Its Hockey Weekend America, a new attempt to celebrate hockey in the United States. Did that get you excited? Nope? Me neither. In my opinion it doesn't hold a candle to Hockey Day Minnesota which actually has authentic tradition to draw from. It seems odd to celebrate hockey in February when in many cases the ice has melted or is starting to in most parts of the nation. Yet on this day, their is an outdoor game being played in Chicago's Soldier Field. The Hockey City Classic between the Miami (OH) and Notre Dame followed up by the University of Minnesota versus the University of Wisconsin. I understand the NHL missed out on the Winter Classic due to the lockout so this is the 'alternate' version of that 'spectacle' for the league. The Wild and many other American teams are going to be playing across the National Hockey League as part of this celebration but I am not sure how many Minnesota fans are in a celebratory mood after an embarrassing shootout loss to Colorado on Thursday night.
The team's inspirational story Josh Harding has been placed on Injured Reserve until the foreseeable future and the team now has called up Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker. Detroit comes to town, and while they may appear not to be as sharp as previous Red Wings' teams the Wild's most recent game proves they can be beaten by even the worst, most banged up teams in the league. Needless to say expectations are pretty low, so will the Wild live up to those lowered expectations or will they give us a surprise by earning a victory?
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1st Period Thoughts: Detroit's Petr Mrazek was tested early as the top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and The Wild's newcomers were noticeable early as Jason Zucker demonstrated that extra gear in his game as he scooted into the Red Wings' zone before dropping a pass off to Devin Setoguchi who rifled a shot on goal that was steered away by Mrazek. Minnesota's hustle from its 4th line would draw a penalty as Mike Rupp forced Joakkim Andersson to try to hold him up in the offensive zone giving the Wild its 1st power play of the game. On the man advantage the Wild struggled to create much of anything offensively as they had a hard time getting established in the Detroit zone. Other than few shots from long range, the Red Wings never were really threatened and the Wild came up empty. After the failed power play the Wild seemed to be a little out of sync, perhaps a sign of the jumbled lines. Detroit stopped moving its feet and the Red Wings would strike first as some poor defensive play and indecision would give Damien Brunner a chance to chip a puck on goal that surprised Darcy Kuemper to make it 1-0 with a small chorus of boo's over Minnesota's lethargic play. Minnesota moved its feet a bit better after the goal and they tried to work the puck deep and beating Detroit in battles for the puck along the boards. Johan Larsson demonstrated some pretty good strength as he banged Brian Lashoff along the wall. Minnesota's 2nd line tried to be a little too fancy with the puck and again the Red Wings were quick to try to capitalize on the Wild's mistakes as lost battle down low as Justin Abdelkader backhanded a pass out front to Tomas Tatar who thought he snuck a shot underneath the arm of Kuemper but the Wild goalie kept it out. They would review the play but the puck never made it through and over the goal line and Minnesota got a little lucky by still just being down by a goal. The Wild started to get sloppy with the puck and the team started to ice the puck; and after one sequence of two quick icing infractions the crowd let the team know of its displeasure. Darcy Kuemper had to come up with some huge saves late as the Wild became careless in its own zone and stupid decision by Ryan Suter combined with a bad change which occurred because of a line eager to return to the bench after the consecutive icings as Cory Emmerton moved in all alone and was stonewalled by the Minnesota goalie. The Wild had to feel as though they escaped by being down just 1-0 after being so sloppy and so frantic through the the period. Koivu needs to learn to shoot the puck when he has the chance, passing up opportunities to shoot only helps Detroit. Another flawed approach is the idea of playing dump and chase against a puck possession team like Detroit. It plays right into the Red Wings' hands if you're just going to give the puck to them. While I understand the lineup has more speed than it normally does, then you have to tell those players who are fast to be aggressive and play that way but they seem hesitant to move much deeper than the faceoff dots and that's why the dump and chase fails to amount to much. Overall the Wild are trying to be far too cute with the puck when they should know that has not been a formula for success this season. This game should be at least 3-0 Detroit if not for some huge saves by Kuemper. Another period where it seems as though only the Wild goaltender shows up, when have I said that before?
