Just Win Baby. It was the mantra of Al Davis, the flamboyant owner of the Oakland Raiders whose teams were often a colorful collection of players who not only embraced that philosophy but were known for having a few drinks at halftime. In today's age of the scientifically refined professional athlete its hard to imagine an athlete having a beer between periods or a cigarette. One of the clubs to have compiled an impressive winning streak like the Wild's opponent tonight, the Chicago Blackhawks was the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens who piled up an impressive 35 wins at home in a row. This was the same season where Les Glorieux had the greatest goals for / goals against ratio ever at +216. Just to put that in perspective, the Minnesota Wild have only scored more than 216 goals as a team just 5 times in its 12 seasons of existance. Even on that team, and perhaps it was a reflection of the 1970's but Guy Lafleur was known to light up a cigarette between periods even during the Habs glory days, as well as lighting up goaltenders as part of one of the greatest NHL teams ever. How good is the Blackhawks' current points streak? Its the longest ever points streak without a regulation loss in NHL history. All good things come to an end, but when will it?
The Minnesota Wild handed the Blackhawks their first loss of any kind with a win in the shootout at the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center. This time they'll be at the boisterous and mostly hostile United Center where the Blackhawks fans will be hoping their 'Hawks can earn their 20th win. Can Minnesota put an end to the Blackhawks' historic run, and continue their climb towards the top of the Western Conference?
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1st Period Thoughts: If you were watching the game and had to sit next to that dolt that whistles constantly throughout the game. I think there might be an incident. Minnesota would earn an early power play but it was Chicago taking the opportunity to go on the attack as Jonathan Toews found some room after a nice pass by Marian Hossa and it looked like he'd score on the breakaway as he got Niklas Backstrom to drop before pushing his backhand shot wide of the goal. Minnesota wasn't able to get much of anything going on the power play, as the aggressive Chicago penalty killers gave the Wild precious little time and space with the puck. Coming up empty on the power play, the Wild got a great shift from its 4th line as Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak and MIke Rupp caused Chicago some trouble as they won the little races for the puck where it led to a good shooting opportunity for Brodziak. The good shift sort of inspired the Wild to start moving its feet a bit more and Minnesota started to build some momentum. A few minutes later the Wild's 2nd line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Jason Zucker used its speed to cause the Blackhawks some misery down long the boards and again winning those little races for the puck which ultimately led to a turnover near the Chicago blueline as they were about to get it out of the zone where Cullen poke checked it away. Cullen quickly turned and moved in and fired a shot that was stopped by Corey Crawford but Setoguchi was there to shovel home the rebound to make it 1-0 Wild. It was a great shift where Minnesota simply outworked the Blackhawks. Cullen and Setoguchi were tremendous and that line continues to exhibit terrific chemistry. The Blackhwks would try to answer back and they'd set up Patrick Kane for two prime scoring chances but couldn't convert. Chicago continued to attack and Charlie Coyle would lose a battle along the boards as he ran into a wall that was Brandon Saad. Saad would dish the pass over to Toews who backhanded a shot on goal that was Backstrom couldn't control and then it was Saad banging home the rebound to tie the game. Just 44 seconds after Saad's goal, the Blackhawks would strike again as this time it was a shot by Viktor Stalberg that gave Backstrom trouble again and would lead to another rebound that was swept up and flung in by Bryan Bickell who was being 'shadowed' by Mikael Granlund who looked small and clueless in the defensive zone. The Wild's 2nd line tried to answer back and Zucker exhibited a little 'dangle' in his game but his effort was foiled by Cullen who sort of stepped in front of Toews who sold the interference call by falling to the ice. Minnesota's penalty kill was aggressive and did a nice job of keeping Chicago to the perimeter, denying time and space effectively and the Blackhawks failed to get anything going on the power play. Just after the Wild killed off the power play the Blackhawks would light the lamp as Brandon Saad won a draw and pushed it over to Bryan Bickell who wasted little time beating the Wild goalie with a quick wrist shot over the left shoulder, 3-1. It was soft goal and at a time where the Wild needed Backstrom to keep this a one-goal game. After another solid shift by the Wild's 2nd line, the Blackhawks would again assert its dominance as Chicago got a little space and Marian Hossa wired a shot that beat Backstrom high glove side which has been suspect all night. Chicago had to be chuckling a bit as some suspect goaltending helped Blackhawks get a 4-1 lead, outshooting the Wild 17-4. The only line for the Wild that seemed to have jump and the ability to create chances was the 2nd line of Cullen, Setoguchi and Zucker. The 1st line seemed to be a step too slow and the 3rd line of Granlund, Dany Heatley and Pierre-Marc Bouchard seemed a bit timid. The 4th line was reasonable but the Wild have to get something out of its 1st and 3rd lines if it wants to come back. I would fully expect to see Darcy Kuemper be between the pipes for the start of the 2nd period. Minnesota's lack of physicality and strength on defense was being exposed too.
