Golf's Greg Norman, baseball's Bill Buckner, snowboarding's Lindsey Jacobellis, football's Joe Pisarcik are all athletes more remembered for their moments of choking than what were often fairly successful careers in their respective sport. If there is a tradition that no one wants in professional sports its the dubious distinction of being home to some of the worst chokes in sports history. The 1998 Vikings, and their 'unstoppable' offense taking a knee with 42 seconds left only to feel the pain of watching Gary Anderson miss his only field goal of the season and that miss costing Minnesota a shot at the Super Bowl, by the way ESPN rated that the 4th worst of all time. Or how about the 2006 Golden Gophers football team who squandered a 38-7 lead with just over 8 minutes left in the 4th quarter against Texas Tech only to lose the lead and the game in overtime, which was the 3rd biggest in team sports history according to Ranker.com a loss so bad it cost then Head Coach Glen Mason his job. While the fact the Vikings lost in the NFC Championship game, and the Golden Gophers in a bowl game are obviously horrendous in their own right, where would last Tuesday's epic fail by the Minnesota Wild who squandered a 4-1 lead against the Nashville Predators to lose 5-4 with just 20 seconds left stand? It was the first time the Wild had squandered a 3-goal lead since 2009 when it had a similar 'choke' at home against the Ottawa Senators. What was that? You tried to block out what happened Tuesday night or you went to sleep at the start of the 3rd thinking the game was a done deal? Let me refresh your memory.
Painful isn't it? To Wild fans, players, coaches and management it really should be. Or was it? After the game, Wild winger Nick Johnson was pretty nonchalant in his comments to Fox Sports Net's Kevin Gorg shrugging his shoulders and saying "Oh well, what can you do?" What?!?! Are you kidding me? Maybe its just me but I found that to be a ridiculous response. While to some they may be ok with the fact Johnson is apparently not going to dwell on the loss, but fresh off one of the biggest chokes in franchise history and its "oh well" less than 5 minutes after its over? The Wild are lucky they were not bounced out of the playoff picture, but luckily for them those teams on their heels in the standings all lost. The Wild can't afford to give up points to anyone, especially those clubs that are fighting for the same spots in the post-season Minnesota is. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo seemed to internalize the defeat more than Nick Johnson when he said this during his post-game press conference, "You know what it feels like to be punched in the stomach, that's how this felt." Now that is the response I'd expect to hear from a team that choked away two 3-goal leads. So how will this team respond tonight in Colorado? Will it just shrug its shoulder and play an indifferent game or will it come out with some bitter determination not to repeat that same debacle all over again?
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1st Period Thoughts: Both clubs were trying to win a territorial battle early in the game, as they worked the puck deep as they wanted to establish the forecheck. Yet upon entering the zone the forwards of both clubs found little time and space, as defenseman were taking the body with great frequency. The Avalanche had a great opportunity off a failed play to clear the zone by Chad Rau that turned into a scrambling flurry near the crease in the Wild zone where Cody McLeod was denied on a clutch shot block by Elk River's Nate Prosser. Colorado's failed chance came back to haunt the Avalanche as Greg Zanon would provide the unlikely offensive spark as a wrist shot from the point fooled Jean-Sebastien Giguere who did not see the shot before it was in the back of his net, 1-0 Wild. About a minute or so after Zanon's goal, the Wild's 3rd line worked the puck down low and Warren Peters tried to set up Darroll Powe in the slot but he was held up by Kyle Quincey, giving Minnesota its 1st power play of the game. On the man advantage, the Wild were guilty of being a little careless with the puck giving Colorado rather easy opportunities to clear the offensive zone. Minnesota never even came close to registering a shot on goal, a pathetic 1st power play effort. One player who was dangerous for the Avalanche was Gabriel Landeskog who seemed to be all over, giving the Wild fits with his hustle on the forecheck. As the Wild power play expired, Landeskog carried the puck into the Wild zone and he dangled around defenders for a quality scoring chance on Niklas Backstrom, but the Minnesota goalie was able to come up with a big save made from his back side to preserve a 1-0 lead. A few minutes later, the Avalanche had another great scoring chance as Paul Stastny threaded a pass to McLeod for a quick shot that was stopped by Backstrom and after the whistle blew tempers would flare as Matt Kassian gave a shove to McLeod looking for a fight but the Avalanche tough guy wanted nothing to do with Kassian. A little controversy a few minutes later as Devin Setoguchi battled Stastny for the puck and as the Wild forward moved his arms for the puck he knocked down the Avs forward to a chorus of mild outrage by the home fans. The hit brought some retaliation as Ryan O'Byrne tried to drive Zanon's face through the boards to no call, and it was clear Setoguchi's hit drew the ire of Colorado but Minnesota was standing up for themselves. Minnesota tried to answer offensively and Nick Johnson made some nice plays a long the wall down low behind the Colorado goal line and the slippery Wild winger set up Dany Heatley for a quick shot from the slot that just missed high and wide. The physical play seemed to raise Minnesota's intensity and they started to win the small races to the loose pucks and even when Colorado was trying to organize itself offensively the Wild were able to track down the biscuit and keep the Avalanche at bey. The Wild were being out shot 10-3 but they had the edge in the most important place as they held onto a 1-0 lead. Not a bad period, and hopefully the Wild keep hustling and staying physical.
