"Pressure putting down on me, pressing down on you that you no man ask for, under pressure, that burns a building down, splits a family in two, puts people on streets, it's the terror of knowing, what this world is all about, watching some good friends, screaming let me out," these are the lyrics to Queen's song Under Pressure. I wonder if they are feeling a little pressure right now? By they, I mean the Minnesota Wild. After going on an unprecedented 7-game win streak the team has lost 5 of its last 7 games and now currently sits in 7th, with just 3 points separating themselves from 8th place Detroit. That is not a good place to be. However if any member of the Wild, from the coaching staff to the players tell you there is no pressure don't believe it. Its all around them. Wild majority owner Craig Leipold didn't spend $198 million this summer on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and then 'ok' the move to pay another hefty price to bring in Jason Pominville at the trade deadline because he's hoping to just get close but not necessarily get into the playoffs. In fact, Leipold only added to the mounting pressure and anxiety swirling about the club when he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Chip Scoggins, "“It’s not just about making the playoffs. We want to win our division. That is our goal from this point forward. We want the third seed.” The Wild are currently 4 points behind the division leader, but at the rate the Wild are losing...er winning games making up those 4 points seems like a pretty steep hill to climb.
The Wild really only have themselves to blame. Tuesday night's loss to the 1st place Blackhawks was a frustrating one. Minnesota was playing fairly well, limiting the powerful Blackhawks offense but one defensive breakdown turned out to be rather costly while the team's inability to generate much pressure in the 3rd period makes one question whether this team is really battling fatigue. So can the Wild turn it around against St. Louis, a team that has owned the Wild the last few seasons or will the Blues just add to the pressure already building up around the team?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota started the game with great energy, and with a level of urgency we haven't seen in a while as they were putting pucks on goal early and often. The Wild were attacking in waves, as each line was taking his opportunities to shoot which was putting the Blues on their heels. Minnesota's first golden chance came off the stick of Jason Pominville who unleashed a heavy wrist shot that struck the left post and out. The Wild kept plugging away but whenever they seemed to be in prime position to light the lamp the puck didn't cooperate and they would come up empty. The Blues were doing their best to counteract the Wild's speed by taking the body. Minnesota may not have been able to match the physical play but they continued to attack the St. Louis end with good finesse. The Wild were really dominating play but they had nothing to show for it and it stung that much more when the Blues scored on a strange scramble in the Wild zone wher Roman Polak found himself all alone in the slot as Chris Stewart found the pinching blueliner who looked like a forward as he sniped a shot by Niklas Backstrom. After Polak's tally the Wild went back on the attack and their puck pressure started to yield turnovers. Brian Elliott was sharp, not just making saves but also giving up very little in the way of rebounds. The Wild tried to raise its game physically, as Justin Falk was throwing his weight around as he delivered a nasty hip check to Chris Stewart. St. Louis nearly added to its lead as David Perron found a little space only to be foiled by Backstrom who stacked the pads Gump Worsley-style to force the Blues sniper to shoot it wide and off the side of the goal. You could sense the Wild was starting to get into the heads of the Blues as they were starting to throw the extra pushes and shoves as Minnesota's unrelenting pressure was starting to wear on St. Louis. A bad turnover in the Blues' zone was pounced upon by Cal Clutterbuck who raced in started skating down the slot but he lost control of it and it was nearly gathered up by Charlie Coyle before he was tripped up on a desperation play by Barrett Jackman. On the power play, the Wild's top unit moved the puck very well as Pominville, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu were making quick decisions and Minnesota was taking shots but was unable to muscle its way into position to chop away at rebounds. When the 1st PP unit came up short, the 2nd unit led by Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Devin Setoguchi also moved the puck effectively setting up Coyle for a point-blank range in the slot but he couldn't lift his backhand quite enough to get it by Elliott. The period would end with the Wild feeling a little cheated as they had really carried most of the play, outshooting the Blues 10-6 but trailed where it counts 1-0. Clayton Stoner again looked shaky yet he continues to play (why??)
