Some players describe it as pins and needles, or the sensation of electricity running through the body when they think about that moment when they are totally amped. It can sometimes feel as though time slows down, or how you become sensitive to the smallest things. Your body becomes so charged that you feel like you could run through a wall and not even feel it. I have a feeling that is what Minnesota North Stars players felt each game played against the Chicago Blackhawks during the height of that incredible rivalry. I know the fans in the stands certainly felt that way, and skirmishes between fans of both clubs was common. Just to give you a taste of the rivalry, here is video of an old North Stars game that has Basil McRae ultimately dropping the gloves against Chicago's Mike Peluso as commentated by Doug McLeod and Tom Reid.
For fans like myself, who remember those halcyon days where Chicago fans burned Dino the Dinosaurs in effigy many of us were hoping to see that rivalry rekindled with NHL realignment this season, only to have it thwarted as a cheap negotiation tactic by Donald Fehr and the NHLPA. NHL realignment is going to happen soon, so will we see the rivalry crank back up to the way it was in the 1980's? The season is still early but the Blackhawks are again atop the league standings and the Wild are trying to build themselves into a contender, is this the perfect storm that will feed a rivalry for years to come? Will we see some of that added intensity tonight?
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Dany Heatley & Brandon Bollig
1st Period Thoughts: Both teams started the game with their top lines, but nothing came of it as the game had a cautious beginning. The Wild would strike early, as Mikael Granlund won the faceoff in the Blackhawks' zone and the Finn would take a quick shot that struck the shoulder of Corey Crawford and Devin Setoguchi got a quick shot off the rebound that was also denied by Crawford but Matt Cullen was there to jam home the 2nd rebound to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. The Blackhawks tried to answer back with their 3rd line as they worked the puck down low, but Minnesota's defense would drop down near Josh Harding and the WIld were able to alleviate pressure. Minnesota would respond with its top line and Dany Heatley found a little space for a close-range chance that was stopped by Crawford. Chicago would seem to answer back as Patrick Sharp ripped a shot that deflected off the stick of Pierre-Marc Bouchard and struck the crossbar. However the Blackhawks would not wait around for it to be reviewed and their energy line would tie the game as a failed clearing attempt by Granlund was knocked down and pushed deep to Bryan Bickell who took the puck right to the net that Harding stopped but he was unable to stop Andrew Shaw's rebound chance and now it was 1-1. The Blackhawks would add to that a minute later as Jonathan Toews motored up the ice as he rifled a hard snap shot that beat Harding cleanly and without the benefit of a screen. Not a great goal and Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo was not going to hesitate and he pulled Josh Harding in favor of Niklas Backstrom. Harding had to wait for Backstrom to get his glove and you could see the anxiety and anger building on his face and as the Regina-native walked down to the Wild locker room he slammed his stick against the wall in a fit of rage. The Wild seemed to be a little stunned by the early move and te Blackhawks continued to carry the play as Shaw set up a quick shot off the rush as Bickell pushed a shot just wide. The game would slow down a bit through the middle part of the period, but Minnesota had the next great scoring chance as soft shot by Ryan Suter was deflected to the stick of Koivu who let loose a quick shot that was stoppped by the leg pad of Crawford. Minnesota's top line would have another great chane on a nice little saucer pass by Koivu to Parise who turned on the jets to fly by Brent Seabrook but he couldn't quite direct his backhander on goal before he slid into the goal. The home crowd boo'd the officials as they felt Parise was tripped, but I didn't see it. A few minutes later, Zenon Konopka would try to goad Brandon Bollig into a fight but as he went out of his way to deliver a body check the officials felt he held up the Blackhawks tough guy from reaching the puck so instead it was an interference call instead of a fight. A stupid penalty. Minnesota's penalty kill was solid, and even created some momentum shorthanded as Cal Clutterbuck intercepted a pass near Chicago's blueline and he got off a quick shot on goal that kept the Blackhawks in their own zone. The Blackhawks would help kill of the power play as Backstrom was taken down inadvertently by Viktor Stalberg. As the Wild started their power play Mikael Granlund would skate in deep and he was cross checked into the dasher by Michal Frolik for a boarding call to give Minnesota a two-man advantage. Bouchard would set up the first chance as he moved towards the goal before sliding a sneaky backhand pass to Heatley who hammered a shot wide. Minnesota's puck movement was quick as the Wild had a few terrific scoring chances as Bouchard was set up on the back door off a great pass by Koivu but was foiled by a diving stop by Crawford. The Wild kept working the play setting up Heatley right in front of the crease but Crawford was again up to the task. Minnesota would come up empty on the power play but they continued to work for the equalizer as Heatley made a pretty saucer pass to Granlund who directed it on goal but Crawford was able to hold on, allowing Chicago to hold a 2-1 lead going into the 1st intermission. Not bad effor by the Wild, but they need to get a right handed shot on their power play. It was good to see Matt Cullen to finally bury one, just for his own sanity let alone Wild fans who have been almost as frustrated by his inability to finish. Still, the missed opportunity on the 5-on-3 could come back to haunt the Wild who seem to be very much in the game momentum-wise.