The sports journalism world lost a treasure when it lost Bert Sugar to cardiac arrest on Monday. Sugar was known as an opinionated historian of the sport of boxing. He was both old school and classic at the same time. He covered the greatest of the sport including Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. His ability to both describe the action and create poetry with the word is something you don't see nearly as much in today's sports journalist. Sugar's ability to recall and connect modern and boxers from the past was unparalleled. In the hockey world, perhaps its 'Bert Sugar' is broadcaster and journalist known to many as 'The Hockey Maven' Stan Fischler. Fischler stays active on the Madison Square Garden Network where he provides analysis as well as interviews hockey figures in his own classic style for New York Islanders, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils games. 'The Hockey Maven' loves to reminice about the old days at Madison Square Garden where he first fell in love with the sport of hockey in 1939. His love of the game comes through in his interviews, and his broad perspective of the past and present makes him unique in his ability to truly compare the great players of yesterday to the great players of today. Some may find Fischler's anecdotes antiquated but all too often people see new players and call them innovative only to find out someone else long before had thought of and implemented the same thing.
'The Hockey Maven' Stan Fischler
I've been known to pull off a pretty good Stan Fischler impression along with a not too bad Don Cherry but still accept no substitutes. The Wild's playoff chances officially fizzled away in their 3-0 loss to a desperate Washington Capitals' squad on Sunday. So the team officially has nothing to play for other than pride. So is pride enough for this team to pull off a big upset of the top team in the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers?
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1st Period Thoughts: Throughout the last few games I've been quite impressed with the effort from the Wild's 4th line of Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters and Stephane Veilleux. Will they ever be a major force offensively? No, but their work ethic is outstanding but what you'd expect from 3 guys trying to prove they deserve NHL jobs somewhere. It was no surprise to me that their hustle and hard work would yield Minnesota's first quality scoring chance as Peters set up Ortmeyer for a quick shot that was fought off by Henrik Lundqvist. Unfortunately most the other lines looked indifferent and out of sync as they were creating needless turnovers on passes that bordered on befuddling. It was one of these poor plays of the puck that yielded a turnover that was pounced upon by Marian Gaborik who raced into the Wild zone and he unleased a heavy wrist shot that had more zip than most Minnesota players' slap shots that was kicked out by Josh Harding. As Gaborik fought to chip a backhander on the big rebound he was hauled down by Marco Scandella giving the Rangers their first power play of the game. On the power play the Rangers confidently moved the puck around as they set up Michael del Zotto for a few rockets from the point that didn't miss by much. Minnesota would get a break as tricky shot by Brad Richards turned into a little flurry in the blue paint that where Harding clearly didn't have control of the puck but because NHL referee Gord Dwyer couldn't see it he blew the whistle just as the puck tapped in by Derek Stepan. New York would persist and a point shot by Anton Stralman pinballed its way towards the bluepaint where Harding tried to keep it out as Brandon Dubinsky hacked away at it. Four Wild players converged near Harding; Nate Prosser, Steven Kampfer, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley but they only seemed interested in stuffing the puck underneath Harding so when Brandon Dubinsky's shot struck the left post and then moved parallel along the goal line no one was there to keep Brian Boyle from jamming it in, 1-0 Rangers. Minnesota thought it had a chance as Marc Staal fanned on a pass that went right to the stick of Heately who moved in but by the time the puck settled on the ice all he could manage was a weak shot that was easily absorbed by Lundqvist. Minnesota was trying to counteract the Rangers physical play with some of their own by Devin Setoguchi would sit in the sin bin for two minutes for boarding. The Rangers were not able to do much with the man advantage and the Wild would intercept a pass that Stephane Veilleux tried to skate down the puck but he had little time and space to do much with it but he gave a centering pass that just failed to click with a crashing Cal Clutterbuck. The Rangers would counter attack and in the process the Wild would get tagged with a 'too many men' penalty and Minnesota finished the period on the penalty kill. Gord Dwyer had called all 3 penalties on the Wild and he was hearing it both from the bench and team captain Mikko Koivu. With the Wild having yielded 3 Rangers' power plays it was no shock they were out shooting Minnesota 13-6. Minnesota's defenseman were absolutely atrocious in that period; and overall the execution left a lot to be desired as Wild players were bumping into each other far too frequently for this late stage in the season.