2nd Period Thoughts: As expected Kuemper was manning the crease to start the 2nd period. The Wild were showing a little desperation early in the period, as they tried to get going offensively. The first quality chance came off the stick of Dany Heatley at point blank range who jammed at it in the blue paint by Crawford was able to hold on. Minnesota continued to try to attack but as they did so the Blackhawks flipped a switch and turned the tables on the Wild and pretty soon we were chasing around Chicago players in our own end. Chicago was content to work the puck deep and force Minnesota to bring the puck up the full length of the ice. The Wild couldn't seem to get much of anything going offensively and they wouldn't help their cause when Jonas Brodin mishandled a puck at the blueline forcing him to hold up a charging Bickell for an obvious interference penalty. Minnesota's penalty killers again did a fine job of making it difficult for a very good Chicago power play and with timely puck pressure they held the Blackhawks to just one shot on the man advantage and more importantly they kept them from adding to their lead. The Wild would try to go back on the attack and it was Pierre-Marc Bouchard out legging Niklas Hjalmarsson for a puck and he'd flip a pass to Jared Spurgeon who directed a shot on goal and he and Heatley would try to jam at it but Crawford was able to make a stop. Moments after that the Wild's 2nd line caused Chicago some more problems with their great hustle along the wall and it was Matt Cullen setting up Devin Setoguchi for a close-range chance but Crawford delivered another big stop. Chicago was looking to counter punch and a long pass by Hjalmarsson connected with Patrick Sharp for a break away that was steered aside by Kuemper. Chicago would earn a power play late as Justin Falk sort of threw down Stalberg for a holding call. The Wild's penalty kill was again excellent although this time Chicago was able to set up but Darcy Kuemper looked poised, making a fine glove save on a blast from the point by Ducan Keith. Minnesota penalty killers' puck pressure started to yield dividends as they worked the puck deep into the Chicago zone, preventing the Blackhawks to get set up in the offensive zone and the Wild would still trail by three going into the 2nd intermission. It was an ok period, but Minnesota needs to find more ways to create offense if it really wants a chance at a comeback. Being outshot 10-4 when you're trying to comeback just isn't going to get it done.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would try to jump on Chicago early in the 3rd as Charlie Coyle raced into the Blackhawks' zone on the forecheck and created a turnover that turned into a quick scoring chance for Zach Parise who tried to jam it in but it was kicked aside by Crawford. The Wild would create a scoring chance on a nice backhanded pass from Bouchard to a streaking Granlund get behind the Blackhawks' defense but he was unable to get a shot off before he was chcked up in the face by Hjalmarsson giving Minnesota a power play. The Wild would struggle a bit to get set up in the offensive zone and after some hard work along the wall the puck would be worked out to the point where Ryan Suter stepped into a slapper that went off the left post and in to cut the Chicago lead to two, 4-2. The Wild went right back on the attack and the 2nd line was there to cause some more trouble as Devin Setoguchi got off a quick shot that was stopped by the leg pad of Crawford. Chicago tried to counter attack and a they nearly cashed in on their first scoring chance of the period as Toews motored into the Wild zone as he was thwarted by a strong play by Justin Falk who rode him off the play. Minnesota's 3rd line would get another scoring chance as Mikael Granlund got a little space and he'd let loose a heavy wrist shot that was stopped by the leg pad of Crawford. The Wild kept taking its chanes and the 4th line would cash in after a nice initial shot by Mike Rupp created a rebound and Torrey Mitchell tapped it on goal that Crawford reached back and stopped but Brodziak was there to poke it over the goal line to make it a one-goal game, 4-3. Darcy Kuemper would provide a little drama as he got caught out of his crease playing the puck as his pass was stolen by Stalberg who tried to pass it out front but Kuemper dove and stopped it with the paddle before covering it up (sort of) earning a lucky quick whistle which drew the ire of the now anxious home crowd. The Blackhawks would answer Minnesota's little offensive surge as some poor passes through the neutral zone turned into a shot on goal by sharp that created a rebound that was buried by Patrick Kane, 5-3 Chicago. Minnesota's 4th line would create a scoring chance after some nice work along the wall by Brodziak to eventually turn into a pass from Suter to Rupp who tried to lift a backhand but Crawford was just able to knock it down and hold on for a whistle. Minnesota's top line started to assert itself a little more in the last few minutes as they tried to cut the lead to one but they didn't seem to have quite enough jump to get it done. Minnesota would pull Kuemper for an extra attacker with about a minute and half left to play but couldn't get much of anything going as Chicago challenged well through neutral zone. The Wild would take a timeout with about 50 seconds left, but it didn't matter as all the Wild could manage was one more shot from Suter which was gloved by Crawford and Chicago would prevail 5-3.