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild would carry their momentum from the 1st period right into the 2nd as they'd waste little time tying the game. A point shot by Tom Gilbert was deflected perfectly by Cal Clutterbuck that eluded Crawford to make it 2-2. The goal just simply added that much more fire for the Wild who were really flying all over the ice. The Wild were winning the races for the loose pucks and the scoring chances started to pile up as Kyle Brodziak outmuscled a Blackhawks player for the puck and he set up Bouchard for a quick shot that was fought off by Crawford. Moments after that Granlund would dish a pass back to Justin Falk who stepped into a slapper that missed just wide of the Chicago goal. The Blackhawks tried to claw back by trying to create speed through the neutral zone but Minnesota's defense did a fine job of shutting them down. A great example was Patrick Sharp who tried to move around Jonas Brodin who used his stick perfectly to prevent the Chicago sniper from letting loose a shot. Chicago was able to create a few shots from the perimiter but Backstrom was composed in the crease and able to come up with the big saves. The Blackhawks best line was the Bickell, Shaw and Stalberg line that seemed to cause the Wild trouble on the forecheck and they came the closest to finding the back of the net in the period. Minnesota would earn another power play as the 4th line provided quality minutes and it was Torrey Mitchell who was held up by Marcus Kruger. The Wild did not do anything with the power play and seemed to be satisfied by just not having to worry about Chicago mounting much of an attack and that drew the boo's from the sellout crowd. A nice period for the Wild who really sort of set the tone in the period early with good hustle. However, the weak effort on the power play was disturbing and seemed to smack of a team playing not to lose rather than playing to win. Now the 3rd line has a goal, another good sign for the Wild and Clutterbuck as well. The Wild were outshooting Chicago 19-15 at this point in the game. Right now its anyone's game, it will just come down to who wants it more.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Blackhawks looked determined to start the period as David Bolland took a sharp angle shot that was gloved by Backtrom. Chicago was dictating the pace of play, moving the puck deep and trying to work their forecheck and then find a defenseman sneaking down towards the slot but good active sticks kept that play from connecting. Tempers would flare a bit as Konopka would get into a war of words with Bolland. A few minutes later Clayton Stoner would earn an interference penalty as he stepped in front of rookie Brandon Saad from chasing down his own dump in. On the power play the Blackhawks had lots of possession time but Minnesota's penalty killers did a nice job of keeping their sticks active and moving their feet well to get bodies and sticks in Chicago's potential shooting lanes. Ryan Suter was particularly good at poking pucks keeping pucks from reaching Backstrom and the Wild were able to get the big kill. Both clubs top lines would make their presence be known with a pair of quality scoring chances. The first was for Chicago who worked the puck down low and it was Patrick Kane setting up Duncan Keith for a blast from the high slot that was gloved by Backstrom. Minnesota's top line answered back with a good chance of their own that all started on a shot block by Stoner and the puck was swept up by Parise who skated into the Chicago zone before dropping a pass back to Koivu who tried to saucer a pass back to Parise who chipped it wide but he'd gather up the puck again and pass it back to Gilbert who fired a hard shot that was blocked away by Niklas Hjalmarsson. Chicago would go back on the attack with its 3rd line as Kruger tried to wrap a puck near the left post but Backstrom was there to shut the door before Kruger finally shot a puck that skittered through the crease and was escorted out of the zone by Mitchell. The Blackhawks continued to pour it on offensively as Toews set up Sharp for a shot from the high slot that missed by inches. Minnesota would counter attack with its 2nd line and after some good hustle by Cullen, Setoguchi and Granlund it would culminate in a heavy shot from the point by Gilbert that was redirected by Setoguchi that Crawford just managed to kick away at the last moment. The Wild seemed to be finding their legs towards the latter half of the period as Pierre-Marc Bouchard gave a little pass to Koivu who dangled around Sharp who hauled down the Wild's captain as he moved to the slot for a potential shot giving Minnesota a crucial late-game power play. With just over two minutes to play this was a great opportunity for Minnesota. The Wild's top unit was patient, but Chicago forced Minnesota to settle for shots from the perimeter and the two clubs would go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: The Blackhawks would have the first chance of overtime as Towes worked a little play with Kane who fired a shot on goal that was absorbed by Backstrom. The Wild would answer back with a good break out started by a pass by Suter to Parise for a 3-on-1 and Parise dropped it back to Suter who stepped into a slap shot that just missed wide and the Blackhawks countered with a rush of their own as Sharp stepped into a big shot that was snared by Backstrom. Pierre-Marc Bouchard would steal a puck in the neutral zone and he'd lead a rush where he dished it to Setoguchi who gunned a shot on goal that stopped by Crawford. The Blackhawks would go back on the attack and Patrick Kane made a nice spin-a-rama pass that just failed to click with Marian Hossa and the game would go to a shootout.