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would kill off the minute left of power play time without giving up too much in the way of offensive chances. The best one coming off the stick of Brian Boyle who fired a wrist shot that was steered aside by Harding. The Wild finally drew a penalty as Steven Kampfer took a run at Boyle who was nearly a foot taller than him but Boyle lifted a puck into the seats for a delay of game call. Minnesota would send out its 2nd power play unit and the group seemed to suffer from a lack of creativity as they moved the puck from the halfwall back out to the point where Steven Kampfer hammered a slapper that struck Ryan McDonagh in the boot that had him a little gimpy afterwards. The Wild were persistent, a failed clearing attempt by Derek Stepan ended up on the stick of Kampfer who worked the puck down to the halfwall where Cal Clutterbuck moved it to Kyle Brodziak camped out near the crease and he turned and flicked a quick shot that snuck through Lundqvist to tie the game at 1-1. The goal seemed to give the team a little extra boost and the modified 2nd/3rd line of Chad Rau, Erik Christensen and Cal Clutterbuck caused a little havoc in the offensive zone as Christensen repeatedly tried to moved the puck towards the crease where Clutterbuck was waiting for an opportunity to try to bang it home. Unfortunately he never got the chance. A few minutes later the Rangers would re-take the lead as some poor defensive zone coverage (go figure) by Clayton Stoner would give Marian Gaborik a gift of a forehand opportunity that he fired at a sharp angle by Harding to make it 2-1 Rangers to a small serenade of boo's from the home crowd and then an even louder amount of boo's when the goal was announced. A few minutes later, the Wild's 4th line would try to get things rolling as Stephane Veilleux ripped a slapper on goal that was stopped and pounced on by Warren Peters who was hauled down before he could pull the trigger and Veilleux gathered up the loose puck for a wrist shot that was stopped by Lundqvist. Ortmeyer tried to jam the rebound home but the officials blew the play dead as Lundqvist got control of the puck and Minnesota would be given a power play as Staal earned a minor for interference. Minnesota would again capitalize on the power play as the Wild moved the puck very effectively and it was a nice backdoor pass by Dany Heatley to Koivu for a one timer that just got by the outstretched arm of Lundqvist to tie the game at 2-2. The Wild would help the Rangers' cause by giving them another power play as Warren Peters was given a minor for hooking. Minnesota's penalty killers were strong and the Rangers never really threatened on the power play and the Wild would go into the 2nd intermission tied at two. The Wild out shot New York 13-9 in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild would dodge a bullet early as a Rangers shot bounced along the ice and past Harding but struck the left post before it was swept aside by an alert Dany Heatley. The Rangers seemed to have a little more spark in their legs and they continued to threaten in the Wild zone. Ryan Callahan got some speed going through the neutral zone and he nearly was able to motor around Clayton Stoner but his weak shot was held onto by Harding. Marian Gaborik was rubbed out on the boards by a nice check by Marco Scandella that drew a healthy cheer from the home crowd. A few minutes later the Wild finally established some sustained offense as the top line swarmed in the Rangers' zone and Devin Setoguchi found himself denied twice in consecutive shots. Minnesota would also set up some big blasts from the point that had Lundqvist guessing a bit. The strong shift was followed up by another one where Marco Scandella ripped a wrister that was stopped and held by Lundqvist. The Wild continued to attack and Kyle Brodziak and the 3rd line set up a point shot for Scandella that Lundqvist lunged to stop. New York was patient and they'd counter attack and Ryan McDonagh set up Ruslan Fedotenko for an easy tap in goal as he got lost by the Wild's defense (Nate Prosser) who got caught watching McDonagh pinch deep in the Wild zone. 3-2 Rangers. The goal brought a level of anxiety and furstration to the home crowd. The 4th line tried to provide some energy as Ortmeyer carried it in deep but they were not able to create anything offensively and time steadily started to slip away from the Wild. The Rangers would start to sit back in a slightly aggressive 1-2-2 and Minnesota had great difficulty carrying the puck out of their zone and they would waste valuable time just trying to work the puck into the New York end. Minnesota would pull Harding for an extra attacker but the Wild couldn't manage much apart from a few bombs from the point by Kurtis Foster that Lundqvist would stop and the Rangers would take away a 3-2 victory.
Josh Harding played well enough, stopping 29 shots in the loss. I thought Harding was solid enough, playing his angles well but it were breakdowns near him that were completely out of his control. Nate Prosser losing track of Fedotenko, or 4 Wild players standing around Harding while the puck was sitting on the goal line are not his fault. The only defenseman that played well tonight was Marco Scandella; the rest were somewhere between just ok and blech. Mostly blech.