2nd Period Thoughts: The Red Wings would not take long (just 20 seconds into the period) to add to their lead as Henrik Zetterberg entered the zone and made a long backhanded pass near his blueline which is normally a huge no-no but instead it was one-timed by Pavel Datsyuk who beat Kuemper high to make it 2-0. Minnesota would try to answer back as Tom Gilbert joined the rush as he entered the Detroit zone with speed where he attempted to work a pass over to Jason Zucker but that just failed to connect. Cal Clutterbuck would get a little space and he'd wire a heavy shot that broke off the top part of Petr Mrazek's stick. A few moments after that, Clutterbuck would make a nice pass to himself off the boards and he'd motor by the Red Wings' defense for a break away but his wrist shot was blocked aside by Mrazek on Minnesota's best chance to this point in the game. Minnesota's hustle had improved but they were unable to get any second chances when they did manage to get shots on goal. A few minutes later Mikael Granlund set up Mike Rupp for a quick shot that Mrazek deflected up into the netting behind the goal. This gave Minnesota a draw in the Detroit zone and the top line would take advantage of the situation. After a fantastic effort by Parise down low with the puck he'd try to jam a shot through Mrazek who made the stop and the puck squirted out to the high slot where Dany Heatley hammered a slapper by the Red Wings goalie to cut the Detroit lead in half 2-1. The goal energized the Wild and the 2nd line would cause some havoc as a nice play along the wall by Setoguchi made its way over to Matt Cullen who chipped a pass to Zucker who turned on the jets and flew into the Detroit zone and he'd get of a quick snap shot that was stopped by Mrazek but Minnesota couldn't make the Red Wings pay on the rebound. The Wild would be persistent and Zucker's speed again was a major factor as he chipped a puck along the boards and he raced past the Detroit's defense and moved in and fired a shot by Mrazek, stick side to tie the game at 2-2. The good feelings were going to continue as the 4th line would notch a goal just about 30 seconds later as a loose puck was picked up by Torrey Mitchell who spun and let go a backhander that fooled the Red Wings goalie and just like that it was 3-2 Minnesota. A scary moment occurred a few minutes after the Mitchell goal as Setoguchi got his stick up into the grill of Kyle Quincey who was just flattened by the hit and in a lot of trouble as the Red Wings training staff helped the former Mississauga Ice Dog to the Detroit locker room. Setoguchi would be led to the box for a double-minor for high sticking. On the penalty kill the Red Wings tried to move in close and work for an ugly goal but two outstanding saves at point-blank range by Darcy Kuemper kept Detroit at bey as Koivu chipped the puck down the length of the ice. Minnesota's penalty killers then would control the pace of the power play as they got sticks into passing and shooting lanes and the Wild would escape with a huge kill. The Wild would go on the attack late as Zach Parise had a great chance late that was fought off by Mrazek and Minnesota would end the period with an appreciative applause by the fans. Great period, set up by the energy created by the wheels of Jason Zucker who should make everyone forget the floundering play of Mikael Granlund. The goals were created by two things the Wild have lacked; one, speed and two, keeping it simple and taking any chance to shoot and when they had those elements good things happened. They need to stick with that in the 3rd. Zucker's goal was the first NHL goal by a player trained in the state of Nevada. Kuemper made up for the soft goal he gave up at the beginning of the period as he came up with some giant saves on the penalty kill. Hopefully the Wild can finish what they've started.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild were moving their feet well to start the period and their hustle would yield some scoring chances in transition as Granlund tried to to take advantage of a fall by Lashoff to set up Mitchell who was driving down the slot but he pushed his shot wide of the mark. Larsson would show a little bit of his game as he'd pick up a puck in the neutral zone and drive in and he'd try to fire a shot that was blocked but he did not hesitate and slapped the rebound on goal forcing Mrazek to make a save. Minnesota's good effort was causing Detroit fits as Lashoff tackled Parise for an obvious penalty. The Wild's power play again was a practice in futility as Minnesota struggled to get established in the offensive zone and the result was no pressure at all on the man advantage and huge opportunity missed. Minnesota kept working hard, winning the little battles for the puck along the boards and the clock steadily evaporated. Clutterbuck, Mitchell, Parise, and Kyle Brodziak were terrific down the stretch. Detroit would catch the Wild's defense on a long pass and Nate Prosser tripped up Tatar who got back up and had a chance all alone on Kuemper who dove out and made a huge save. Prosser would get sent to the box for tripping and this put the spot light on the Wild's penalty kill. Minnesota's penalty killers did a fine job of providing timely pressure, taking advantage of key points where Detroit's puck carriers would get caught up near the boards on the backhand to pounce and clear the zone. Good active sticks and great hustle forced Detroit to settle for shots from the perimeter and the Wild would get another huge kill. The Wild were content to just work the puck deep, dumping it in as they crossed the red line and going for a line change to keep their legs as fresh as they could. Detroit would swarm all over the Wild zone and Drew Miller came close to tallying the equalizer as he spun a backhander that skittered through the Minnesota crease. The Red Wings would pull Mrazek with about a minute left but wouldn't be able to produce much in the way of offensive pressure as the Wild battled well along the wall and would earn a 3-2 victory.