Shootout Overview: The Wild would opt to shoot first, and they'd send out Zach Parise. Parise's first attempt he'd move in slow and with a simple little deke got Crawford to drop and then slide it in on an easy forehand to make it 1-0 Wild. Chicago's first shooter was Jonathan Toews who moved in with a little more speed and beat Backstrom on a sneaky little backhander to tie it up. Minnesota's next shooter was Mikko Koivu; and the captain would move in with a fair amount of speed and he'd try to work his forehand to backhand deke shelf but Crawford got just a little to knock the puck up and over the goal. Chicago's next shooter was Patrick Kane who tried to move in slow and attempt a move similar to that of Parise's but Backstrom stonewalled him. Minnesota's next shooter was Matt Cullen who moved in and then slowed down and then sped up before threading a nasty wrist shot that beat Crawford 5-hole to give the Wild a 2-1 shootout lead. This put all of the pressure on the shoulders of Patrick Sharp who moved up the ice and he fired a heavy wrist shot that he rang off the crossbar and out to give Minnesota a 3-2 shootout victory.
Niklas Backstrom was stellar in relief of Josh Harding who was pulled after giving up 2 goals on just 4 shots. Backstrom had 27 saves and from a technical standpoint looked much calmer in his crease and was not flopping around and guessing as he had in the previous games. He was back to his technically sound self, with an economy of movement and was controlling his rebounds very well to deny 2nd chances. Defensively I thought Jonas Brodin was great and Ryan Suter had a solid game. The fact the Wild's penalty kill was again perfect is another good sign after stonewalling two good teams on the man advantage in the Blues and now Chicago (knock on wood). It was a bold move by Mike Yeo to pull Harding so soon in the game, but its impossible to argue with the result. I know Josh didn't appreciate it, as demonstrated by his outburst but it just wasn't his night tonight.
Offensively the 2nd and 3rd line finally carried the load. Cullen getting his first was huge considering how many close ones he's had so far this season. The Wild were able to get more offensive pressure from its 2nd and 3rd lines and that helped the Wild who didn't have to lean so much on its top line to get shots on goal. Want some more proof. Look at personal shot totals the post-game event summary.
Cullen - 3 shots
Setoguchi - 2 shots
Granlund - 3 shots
Brodziak - 3 shots
Bouchard - 1 shot
Clutterbuck - 2 shots
All on a night where the leading shooter in the NHL, Zach Parise had just one shot on goal. It was crucial for the Wild for these supporting lines to step up. If the 2nd and 3rd lines can at least take their opportunities like this the better off this team will be as a whole.
This was a good team effort and while at times Chicago really dominated the play the Wild's defense bent but didn't break and Backstrom was the x-factor in coming up with some huge saves. Hopefully the boys can get rested up a bit before their game against Anaheim on Friday.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak, Pierre-Marc Boucahrd, Cal Clutterbuck, Darroll Powe, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Justin Falk and Clayton Stoner. Josh Harding shared the duties between the pipes along with Niklas Backstrom. Nate Prosser and Matt Kassian were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Cal Clutterbuck, 3rd Star Matt Cullen
~ Attendance was 18,550 at Xcel Energy Center.