While watching the Minnesota Golden Gophers play in-state rival Minnesota State I was struck by how bland the whole experience was. Not as much about the quality of hockey; it was good with both clubs producing scoring chances fairly often and the weekend ended in a Gophers sweep. But something was different about it. Something that took away some of the 'flavor' of the contest. It then struck me that it had to do with the fact the two schools were no longer in the same Conference. When both clubs were in the WCHA; not only did the fact that Minnesota versus Minnesota State created some buzz over who was going to claim bragging rights but the fans got into it as the teams would often play home at home series. Their was plenty of trash talk to be had and whether it was a high scoring affair or a low scoring chess-match of a game the intensity was unquestioned. This time, it was two teams playing one another in front of a crowd that was more apathetic than enthusiastic. In 5 years, when University of Minnesota rules finally allow them to play the North Dakota Fighting (insert some name of a group not named the Sioux here) will the animosity and rivalry that was in place for so long still be there? Or will it have faded much the same way it has for Minnesota State? Will we see the same tonight when the Wild face the Vancouver Canucks?
For years, the Wild have stoked a significant rivalry with the Canucks. Toss in a little lighter fluid with an infamous playoff series and the hatred that is spawned from it and it remained nasty for the next decade. Yet will that be different now that the Canucks are in the Pacific Division? Have the Wild and its fans already sort of relocated their 'hatred' for a new rival in Winnipeg that they used to reserve for the Canucks? Let's face it, the inclusion of a greeting card with the Jets gingerbread man with a broken leg included in the team's annual Christmas Stocking offer was a not so subtle marketing hint. Will Wild fans and Canucks fans clash on message boards as they once used to? Or won't that seem worthwhile anymore? Because that hatred of a division foe is no longer there. Both teams find themselves in very similar positions in their respective divisions; they are both in 4th place and while they've had a reasonable start they've both missed opportunities to move into a place with the Western Conference's elite. Which team will take a step forward tonight and which one will take a step back?
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1st Period Thoughts: Great energy to start the 1st period for the Wild, moving through the neutral zone with lots of speed. This put the Canucks a bit on their heels early, as the Wild were able to create a prime scoring chance in transition when Mikko Koivu found Zach Parise all alone but he fanned on the one-timer making for any easy save for Roberto Luongo. Minnesota had tlted the ice a bit in its favor but a failed 3-on-2 would boomerang on the Wild as the Canucks counter attacked and it was Daniel Sedin working a cross-ice drop pass to Jannik Hansen who unleashed a wicked wrist shot that beat Harding glove side to make it 1-0. It was a great shot, but Harding had to sit a bit farther back in his crease because Vancouver was attacking in a 3-on-2. The Wild would go on the penalty kill soon after Hansen's goal, as Keith Ballard was tagged with a slash to the stick of David Booth. Minnesota's penalty kill was active and confident, forcing the Canucks to the perimeter and using good active sticks to disrupt passing lanes. The result was the Canucks were never able to set up a wide open bomb from the point or the slot. Minnesota would offset the penalty as Chris Higgins would trip up Kyle Brodziak off the faceoff. On the ensuing Wild power play, Minnesota moved the puck with great efficiency as a point shot by Ryan Suter was blocked and swept up by Koivu who made a brilliant back door pass to Parise who buried it by a sprawling Luongo to tie it up at 1-1. With momentum in the game tilting in the Wild's direction, Dale Weise would challenge Zenon Konopka to drop the gloves and the Wild enforcer gladly obliged. Konopka would take control with some quick left handed jabs as neither fighter was really throwing big bombs and eventually Weise wrestled Konopka to the ice. A slight win for Konopka. Minnesota would keep applying pressure, chipping and chasing behind the Canucks defense and tracking down the puck along the wall. I thought Brett Bulmer was in his element in this part of the game; throwing his 6'3" frame around and using his speed to close the distance between him and Canucks defenseman before they could just dish it away. The Wild's pressure would draw another power play as Matt Cooke had his stick slashed out of his hands by a two-handed chop by Kevin Bieksa. On the power play, the Wild again moved the puck to great effect as Jared Spurgeon found Jason Pominville for a big one-timer that he rifled off the post. Minnesota kept swarming in the Canucks' zone and even the 2nd unit caused some havoc as the home crowd got excited at Dany Heatley's big slap shot that missed wide of the mark and Heatley would have one more chance in the last few seconds of the man advantage that was stopped by Luongo. Minnesota had to feel good about the way it played the 1st period overall, good hustle and energy but being tied does leave a bit of a sour taste in one's mouth. I thought Brett Bulmer and Erik Haula had a great period; as did Jonas Brodin who looked calm and one step ahead of the Canucks each and every time.
