well and Edmonton couldn't find much in the way of time and space and the Wild would escape with a 4-3 victory.
Hackett would be credited with the win making 14 saves while giving up just two goals, compared to Harding who also stopped 14 but gave up just one. Both goaltenders gave the Wild a chance to win and considering that both of these guys are vying for the back up role its good to know you have quality options to choose from. Defensively, the Wild got solid performances from Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner, but some inconsistency from Tyler Cuma who looked like a player who has been out for a while with injury and some ugly play in the 2nd period by Jordan Hendry. Mike Yeo, a coach who embraces the neutral zone trap felt his team's defensive success really relied on his team's relative work ethic when he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Wild beat writer Michael Russo, "It's a demanding way to play. We ask a lot of the guys, and they were doing it to a T in the first period. But as soon as you kind of relax a little bit and you don't pay attention to details the same way, you don't manage the puck the same way and you don't match their desperation, things can turn quickly. And that second period was a perfect example of it."
When you factor in that Jordan Hendry was the team's most experienced (in terms of NHL games played) of any of the Wild's blueliners it is impressive the Wild did as well as it did against a team made up of half of the Oilers' 'A' squad players. The line of Bouchard, Latendresse and Cullen drew rave reviews during the team's inter squad scrimmages this weekend and it was strong again up in Edmonton. It will be interesting to see if this performance transfers over to their next game against St. Louis tomorrow. No matter what, starting off with a win, even in pre-season has to be seen as a positive beginning.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Guillaume Latendresse, Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brett Bulmer, Kyle Brodziak, Darroll Powe, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Kassian, Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters, Jarod Palmer, David McIntyre, Jordan Hendry, Tyler Cuma, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk, and Nate Prosser. Josh Harding and Matthew Hackett shared duties between the pipes.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Anton Lander, 2nd Star Magnus Paajarvi, 3rd Star Jared Spurgeon (seems a tad bit homerish if you ask me)