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would again start the period with good energy. Not quite as much buzz in its skates but they were being assertive as they sent out the 3rd line of Coyle, Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak who were dumping, chasing and checking Blues players with regularity. The Blues were counterpunching a little as Vladimir Sobotka fired a shot that was gloved by Backtrom. The Wild's hustle continued as the 2nd line of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Granlund and Setoguchi were starting to take advantage of the time and space the Blues were giving them. Zach Parise would take a stick to the chin courtesy of Jackman right in front of the official to no call but just moments after that Bouchard would motor into the Blues zone where he would dangle by a few Blues defenders before he was tripped up by Alex Pietrangelo just before he could pull the trigger but he at least was able to draw a penalty. On the power play the Wild had a tougher time finding time and space and their attempts to cycle were stymied by strong physical play by Jackman and Jay Bouwmeester. Minnesota's best chance came off the stick of Mikael Granlund who was being given lots of time and space and he wound up and he uncorked a slapper that struck Elliott in the shoulder but he was able to make the stop. The Wild would come up empty again and you began to wonder if they were going to have enough left in the tank to get a goal. Minnesota tried to dish out some hits of their own as Brodziak sent Kevin Shattenkirk flying backward ass over teakettle that drew an appreciative roar from the home crowd. Backstrom would make a few clutch saves to keep the game close as he denied Sobotka on a point-blank chance and a few minures after that a bad pass by Ryan Suter ended up on the stick of Jaden Schwartz and his wrist shot was snagged out of the air by the Wild goalie. Suter seemed to be struggling as he left the Wild bench a few times. Minnesota could've used Suter as Justin Falk was called for high sticking. On the Blues' power play the Wild's penalty killers did an ok job of keeping St. Louis to the perimeter but still had a harder time clearing the zone than when Suter is normally patrolling on the PK. The Wild seemed to be trying hard but you could sense the team felt a bit down as the chances were now becoming few and far between as the Blues went into lockdown mode. The Wild were outshot 9-6.
3rd Period Thoughts: With Ryan Suter still in the locker room the Wild did their best to try to rally back, playing with the kind of reckless abandon one would expect of a desperate team. Yet the story was the same as it was with the 2nd. Lots of chasing and energy around the Blues' zone but nothing to show for it, not even shots on goal on most shifts and St. Louis seemed to be comfortable defending a 1-goal lead. The Blues patience would be rewarded as failed offensive play turned into a rush in the opposite direction as Falk tried to track down the puck but he would be outlegged by Vladimir Tarasenko who swung a pass back to Andy McDonald as he snuck a backhand through the wickets of Backstrom to make it 2-0. It was a soft goal as Backstrom played the 5-hole shot ok, he just didn't pinch the pads quite tight enough to make the save. Since the Wild were having such great difficulty creating scoring chances it might as well had been a 5-0 lead for the Blues. Minnesota continued to be ravaged by injuries as Mike Rupp would take a puck to the face where he'd leave for the locker room for some medical treatment and a few minutes after that Ryan Reaves finished his check after a Brian Elliott save that sent him careening into the boards. With Suter being out of the lineup in addition to the injuries to Rupp and Clutterbuck the Wild's bench was that much shorter and they did their best to try to create some chances but they just didn't have what it takes. The Blues' 3rd line of Perron, David Backes and Adam Cracknell drove the Wild nuts on the forecheck as they kept Minnesota bottled up in its own zone as valuable time evaporated from the clock. Minnesota would pull Backstrom with a little over a minute left but even then they had a hard time getting a puck to reach Elliott and they'd fall 2-0.