2nd Period Thoughts: The 2nd period was more of a chess match as both clubs were just biding their time for a mistake to be made that they could pounce upon. The Wild's defense was doing a great job of stripping Canucks forwards of the puck whether in open ice or along the wall and making a quick breakout pass. The Wild would find themselves a man down as Zenon Konopka sort of rode Ryan Stanton into the boards where he fell feet first awkwardly and this drew a penalty on the Wild enforcer who stared back at NHL referee Tim Peel in disbelief. It was a bogus call as Konopka never tripped up Stanton who lost and edge as he tried to hold off Konopka. Meanwhile on the Canucks' bench, Head Coach John Tortorella was fuming, tearing into Peel insisting Konopka deserved a 5-minute major. The Wild would kill off the penalty with some great hustle by Cooke who harrassed Vancouver all over the Minnesota zone before clearing it down the ice. Josh Harding was also terrific, denying Ryan Kesler on an open shot taken from the slot. Minnesota would create a great scoring chance as Charlie Coyle saucered a pass to a streaking Parise for a quick shot on goal that was stopped by Luongo and as Parise tried to follow it up the net was knocked off its moorings by the Canucks' Dan Hamhuis just as the Wild had gathered up up the puck for another chance. No delay of game on Hamhuis who was not checked into cage. The Wild's missed opportunity was answered by one for the Canucks and it was Yannick Weber hammering a shot on goal that was stopped by Harding, but David Booth was there to bury the rebound and it was 2-1 Vancouver. Minnesota tried to answer back, but whenver it tried to work the puck to the middle of the ice the Canucks were able to get sticks on shots and passes and stymie the opportunity. The Wild must find a way to get more pucks on goal and hope for some rebounds that they can pounce upon.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Canucks continued their outright denial of the middle of the ice thoughout most of the period severely limiting the Wild's ability to create shots on goal. Vancouver was quick to retreat to an active 1-2-2 as they hoped to force turnovers and create offense in transition. For a time you started to wonder if the Wild were ever going to get another quality scoring chance. The Canucks would catch the Wild a few times with their trap and Daniel Sedin looked destined to drive home the nail in the Wild's coffin as he was freed on a breakaway only to be stonewalled by a great stop by Harding. Harding would bail out his team a few more times to keep his club within one. Minnesota would finally break through the Canucks' stiff defensive posture as a clean breakout led to Koivu threading a cross-ice pass to Coyle on the back door and the youngster fired a shot that snuck through the pads of Luongo to tie the game at 2-2. It was a soft goal, but beggars can't be choosers. The goal would spark a Wild resurgence as they started to pile up some scoring chances in the waning minutes of the period. Charlie Coyle was asserting himself, using his strength and speed to create shooting opportunities and the youngster was taking his chance to fire the biscuit. Minnesota was pouring it on, its top 3 lines carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone and working it back out front for some quick shots on goal that were fought off by Luongo and the game would go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: Minnesota played like a hungry, motivated bunch in overtime being aggressive and creating a plethora of scoring chances. It started with a great chance for Koivu who was set up well by Parise on a back door pass but Koivu would rip a shot up and over the Canucks goal. Minnesota kept up their pressure as Marco Scandella was helping start the rush as Kule Brodziak fired a shot that was blocked up over the goal by Luongo. Harding had to make some big stops too, as he shut the door on Kesler at point blank range and the game would go to a shootout.