2nd Period Thoughts: Colorado had a quality scoring chance in the opening minute of the period as Peter Mueller set up T.J. Galiardi for a quick snap shot that was stopped by the leg pad of Backstrom and Minnesota escaped an early scare. The Wild tried to respond with its 4th line of Rau, Jed Ortmeyer and Matt Kassian and Ortmeyer was making his presence felt with a series of big hits. Minnesota was starting to assert itself with some quality hustle of its own, and the Wild had a few shots off the rush. The first off a wrist shot by Johnson that was stopped by Gigure and then just moments after that opportunity the Wild had another quality shot as Matt Cullen shot was redirected by Cal Clutterbuck that the Avs goalie was just able to direct to the corner. The underlying tensions continued to boil over as Carson McMillan got tangled up with Cody McLeod that left him a little worse for the wear as both players fell awkwardly to the ice. As McLeod went down, Darroll Powe got his arms up high on David Van der Gulik that stunned him and Powe was jumped by Chuck Kobasew who dropped the gloves. Powe didn't hesitate as the former Princeton grad started firing right handed punches that sent Kobasew on his back in a hurry. Powe would get an interference penalty on top of his roughing minor but Kobasew was tagged with twin roughing minors of his own. A few minutes later, Cody McLeod would drop the gloves with Clayton Stoner and it was a twisted little affair as Stoner tried to keep him close and throw right handed hooks that landed to little effect. McLeod would push away and gain some distance and he caught Stoner with a few good haymakers, cutting Stoner and earning a win as the Avs tough guy tried to rally his club. The Wild's 4th line had a great scoring opportunity as McMillan, Rau and Peters combined for a spirited rush that just failed to connect. A few minutes later, it was Chuck Kobasew dropping the gloves with Carson McMillan and after Kobasew tried to throw a few he was quickly overpowered by the bigger and stronger McMillan landed a punch to the back of the former Wild winger's helmet that probably hurt a lot just before they fell to the ice. Minnesota tried to take advantage of the momentum from the fight as Jared Spurgeon found a little space and he'd rifle a slapper that was snatched out of the air by the glove of Giguere. Moments after that the Wilds' top line caused some havoc with a bunch of near misses on goal as they swarmed in the Colorado zone, the best chance coming off the stick of Kyle Brodziak who nearly redirected a shot by Giguere. The Avalanche started to ramp up their level of play as their top line of Landeskog, Stastny and Milan Hejduk caused Minnesota fits as Colorado was blasting shots from all over but none were reaching Backstrom. The Wild's top unit had another great scoring opportunity as Johnson set up Heatley for a one-timer but he partially fanned on it and Giguere was able to make the save. Minnesota was also hustling well on the backcheck as Setoguchi showcased his speed as he tracked down Kyle Quincey as he lugged the puck up the ice. Warren Peters had a nice snap shot that was just directed wide by Giguere but Colorado answered right back with a few good chances late ass Gabriel Landeskog continued to be outstanding as he fired a wrist shot that nearly fooled Backstrom who not only made the save but also swept the puck out of danger as well. Minnesota had one last golden opportunity as Kyle Brodziak got a step on the Colorado defense before being hauled down and he went crashing into Giguere and Cal Clutterbuck tried to follow it up on what looked like a gimme only to be stopped by the glove of the Avalanche goalie who made a huge stop on what could've been a dagger. The Wild may have generated more chances (Wild out shooting Colorado 11-10 in the period) but they also spent way too much time defending their own end of the ice. This is still any one's game.
