"Beware the Ides of March," one of the more ominous and famous lines from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. It was a moment of foreshadowing for the great Roman leader who was going to be betrayed by supposed allies who were jealous of Julius' growing power and popularity. It is a play perhaps every student is exposed to in English or Literature classes when they go to high school. I remember it rather well, the scheming of characters Cassius and Brutus before they murder the great leader. "Et tu Brute" gasped by Caesar as he realizes who his assassins were which included his supposed best friend Brutus, but his realization was all too late to prevent his demise. Its a classic tragic tale. Did a similar "Ides of March" moment take place Tuesday night for the Minnesota Wild when Anaheim's Corey Perry delivered a late and dirty check to Jason Zucker who sustained an upper body injury and earning Perry a 4-game suspension. So where is this moment? How about the non-existent reaction by Zucker's teammates who did not confront Perry after the hit. Wasn't that a classic case where the 'Code' kicks in? If Zucker hadn't been knocked nearly unconscious by the devastating hit, would he had turned to his teammates in a sort of an "Et tu Brute" moment and asked why they didn't stand up for him more forcefully? In fact, the Wild's overall reaction to the hit does seem to appear rather ominous. In the 5-minute power play that ensued the Wild looked completely confused for the first two minutes. Zucker is not even a player that is normally used on the man advantage, but the effect was rather evident. Poor passes and even worse execution made what should've been an opportunity to add to their lead into a momentum builder for the Ducks which led to them getting the tying goal and eventually netting the game winner. So was this game our "Ides of March" moment?
I think we could very well find out tonight. After Zucker was taken out of the lineup, the team really looked out of sync the rest of the game as lines were juggled trying to find a new combination that would work. The Wild certainly will not get any sympathy from division rival Colorado tonight. The Avalanche have suffered through more than their fair share of injuries and they will hope to ambush a Wild team that seems to be in a state of confusion. So will the Wild put these fears to rest and answer with strength or will they appear emotionally fragile and unfocused?
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1st Period Thoughts: The first period was typical period for the 2013 Minnesota Wild where they tease you with some moments of excellent hustle, a few decent scoring chances, a failed power play and then a let down late that allows the opponent to tie the game. Its like a bad country song, really. The Wild were a little sluggish at the start which prompted Zenon Konopka to try to spark his club with a fight with Cody McLeod. Konopka weathered a good barrage of punches by McLeod early, but then rallied to control the rest of the fight, landing a number of quality hooks and then even getting his arm over and around McLeod's head to throw a few punches Nolan Ryan-style. I think you have to give the edge to Konopka who appeared to be in control of the fight and the Wild got a little more jump in their skates because of it. In fact, the Wild would answer right away as some good forechecking pressure by the slightly modified 4th line of Mike Rupp forced Ryan Wilson to get rid of it where it was stolen by Matt Cullen who fed a puck out front to Torrey Mitchell who lifted a quick shot just underneath the arm of Semyon Varlamov and in to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. Minnesota then tilted the ice in its direction with good hustle and forechecking pressure that created scoring chances for the 1st line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle but the Wild were really aiming for the corners and missing them high and wide. The Avalanche tried to counter attack but Niklas Backstrom was sharp and when Backstrom sort of got lost a bit, he was bailed out by a head's up play by Ryan Suter who spirited away a loose puck that sat in the blue paint after an attempt by Matt Duchene. The Wild would have their obligatory power play, and even get lucky by having a short 5-on-3 when Greg Zanon slashed the stick out of Devin Setoguchi's hand but Minnesota just couldn't convert. They managed to set up Cullen in the slot who blasted it high and wide as did Setoguchi and Minnesota's missed opportunity would be repaid by a cheap goal for Colorado. Late in the period, after a hooking penalty by Justin Falk who was caught flat footed by a player who nearly made an end to end rush (how is that possible?) the Avalanche's P.A. Parenteau scored on a fanned shot that fluttered up and fooled Niklas Backstrom who seemed to have lost track of the biscuit. The goal really killed the crowd and you could sense the team now was feeling pretty anxious. Worse yet it was scored with less than 30 seconds left in the period which is a cardinal sin in any sport. I thought Pierre-Marc Bouchard looked ok on the 2nd line, but still that line doesn't look nearly as good without Zucker being on it. Bouchard tried to play fast, but he doesn't play with the same level of fearlessness that Zucker had. Justin Falk looked terrible out there. Being tied 1-1 with Colorado is a recipe for disaster.