Its a scorching hot summer day in the middle of July, where do you think you'd find most Wild fans? Out on the lake? Sitting in their cool air conditioned home? How about packing the Xcel Energy Center to watch a scrimmage of the Wild's future prospects? That's what 6,500 Wild fans did tonight. Just to put in perspective, the Minnesota Golden Gopher football team had a scant 1,500 fans for their Spring game this season. They chose the nice air conditioned confines of the Xcel Energy Center to watch the Wild's future stars shine, and they were treated to a wonderful show. Honestly, its not until October until the first drop of the puck for the Wild's 2012-13 season (providing CBA negotiations go well, knock on wood) but fans wanted to watch these kids play. Nate Wells of FirstRoundBust.com tweeted that tonight's big attendance for a prospect scrimmage was an example of the "Parise effect" and I have a feeling we'll hear more of that in the next few months. In fact, it would be interesting to see how many more people would've showed up for the Wild Road Tour events if they were held now.
The prospect camp scrimmages are a great way for Wild fans to see what this team's future could very well be like. The hockey is fairly uncomplicated and system free. Its sort of like watching a slightly more organized pick up game of hockey. Besides, if you love the game and are clamoring for the NHL season to begin again its a good way to attend to your hockey fix. The first scrimmage was this evening and there is another on Sunday. So what really happened tonight? Who shined and who was invisible?
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Graovac was clutch for Team White
Early on, it was all Team Green as they wasted little time lighting the lamp as Mikael Granlund made a pretty pass up the middle of the ice to a streaking Jason Zucker who blew past the Team White defensemen Nick Seeler and he beat Matt Hackett with a quick shot. Team White would answer back a few minutes later as their top line of Raphael Bussieres, Johan Larsson, Charlie Coyle would move the puck well along the wall in the Team Green zone before Coyle made a quick pass from down low to Larsson who ripped a quick shot over the shoulder of Johan Gustafsson to tie it at one apiece. It was at this point Team Green started to take over. Zucker was flying all over the ice, and giving Team White's defense a lot of problems. Team Green would re-take the lead when Adam Gilmour won the draw and passed it to Brown University's Bobby Farnham who ripped a wrister by Hackett who seemed to be a bit rusty in his one half of play. Team White tried to work the puck in deep but Team Green was able to poke away the puck and start the break out. Johan Larsson found himself tripped up in the offensive zone and instead of calling a penalty he was awarded with a penalty shot. Larsson raced up the ice where the tried to make a quick little deke but he was denied by a poised effort by Gustafsson who was not buying anything Larsson was selling on the attempt. Team Green's defense was also working well in the offensive zone as Daniel Gunnarsson skated the puck down low where he swung a pass out in front where Edina's Marshall Everson banged a shot by Hackett. Green would add one more goal when Zack Phillips skated into the Team White zone where he dropped a pass back to Everson who then slid a pass back to Shattuck-St.Mary's John Draeger who took his time and ripped a wicked wrist shot underneath the crossbar by Hackett to make it 4-1. With the first half over it was looking like this game could be on its way to getting real ugly. Team Green just seemed to have a little more cohesion, and seemed to have an easier time creating scoring chances.
Both teams would swap out their goaltenders, with Team Green replacing Gustafsson with Harvard's Stephen Michalek while Team White replaced Hackett with Colorado College's Joe Howe. The first portion of the 2nd half was spent with both clubs trying to raise the physical level of the game. Ryan Van Stralen, Kyle Thomas, and even the Golden Gophers' Erik Haula was throwing their weight around for Team White as they tried to change the complexion of the game. While they were trying to turn the game around, camp invitee Joe Howe found himself under siege but he was making himself big in the crease keeping Team White's hopes at a comeback alive. Even some of the 'vets' of the scrimmages started to assert themselves as Steven Kampfer leveled Farnham with a big hit near the wall. Finally about halfway through the 2nd half, Team White finally started to cut into Team Green's lead as Tyler Graovac motored into the Green zone before ripping a shot that ricocheted off of the leg of defenseman Corbin Baldwin and by Michalek to make it 4-2. The goal seemed to bring out a new level of play in Team White who really started to buzz all over the Team Green zone, and it was Kris Foucault threaded a beauty of a cross-ice pass to Graovac who buried yet another chance to cut the lead to one. With only about a minute left, Team White would pull its goaltender as they tried one last desperate push for the equalizer. Their persistence would pay off as they'd win a draw in the Team Green zone with about 20 seconds left and a shot was put on goal by Charlie Coyle and then buried by a crashing Ryan Van Stralen. The game would go to a shootout and in a back and forth affair Team White would prevail 10-8 and they'd win the first scrimmage 5-4. You can see the scrimmage highlights here.