3rd Period Thoughts: The impacts were happening right from the drop of the puck to start the 3rd period, but it was NHL linesman Brad Lazarowich found himself nearly landing into Avs bench as ended up being inadvertently checked by Nick Johnson. Then just moments after the hit the other linesman, Mike Cvik was struck by a puck that had him howling a bit. Minnesota tried to offset Colorado's aggressive puck pressure with some offense of its own, as Dany Heatley tried to wrap a shot around Giguere where he narrowly missed from connecting. The Avalanche were clawing away, trying to bury the equalizer as Minnesota was scrambling around its own zone. Colorado nearly got its wish as Ryan Wilson fired a shot from the right faceoff dot that struck the post and out. The Wild were really in desperation mode and finally got a dose of relief as Jay McClement shot a puck up into the netting behind the goal. Kassian and McLeod continued to chirp at one another as the gutless Avs enforcer still refused Kassian's invitations to drop the gloves. The Wild had to hold their breath anytime Landeskog was on the ice as he seemed to have a little extra jump as he nearly was able to dangle around Zanon. Minnesota seemed content to defend its lead, keep its shifts short and dump the puck and change lines to put fresh bodies on the ice. It could best be described as a scrambling scrappy effort as Minnesota did all it could to deny shots from reaching Backstrom, content to just chip the puck out and get back in position defensively. When no easy option was there to just flip the puck into the air, the Wild were clearing it the length of the ice and taking icing calls. Minnesota was hustling well, winning the races to the loose pucks and forcing Colorado to play some defense. The Avalanche would pull Gigure with 1:46 left in the 3rd as they hoped the extra attacker would give them the game-tying goal. Colorado had a good chance early as Hejduk unleashed a wrist shot with a host of screening forwards in front of Backstrom but the cagey veteran came up with a huge save giving up no rebound whatsoever. Huge stop. The Avalanche would end up earning an interference call for knocking down Ryan O'Reilly as he tried to jam a rebound and this would make a 6-on-4 power play. Minnesota nearly spoiled the Avalanche's hopes right away as Darroll Powe motored out of the zone with the puck but his backhand bid skittered wide of the mark as it struck the outside of the goal. The Wild would have another big clear of the zone as they were doing a tremendous job of getting their stick on the passes to alleviate the pressure. With time expiring, O'Reilly blasted a slapper that was gloved by Backstrom giving the Wild a huge 1-0 victory.
Niklas Backstrom was rock solid all game long, stopping all 37 shots he faced. In the closing minutes as the Avalanche really tried to pour it on by taking shots from close range and with the assistance of screens he was cool as the other side of the pillow as he not only make the stops but also did not give up rebounds either. Defensively I thought Nate Prosser had a strong game; being physical at the right time and being a calming presence in his own zone. Jared Spurgeon also played well in my opinion, and Greg Zanon played a bit ornery. One concern though is the injury to Clayton Stoner as he fought human punching bag Cody McLeod, and it will be interesting to see if he's good to go when the Wild play Dallas on Saturday. Hopefully he's healthy because I cringe at the thought of having Mike Lundin or worse yet Marek Zidlicky playing his his place.
Offensively the Wild did not have a lot of chances, but they did have some quality opportunities. The top line of Heatley, Brodziak and Johnson really were Minnesota's only constant offensive threat. Minnesota could've used a bit more offensive pressure from its 2nd line of Cullen, Clutterbuck and Setoguchi. Zanon provided a rare goal, but Minnesota probably should've deserved at least another as Giguere absolutely robbed Clutterbuck in the closing seconds of the 2nd period. The power play had just one opportunity, but it was pretty miserable, not even managing to get set up in the offensive zone. That will have to be better if Minnesota expects to win in Dallas.