Niklas Backstrom cannot be blamed for the loss, he made a number of great saves from in close to keep the Wild in this game. He had 18 saves in the loss and only the 2nd goal was one where you could assign a tiny bit of blame but he still made enough stops for the Wild to have a chance and that's all you can ask of any goaltender. Defensively the team played ok, but the bad breakdowns have haunted the team a bit where Backstrom has faced more odd-man chances than he has throughout most of this season. The team has to be very concerned about the condition of Ryan Suter who left the game in the 2nd period and did not play in the 3rd. He's the NHL leader in time on ice and the really is what makes the Wild's attack go but in the post-game press conference Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo is confident that they'll be fine and be ready for Saturday. With Suter out of the lineup, the team gave tons of ice time in the 3rd to Jonas Brodin and the rookie did not look out of place at all. He seemed to embrace it. Good to see. Tom Gilbert had a bit more jump in his skates and I felt he had a better game. Justin Falk did his best to be physical and this team needs him to be, especially with Clayton Stoner struggling as badly as he is.
Offensively, goals which just a week ago had been something that the Wild seemed to have little trouble burying now seem elusive. Even scoring chances are a huge struggle as the team has had a hard time getting much in the way of sustained offensive pressure from anyone other than their top line of Parise, Koivu and Pominville. I agree with Yeo in the fact I felt the team played hard and were doing lots of good things on the forecheck but there is still a sense that the team is waiting for someone to make a big play. It doesn't matter what line, and it doesn't matter how the team has to find a way to get one goal and build from there. Use all the cliches you want; gripping the stick too tight, lacking confidence, etc but this team misses Dany Heatley's big body in front of the net and especially Matt Cullen zooming around the offensive zone turning Setoguchi into a beast in the process and giving the Wild two dangerous scoring lines. I don't think this team has given up, but I think it realizes it doesn't have the ability to comeback the way it used to.
Its not panic time yet but its very close. I think far too many fans began thinking about the playoffs before they remembered the team had yet to qualify for them. The Wild are in a dangerous downward spiral at the worst time of year for that to happen. It does not have long before it must turn its fortunes around. Tomorrow night the Blues take on the Blue Jackets and in a strange twist of fate the Wild must hope St. Louis wins, and in regulation so as not to give a desperate and hungry Columbus squad anymore life than necessary when it comes to town on Saturday. Saturday's game is a must win, because it goes on the road and will be facing equally desperate or nothing to lose clubs in Calgary, Edmonton and San Jose.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Devin Setoguchi, Mikael Granlund, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Charlie Coyle, Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Justin Falk, Tom Gilbert, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Nate Prosser and Brett Clark were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Brian Elliott, 2nd Star Roman Polak, 3rd Star Jonas Brodin
~ Attendance was 18,947 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ If the team needed a bright spot tonight it can look to its farm team which rebounded after an ugly loss to Oklahoma City the night before as the Aeros rallied back with a 4-3 win over San Anotonio. The Aeros would get goals from Chad Rau, Zack Phillips, Justin Fontaine and David McIntyre while goaltender Mike Condon delivered 30 saves in the victory. Condon is the 6th goaltender the Aeros have used this season. The recently acquired goaltender Jeff Deslauriers was probably lost for the season when he suffered a knee injury last night against the Barons. Jason Zucker had two assists on the evening.
Wild Prospect Report:
C - Tyler Graovac (Belleville, OHL) ~ The Belleville Bulls are just one game away from the OHL's Eastern Conference championship game after a 4-0 win over the Sudbury Wolves. Graovac continues to lead the way, as he added a goal, an assist and was a +3. The Brampton, Ontario-native has 4 goals, 15 points iand is a +8 n nine games. The Wild just signed the lanky center to a 3-year entry level contract.
D - Mathew Dumba (Red Deer, WHL) ~ Things are not as promising for the defenseman as the Rebels now trail arch-rival Calgary Hitmen 3-1, after a 3-2 overtime loss on Tuesday night. Dumba himself has been rather quiet in the post-season, being held scoreless so far in the 2nd round. In this most recent loss Dumba was a -2 with 4 PIM's. Collectively this has been a playoffs to forget as he has 2 goals, 2 assists and is a -3 in eight games.