The players that really stood out for me for Team Green were Jason Zucker who was a constant source of energy and speed all scrimmage long. Mikael Granlund also exhibited that extra sensory perception of knowing where his teammates were as he connected on a few terrific passes. I thought Louis Nanne demonstrated some great wheels and I liked his overall hustle. I thought Johan Gustafsson was very solid. His movements were economical and I felt he looked very poised between the pipes, and in my opinion he performed the best amongst the goalies. Team Green defenseman Daniel Gunnarsson was effective moving the puck out of the zone and he certainly has some good puck skills. I thought Matt Dumba was more or less invisible all scrimmage long. I hope we see more from him on Sunday.
The players that stood out for me on Team White was Johan Larsson who was very elusive and strong on the puck. I liked his hustle and was surprised how great of a stickhandler he seemed to be. I thought Raphael Bussieres also had good instincts and I thought he worked well on the top line, using his frame to protect the puck well. I thought Jonas Brodin again exhibited his subtle skill of proper positioning and an excellent stick that he used to shut down Team Green forwards. Coyle was ok but I thought he'd be a bit more dominant than he was. I was surprised by the physical play Christoph Bertschy for only being 5'10" who took his chances to step and put a shoulder into people. Kris Foucault and Steven Kampfer performed like a seasoned professionals, and I liked the way he raised his game late in the scrimmage. I thought Matt Hackett was terrible, and I thought Joe Howe did a pretty good job; especially as he weathered the storm early in the 2nd half but never gave up a goal which allowed his team to have a chance to win the game. I hoped Kyle Thomas would've shown a bit more speed; and his game seemed a little timid compared to last year. The big surprise clearly was Tyler Graovac who looked confident and seemed to possess a ton of skill as he dangled the puck and created opportunities to put shots on goal. He even used his 6'4" frame pretty effectively, and I liked how he wasted little time moving the puck up the ice and getting the rush going. I think he should be an offensive force next season with Ottawa (OHL).
My 3 Stars of the Scrimmage
1st Star ~ #53 Tyler Graovac (Team White) - Graovac buried two goals in the 2nd half that really lit a fire under his team. Yet beyond that he was an offensive catalyst for Team White throughout most of the scrimmage.
2nd Star ~ #16 Jason Zucker (Team Green) - Zucker exhibited his tremendous wheels and I thought he really was tremendously effective on the forecheck. He also was quite assertive in the offensive zone in putting shots on goal.
3rd Star ~ N/A Joe Howe (Team White) - Even though Wild.com's Kevin Falness got his name wrong on the streaming broadcast until he was corrected by yours truly midway through the 2nd half, Howe did what you want to see from any goaltender. That being, giving his team a chance to win. Howe may have been bailed out by the post a few times but he came up big to give Team White a victory it may have not deserved. Nicely done by the Plymouth, Minnesota native.
Honorable Mention ~ #47 Johan Larsson (Team White) - I really liked the way Larsson played. He was battling all over the ice, and I thought he showed a level of elusiveness and strength on the puck I had never seen from him before. He was far more noticeable than he was in last year's scrimmage. His shootout wrister was just sick; wicked release.
Other Scrimmage Notes: A.J. Michaelson, Marco Scandella, and Tyler Cuma were not in the scrimmage. For Cuma, who I think is running out of chances with the organization is out with a groin injury and he just can't seem to get a break. I think this scrimmage was very important for Cuma to try to set himself apart from the other young defenseman that were here.