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild kept pushing the pace against Colorado and its porous defense and the shots started to mount right away. Varlamov appeared to be fighting the puck and eventually the Wild's relentless attack would finally break open the flood gates. One line that seemed to be getting better and more dangerous with each shift was the 2nd line of Cullen, Setoguchi and Bouchard; as you could see the cohesion increasing as the period went on. Almost mid-way through the 2nd period, Bouchard would receive a pass just beyond the Wild blueline and as he saw his linemates rush up ice Bouchard waited just a brief moment allowing Cullen to get up to speed so when he gave him the puck the Moorhead-native was flying through the neutral zone so when he entered Colorado's zone he was able to put the Avalanche defenseman on their heels. Specifically, the bearded Greg Zanon who dropped to the ice way early to block what he thought was going to be a shot by Cullen but the speedy Wild forward skated around him and then lifted a backhander that Varlamov knocked down but Setoguchi was there to tap it over the goal line to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead. Zanon would get involved again when he delivered a not bad hip check to Mike Rupp who thought it was a bit late. Rupp would skate over and sort of give a few punches to the back of Zanon's head and both players would head to the box as Rupp was given a roughing minor and Zanon with the trip. With the ice a little more open the Wild would add to its lead as a big rebound was picked up by Ryan Suter who slid a pass over to Jonas Brodin who wired a shot over the shoulder of a slightly out of position Varlamov to make it 3-1 Wild. It was a nice first NHL goal for the rookie who has been playing beyond his years since joining the team. Yet with the arena buzzing the Wild helped kill some of those good feelings with an absent-minded next shift as Colorado would work the puck deep and it was Ryan O'Reilly winning a puck battle against two Minnesota defenders and he'd backhand a pass out towards the slot where Gabriel Landeskog was waiting to undress Backstrom with a nice little forehand to backhand move before lifting up and in to cut the Wild lead back one, 3-2. Minnesota would respond rather quickly itself, as just a minute later a turnover near the blueline became a rush up the ice that was turned into a 3-on-2 by great hustle by Ryan Suter. Parise raced in and drove low before sliding a pass back to Suter who then passed it back to Parise for what the Avalanche thought would be a one-timer and they dropped to the ice but the savvy Minneapolis-native one-timed a cross-ice pass to Mikko Koivu for an empty net goal. It was a beauty of a tic-tac-toe play to give the Wild a 4-2 lead. Minnesota continued to control the play late in the period and the Wild earned a nice cheer from the home crowd as they nearly scored again at the buzzer as Koivu was stonewalled on a point-blank range chance after a nice pass by Charlie Coyle. Nice response by the Wild after letting up and giving the Avalanche an easy one after a bad defensive breakdown. Maybe its just me but Tom Gilbert seems to be laboring out there with his skating. The legs just seem a bit heavy to me. The Wild registered 19 shots on goal, compared to Colorado's 12.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota had good energy to start the 3rd period, and a huge hit delivered by both Justin Falk and Cal Clutterbuck to Chuck Kobasew angered the former Wild winger and he'd drop the gloves with Clutterbuck. It wasn't that bad of a fight although Kobasew didn't seem to really want to trade punches with Clutterbuck as he tried to tie him up and keep him too close to throw anything. Clutterbuck would get his arm free and he fired a few wicked jabs right underneath Kobasew's visor until it was finally stopped by the officials. Kobasew would earn an instigator penalty on top of the fighting major giving Minnesota a power play. The Wild's power play was ok, setting up a few good scoring chances with the best one coming off a quick shot by Kyle Brodziak that Varlamov stopped and Parise jammed at but couldn't get it completely by the Colorado goalie who reached back to deny Minnesota another goal. The failed power play again came back to bite the Wild as Colorado would get a little lucky as a long shot by Erik Johnson was stopped by Backstrom but the rebound went right to the stick of Parenteau who ripped it by the Minnesota netminder to cut the lead to one, 4-3. The Avalanche were looking very hungry, taking every opportunity to shoot the puck on goal. Colorado was pinching a bit with its defenseman and the Wild were making it easy for the Avalanche to hold the zone by trying to clear it low but after a few failed attempts Minnesota would learn from its mistakes and start making short little passes and the result was the Wild were now able to counterpunch a bit. This led to some nice scoring chances in transition as Parise ripped a shot wide of the mark off the rush, and moments after that a big shot by Setoguchi created a big rebound and Bouchard just wasn't quite able to pounce on it soon enough and he pushed a shot just wide. The game would start to open up and pretty soon both clubs were trading rushes up ice. The speedy Avalanche were swarming all over the Wild end and Landeskog's near breakaway bid was steered away by a clutch save by Backstrom. With a little over a minute, Colorado would pull Varlamov for an extra attacker. It wouldn't work as Ryan Suter helped work the puck out of the zone before pushing the puck up to Parise who gave a cross-ice pass to Koivu who backhanded a shot into the empty net to seal a 5-3 victory.