Darcy Kuemper did a tremendous job for being a goaltender who probably thought he was going to be sitting on the bench for this one until just prior to the drop of the puck as Niklas Backstrom had to run back to the locker room on a few occasions to puke. Kuemper did give up a softy early in the 2nd but he came back with some outstanding saves in the 2nd and 3rd period that really allowed the Wild to earn a win. 29 saves in his first NHL victory which has to be awfully memorable for the former Red Deer Rebels star. Defensively I thought Brodin proved he has to be paired with Suter in order for the former Predator to feel comfortable and Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo dare not break that combination up unless its a matter of complete necessity. I thought Nate Prosser did a nice job in relief of Justin Falk and while he's not a flashy defender the team seems to play well when he plays.
Offensively the Wild had one of their most balanced scoring efforts since the season opener with the 1st, 2nd and 4th lines lighting the lamp this evening. A big reason for that was the speed of Jason Zucker who injected a huge dose of energy to a line that could use it. Having watched Zucker play in Houston as I have, I can say what you saw is pretty typical of the Las Vegas-native who has the wheels and is contagious with his teriffic effort to will himself scoring chances. The top line wasn't very dominant but it still managed to do its part in chipping in a goal and the game winner was scored by the 4th line who seemed to be more effective without Zenon Konopka in the lineup. Torrey Mitchell also had a great game; apart from his goal in using speed to be effective on the forecheck on a mix-and-match line with Rupp and Granlund. I thought Cal Clutterbuck had more jump in his skates and made some good things happen offensively too. Johan Larsson was decent in his debut but he's not a flashy player but he certainly possess the strength to work well along the boards which he did but its not the kind of play that draws a lot of attention.
This was a quality comeback for a team that really needed it. I was a bit afraid the team was going to take its foot off of the gas after it took the lead in the 2nd period. But they didn't let up and seemed to want it more than Detroit who really didn't put much of a scare other than a few isolated opportunities in the 3rd period. I wouldn't go predicting the playoffs just yet but it was a nice performance that hopefully the team can build off of. They now have a few days off to get healthy and it will be interesting to see if the team makes any roster changes in the meantime as players get healthy. It wasn't perfect, the Wild were sleep walking in the 1st period and luckily for them Kuemper made some huge saves to keep it close which allowed the team to eventually rally back. Maybe Hockey Weekend in America wasn't so lame afterall?!?!
~ The Wild roster this late afternoon was: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Zach Parise, Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen, Jason Zucker, Kyle Brodziak, Johan Larsson, Cal Clutterbuck, Mike Rupp, Mikael Granlund, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Tom Gilbert, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon. Niklas Backstrom backed up Darcy Kuemper. Zenon Konopka was the lone 'healthy' scratch as Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Justin Falk were out of the lineup due to illness.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Jason Zucker, 2nd Star Darcy Kuemper, 3rd Star Torrey Mitchell
~ Attendance was 19,117 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ Johan Larsson wore #47 in his NHL debut joining Marc-Andre Bergeron as the only other player to wear that number for the Wild.
~ The State of Hockey News would like to congratulate the Golden Gophers' Women's hockey team on earning their 40th consecutive victory with a 3-2 overtime victory over Bemidji State.
Wild Prospect Report:
F - Adam Gilmour (Muskegon, USHL) ~ It has been a good weekend for the 6'3" forward and Boston College recruit as he netted 2 goals and an assist in 2 games against the U.S. National Development Team and Youngstown respectively. The Hanover, Massachusetts-native has 17 goals and 38 points in 48 games played.
D - Nick Seeler (Nebraska-Omaha, WCHA) ~ It has been an up and down season for the Mavericks' freshman. After starting season on the top pairing Seeler has struggled to get ice time, serving on UNO's 3rd pairing. Seeler tallied an assist in the Mavericks' dramatic 6-5 overtime win against Alaska-Anchorage on Saturday night.
F - Mario Lucia (Notre Dame, CCHA) ~ Lucia got Notre Dame on the scoreboard first with his 2nd period tally in the Hockey City Classic in Chicago earlier today. That was his 10th goal of the season, and he has 19 points in 23 games.