The best part about tonight's game beyond Backstrom's stellar play in the crease was the way the Wild out worked, out hustled and simply willed themselves to block shots, passes and paid the price to make the little plays to win this game. Those were the little things that disappeared in the last 5 minutes of their game against Nashville and which is why they ended up suffering a colossal collapse. I liked the fight, both literally and figuratively the team had this evening. Not quite sure what got underneath the skin of Chuck Kobasew but he was very feisty out there. However, its what you expect from two clubs battling for a spot in the playoffs. The Wild were the beneficiaries of the 4-point swing, hopefully they can build on this.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson, Darroll Powe, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Kassian, Chad Rau, Warren Peters, Carson McMillan, Jed Ortmeyer, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon. Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom. Mike Lundin, Marek Zidlicky and Brad Staubitz were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Greg Zanon, 3rd Star Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
~ Attendance was 14,186 at Pepsi Center.
~ The Houston Aeros rallied back from an early 1-0 deficit to score three unanswered to win 3-1 over in-state rival the Texas Stars tonight. Casey Wellman had a goal and an assist while Chay Genoway and Joel Broda each had a goal for the Aeros. Justin Fontaine had two helpers as well.
Wild Prospect Notes:
Brynas' Johan Larsson
F - Mikael Granlund (HIFK Helsinki, Sm-Liiga) ~ Mikael Granlund continues his domination of Finland's Sm-Liiga, tallying two assists in a 5-2 win against Lukko Rauma on January 27th. The Oulu-native has 19 goals, 45 points and is a gaudy +19 in 38 games.
F - Johan Larsson (Brynas, Eliteserien) ~ Brynas is 3rd place in the Eliteserien and the play of 2nd year pro Larsson is a big reason why. The versatile forward may not provide as much eye candy on the score sheet as does Mikael Granlund but his hard work every shift makes him a player all coaches love and opponents hate to play against. Larsson contributed an assist in Brynas' 4-2 win over Linkopings HC on January 30th. The Lau, Sweden-native has 7 goals and 24 points in 37 games played.
G - Johan Gustafsson (Lulea, Eliteserien) ~ Gustafsson made 19 saves in a 3-1 loss to HV71 on January 27th. The loss hurts, but it doesn't erase what has been a good season for the Koping, Sweden-native who has a 23-16 record, 1.90 goals against average, and .920% save percentage.
Boys & Girls High School Hockey rankings (as of 2/2/2012):
Class A (Boys)
1. Hermantown Hawks (20-0-0)
2. St. Thomas Academy Cadets (12-5-0)
3. Breck Mustangs (14-2-0)
4. Thief River Falls Prowlers (14-3-2)
5. Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers (15-6-0)
6. St. Cloud Cathedral (14-4-0)
7. Totino-Grace Eagles (12-6-0)
8. East Grand Forks Green Wave (12-8-0)
9. Rochester Lourdes Eagles (12-6-0)
10. Mahtomedi Zephyrs (11-8-0)
Duluth East Greyhounds
Class AA (Boys)
1. Duluth East Greyhounds (18-1-0)
2. Minnetonka Skippers (17-3-0)
3. Maple Grove Crimson (17-1-2)
4. Eagan Wildcats (17-2-0)
5. Edina Hornets (16-3-0)
6. Eden Prairie Eagles (13-4-1)
7. Moorhead Spuds (16-3-1)
8. Benilde-St. Margaret's Red Knights (13-5-0)
9. Wayzata Trojans (11-6-1)
10. Hill Murray Pioneers (12-5-0)
Class A (Girls)
1. Breck Mustangs (19-1-1)
2. Warroad Warriors (19-4-1)
3. South St. Paul Packers (16-6-0)
4. Orono Spartans (18-3-1)
5. Thief River Falls Prowlers (14-5-1)
6. Blake Bears (13-9-1)
7. Chisago Lakes Wildcats (16-7-0)
8. Mound-Westonka Whitehawks (15-7-1)
9. Red Wing Wingers (14-6-1)
10. Rogers Royals (12-9-2)
Hill Murray Pioneers
Class AA (Girls)
1. Hill-Murray Pioneers (21-2-0)
2. Benilde-St.Margaret's Red Knights (19-2-1)
3. Anoka Tornadoes (20-1-2)
4. Minnetonka Skippers (17-4-1)
5. Roseville Raiders (19-2-2)
6. Edina Hornets (15-4-6)
7. Elk River / Zimmerman Elks (17-3-3)
8. Eagan Wildcats (17-3-3)
9. Lakeville North Panthers (17-5-1)
10. Lakeville South Cougars (17-5-1)