Niklas Backstrom effectively handed the game to the Blackhawks with some porous goaltending, giving up 4 goals on 17 shots. This effectively dug the hole the offensively challenged Wild tried to fill all game long. Darcy Keumper did a decent job in relief, giving up just one goal on 15 shots. Tom Gilbert was absolutely awful tonight and looked slow and hesitant all game long. His poor pass was intercepted late in the 3rd that really put the dagger into the Wild as they were surging after two goals earlier in the period. I thought Ryan Suter was tremendous, logging 28:08 minutes of ice time and looking like the leader the team spent the big money on. It was great to see him light the lamp. I also like the way Jonas Brodin played, looking calm and collected all game long. It won't be long before he lights the lamp too. Minnesota's inability to handle Chicago physically to keep them off the rebounds killed them and this team should consider finding a big, mean defenseman.
Offensively, the Wild had a great effort from its 2nd line of Setoguchi, Cullen and Zucker as well as its 4th line of Mitchell, Rupp and Brodziak who I also felt had a strong game. The 2nd line really was the only one that I felt seemed to be dangerous on just about every shift. Both lines managed to cause some trouble on the forecheck and create some scoring chances through effort and solid play along the boards. The Wild's 1st line for the most part was missing in action and Mikko Koivu seemed to be going through the motions after a strong game on Sunday. Defensively, the lack of assertiveness and hustle of the 3rd line of Heatley, Granlund and Bouchard was a major liability and their -3 was evidence of that. Granlund had a few flashes of the offensive skill he has been hyped to possess tonight, but that wasn't enough to mask his poor initiative defensively as best seen by him standing next to Bryan Bickell as he swept up a rebound and then buried a goal as Granlund crouched for some weak shot blocking attempt. On the bright side the Wild did manage to get 3 goals against the most stingy team defensively.
The Blackhawks certainly deserved the victory this evening. Bickell, Saad are just evidence of the interchangeable parts Chicago has where one line or a few players don't have to be the heroes in order for this team to win games. They can get offense from its secondary lines who all seem to have a mix of speed, skill, size and grit. The results speak for themselves. This should be a tremendous rivalry and the Wild will be hard pressed to beat a team that is as balanced as the Blackhawks are. Minnesota now has a few days off before it gets to Nashville where Ryan Suter will face an extremely hostile Predators crowd that felt betrayed by his defection to the Wild. Hopefully the Wild can rest up and be ready for what will be an intense game on Saturday.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Jason Zucker, Pierre-Marc Boucahrd, Mikael Granlund, Dany Heatley, Mike Rupp, Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Jared Spurgeon, Tom Gilbert, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Niklas Backstrom shared duties between the pipes with Darcy Kuemper. Zenon Konopka and Nate Prosser were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Bryan Bickell, 2nd Star Brandon Saad, 3rd Star Marian Hossa
~ Attendance was 21,836 at United Center.
Top 10 NCAA Men's Hockey Pairwise Rankings:
#1 Quinnipiac (ECAC) ~ (24-5-5)
#2 Minnesota (WCHA) ~ (22-7-5)
#3 Miami (CCHA) ~ (22-9-5)
#4 UMass-Lowell (H-East) ~ (21-9-2)
#5 New Hampshire (H-East) ~ (18-8-6)
#6 Boston College (H-East) ~ (19-10-3)
#7 North Dakota (WCHA) ~ (18-9-7)
#8 Minnesota State (WCHA) ~ (21-10-3)
#9 Denver (WCHA) ~ (17-11-5)
#10 St. Cloud State (WCHA) ~ (20-13-1)
Top 10 NCAA Women's Hockey Pairwise rankings:
#1 Minnesota (WCHA ~ (36-0-0)
#2 Cornell (ECAC) ~ (25-5-1)
#3 Boston College (H-East) ~ (26-5-3)
#4t Harvard (ECAC) ~ (23-5-3)
#4t Boston University (H-East) ~ (24-5-3)
#4t Clarkson (ECAC) ~ (28-8-0)
#7 Mercyhurst (CHA) ~ (26-6-1)
#8t North Dakota (WCHA) ~ (25-10-1)
#8t Wisconsin (WCHA) ~ (23-9-2)
#8t Northeastern (H-East) ~ (22-10-2)