Offensively the Wild did something they hadn't done since December 10th, and that was scoring 2 power play goals. For the most part it was not from anything spectacular but through persistence and keeping it simple by working the puck to the scoring areas of the ice. I am not sure if this team will win another game this season but if guys want to pad stats they should follow that formula of working the puck towards the blue paint and just jam at it and hope for some ugly goals.
(sigh) It gets tiring covering loss after loss but what can you do? The effort wasn't too bad as a whole but defensively it is tough watching the poor 'D' coverage cost the team goals. I know there have been lots of different faces playing back there, but this group has more or less been intact as a group for 10 games or so now. You'd think you'd start to show some improvement but the breakdowns persist. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said it best, "It angers you, I'm not a very good mood right now and we just give 'em a freebie, its a 2-2 game, we don't do the right thing and we give them a tap in, it can't happen." I agree wholeheartedly. He added, "that's too bad, because we had a lot of good efforts and at that point I felt we were in control of the game, special teams were great but we weren't good enough in front of our net." Again, I can't disagree with anything he said. Hopefully they play better on Thursday.
~ The Wild roster was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Warren Peters, Jed Ortmeyer, Stephane Veilleux, Erik Christensen, Chad Rau, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson, Cal Clutterbuck, Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert, Steven Kampfer, Nate Prosser, Kurtis Foster and Marco Scandella. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Justin Falk, Matt Kassian, Matt Cullen and Jared Spurgeon were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Ryan McDonagh, 2nd Star Marco Scandella, 3rd Star Kyle Brodziak
~ Attendance was 17,880 at Xcel Energy Center.
Houston Aeros Report:
Houston Aeros' Jarod Palmer
It was a disastrous weekend for the Houston Aeros, who lost all 3 games in their weekend road trip against Rockford and Chicago respectively. Like the Wild, the Aeros have dealt with a huge host of injuries but with the injury woes continuing in Minnesota that has continued to put strain on their farm club with call ups. This has been most notable between the pipes where Matt Hackett has more or less spent the better part of the month up in Minnesota filling in for an injured Niklas Backstrom. The Aeros thought they'd be ok but Darcy Kuemper injured his shoulder and is undergoing surgery to fix it; and the replacement Bemidji's Joe Fallon got hurt late in the Aeros loss to Rockford Friday night. So now the Aeros goaltender is Scott Greenham. Greenham did reasonably well in his two starts on Saturday and Sunday but he got virtually no goal support; as the Aeros managed to score just once in each of those games. Remarkably, the Aeros sit in 5th place in an incredibly tight Western Conference where the stand just one game above a 4 way tie for 6th between Charlotte, Rochester, San Antonio and Peoria. This means the Aeros probably have to win the rest of their games if the expect to make the playoffs. The Wild are counting on the Aeros to qualify for the post-season so younger prospects who have recently completed junior and college hockey seasons have some extra time to hone their game at the AHL level. It was the Aeros' run through the AHL playoffs that served as a valuable training ground for players like Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, Matt Hackett and others that have allowed them to help as well as they have this season. I am sure the news that Hackett was returning brought a huge sigh of relief for a team that sorely needs it.
Wild Prospect Report:
Ottawa 67's Tyler Graovac
C - Tyler Graovac (Ottawa, OHL) ~ I think Ottawa is getting a little more than it bargained for when it was paired off against Belleville. The Bulls are not just rolling over as many expected and it has made for a spirited series. The 6'4", 190lbs Graovac had a goal in the 67's 4-3 overtime loss on Sunday.
C - Mikael Granlund (HIFK Helsinki, Sm-Liiga) ~ The Wild's top prospect has found the Sm-Liiga playoffs a bit more difficult than the regular season as HIFK Helsinki battles its arch-rival Jokerit. Granlund has just 2 assists in 3 games thus far and is a -1. HIFK Helsinki finds itself on the brink of elimination as they trail Jokerit 3-0 in the series. If his team loses out, I would (and all Wild fans) hope Minnesota looks to sign Granlund immediately to save us from a lot of unnecessary contract drama through the summer.
G - Dennis Endras (HIFK Helsinki, Sm-Liiga) ~ Endras is playing reasonably well for HIFK, but not well enough as Jokerit has managed to shut down HIFK's offense. The Immenstadt, Germany-native has been between the pipes for all 3 of HIFK's games, sporting a 2.46 goals against average and a .928% save percentage.