Shootout Summary: In the shootout the Wild would elect to shoot first and its first shooter was Zach Parise. Zach Parise started by moving to his left and then moving down the middle of the ice where he got Luongo to drop towards his backhand before moving back to his forehand but the savvy goaltender A-framed and denied Parise with his leg pad. Vancouver's first shooter was Mike Santorelli, and the former Florida Panther would move in rip a wrist shot off the cross bar and out. The Wild's next shooter was Mikko Koivu, would he pull off his patented move again? Yes, and he'd move from his left to his right as he went from forehand to backhand and he lifted the puck immediately that got by Luongo that rang off the cross bar and then the corner of the goal post and out. The shot would be reviewed but the replay clearly showed the puck never crossed over the goal line, no goal. Vancouver's next shooter was Chris Higgins who took a wide left approach where he wanted to fire a shot against the grain but Harding was patient and Higgins shot was stopped by the Wild goaltender. Minnesota's next shooter was Jason Pominville, and he'd move in and rip a wrist shot high glove side to give the Wild a 1-0 shootout lead. The Canucks next shooter was Ryan Kesler, and the former Ohio State Buckeye would move in and push a shot wide of the mark and Minnesota would snap Vancouver's winning streak at 8 games with a 3-2 victory.
Josh Harding was fantastic, stopping 29 shots in the win. Its not always the amount of stops as it is the timing of the saves and Harding delivered in crucial situations. Especially in the first half of the 3rd period where the Wild looked like a dead hockey team, it was Harding who had some huge saves including denying Daniel Sedin on the breakaway to spark a rally. Defensively I thought Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin all had solid games. The composure this group demonstrated throughout the game was a big reason the Wild was able to counter attack as well as it did. The penalty kill was also very strong and I thought Matt Cooke had a monster game in this capacity.
Offensively I have to give credit to Charlie Coyle for really raising his game. It was more than just his game-tying goal, but he was creating scoring chances using his speed and big frame to carry the puck to the crease. If he can find a way to play like that for a full game the Wild will not have to win games via the shootout anymore. The Wild is just barely getting enough offense to win games, and while their shootout success is a source of comfort it'd be nice to not give up points in the standings to teams within the Western Conference. I like the way the Wild played in overtime as they were assertive, playing with a sense of urgency.
I think the Wild played pretty well tonight. They had good hustle and when the Canucks looked to lock the game down the team found a way to get the equalizer. I know the Wild were unhappy with the way they played in the first two periods, but I thought the hustle was good. In year's past the Wild not have been able to get that goal. The team earned two points against a club that is playing with confidence and fighting for position in an ultra tough Western Conference. The Wild now travel to Pittsburgh against one of the most potent teams in the NHL. Savor it, but build on it against the Penguins.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Zenon Konopka, Brett Bulmer, Torrey Mitchell, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Nate Prosser, Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game selected by wild.com were: 1st Star Jason Pominville, 2nd Star Mikko Koivu, 3rd Star Zach Parise
~ Attendance was 18,531 at Xcel Energy Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Recent Score: Iowa 3, Rockford 1
The Iowa Wild returned to the friendly confines of Des Moines on Sunday for the first time in 21 days and they would make the most of it. The Wild got off to a fast start, as Zack Phillips sniped a shot by Allen York to send the teddy bears flying as it was the teams first ever teddy bear toss game. The Wild were outworking the Ice Hogs and even though they were being outshot Iowa was carrying much of the play. Iowa would strike early in the 2nd to extend their lead to 2-0 as Carson McMillan ripped a shot by York. The Ice Hogs would cut the Wild's lead in half, as Klas Dalbeck fired a laser from the point that found the twine behind Darcy Kuemper. The Wild put on the vice on the game in the 3rd as Tyler Graovac buried his 4th goal of the season to seal a 3-1 victory. Raphael Bussieres had a strong game with two assists, while Jason Zucker registered 4 shots on goal. Graovac led the team with 7 shots on goal. Darcy Kuemper was stellar between the pipes, making 37 saves in the victory in front of 6,312 fans.