Its pretty tough to blame Niklas Backstrom for the goals Colorado scored tonight. The floater looks easy to us but with such a strange trajectory its a pretty tough puck to track, and he was left out to dry on Landeskog's tally. Backstrom came up with some big stops when the Wild really needed it, making 29 saves in the victory. I thought Ryan Suter was again terrific, not only tallying 3 assists but making some timely defensive plays and is playing with a high level of comfort now. While the Wild's defense relied a little too much on the boards and glass to get themselves out of jams at certain points of the game they settled down and began to make the tape-to-tape passes and suddenly Colorado's forecheck didn't seem so oppressive. It was great to see Jonas Brodin get his first goal, a nice reward for some strong play this season.
Minnesota got offensive contributions from all over tonight. With the 4th line getting things going as Torrey Mitchell had an outstanding game. He was pesky all night long, using his speed very effectively and I loved seeing him taking his chances to shoot the puck. Mike Rupp also played well, and his ability to The 2nd line also had a good game as Culen, Bouchard and Setoguchi brought what we have grown to expect which is a lot of speed and a swarming style that drives opponents nuts. While Bouchard may not charge into the corners the way Zucker did he fit in rather well in the little cycling game in the offensive zone and showed an assertiveness to pounce on loose pucks. The top line paced Minnesota as it has throughout most of this season and Parise and Koivu continue to raise each other's game.
This game was prime for a bit of a let down after the big challenge on Tuesday against Anaheim where the Wild let one slip away. The team had a frustrating 1st period but they didn't let it spoil their game and they managed to finish what they started. It is what good players do and its what good teams do. The Ides of March? Meh, not by what we saw tonight.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley, Cal Clutterbuck, Torrey Mitchell, Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka, Tom Gilbert, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk, Jonas Brodin and Ryan Suter. Matt Hackett backed up Niklas Backstrom. Nate Prosser, Brett Clark and Jason Zucker were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Jonas Brodin, 2nd Star Matt Cullen, 3rd Star Ryan Suter
~ Attendance was 18,989 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ Hockey Day Minnesota 2014 is going to be in Elk River, Minnesota (my hometown) in the Handke Pit, the place where I learned the game and how to skate.
~ The Houston Aeros earned a convincing 4-1 win over Abbotsford in what was a pretty chippy and intense game at home tonight. Former Bloomington Jefferson star Brian Connelly got things going for the Aeros by netting two goals on the power play and from there Houston never looked back. Johan Larsson would set up Zack Phillips for his 4th goal of the season and then Jake Dowell sealed it with a goal late in the 3rd period. Darcy Kuemper was nearly perfect as he had 33 saves in the victory.
Wild Prospect Report:
F - Adam Gilmour (Muskegon, USHL) ~ The Boston College recruit is having a solid season in the USHL as Muskegon's top scorer. Sunday night, Gilmour had the lone goal in Muskegon's 4-1 loss to Omaha. The Hanover, Massachusetts' native has 18 goals, 41 points where he's an impressive +18 in 55 games this season. Combining speed and excellent size (6'3") with scoring touch makes Gilmour an interesting long-term project.