They say home is where the heart is, and that certainly has boded well for the Minnesota Wild who have been one of the best NHL teams in their home barn as they boast a 10-1-2 record 21 games into the 2013-14 season. On the road has been a different story, as the Wild are a far more mundane 3-3-2 and now are about to be tested in a major way in a 4-game road trip that will again take them on a bit of a Canadian swing before ending up in St. Louis. The Wild's first game of the road trip takes them to the most storied and successful NHL franchise ever in the Montreal Canadiens. The Wild battled to a 4-3 victory on home ice against the Habs and by in large the Western Conference have completely dominated its Eastern Conference foes. Is that a good sign, or an indicator of a classic trap game being close at hand?
Montreal was flying high when the Wild had last played them, but since then have struggled as their offense has sputtered. Minnesota has sort of found its offensive legs and appears to be getting more and more comfortable with each game. The Bleu, Blanc et Rouge have traditionally done very well against the Wild in Montreal, can the Wild get their road trip off to a good start with a win against Les Habitants tonight?
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1st Period Thoughts: The game started with a nice level of intensity as the Canadiens were flying around the ice. Minnesota was doing its best to stay calm and weather the storm as Montreal worked the puck down low in multiple attempts to work the cycle, and pinching with its defenseman. The Wild were scrambling a bit in its own end, as Brian Gionta pushed a shot wide of the goal. Both clubs were taking the body, making their opponents pay for every rush up the ice. Nino Niederreiter rode Montreal's Max Pacioretty hard into the turnbuckle portion of the boards near the benches that drew the ire of the crowd and no doubt served as a flashback for Pacioretty who was lit up in dramatic fashion by Zdeno Chara a few years ago. The Habs were looking hungry, and their defense would jump on a loose puck as Andrei Markov blistered a shot that flew through the crease and out of the zone. Meanwhile, the Wild were not able to find much at all in the way of time and space in the offensive zone. After a failed chance for Niederreiter the Canadiens counter attacked and as Pacioretty found a little room he was hauled down by Jared Spurgeon as he drove a slap shot wide of the mark. The Canadiens would go on the power play, but the Wild would raise their game and lock it down about as well as you could ask. It all started by forcing a battle along the boards that drew a whistle and then doing a good job of getting their sticks into passing lanes and deny the Canadiens much freedom near the point. The Wild would get the all important first kill, only allowing one shot on goal that was dismissed by Josh Harding with ease. Zenon Konopka would drop the gloves with Brandon Prust, and you could tell Konopka was not really in condition to fight and Prust took control early landing a series of punches. Konopka was trying to get his non-broken finger hand free, but as he seemed to finally get loose the officials moved into stop the fight as the Wild fighter was bloodied near his right eye. Tempers continued to flare as Matt Cooke and Francis Bouillon exchanged words but no punches were thrown. The Wild would finally get a little open space after some hard work by Mikko Koivu to enter the zone and the puck would be swung out to Spurgeon who then fed a pass over to Zach Parise who blasted a one-timer wide of the mark. The Canadiens would counter with two golden chances of their own as a pass by Pacioretty would deflect off the stick of David Desharnais that was stopped by Harding who just seconds later made an even more remarkable save as he reached back towards the goal line to rob Pacioretty. The play would be reviewed and the video proved inconclusive so 'no goal' was declared to an annoyed home crowd. Minnesota would try one last offensive push of their own as Justin Fontaine found himself all alone on Carey Price only to have his backhand steered away. Tempers continued to be on edge as Matt Cooke would deliver a hit to P.K. Subban deep in the Montreal zone that sent him to the ice and he grabbed the stick of the Wild forward and then directed the loose twig in Cooke's direction infuriated that no call was made. Minnesota and Montreal certainly had some bad blood going here and I think it was starting to take the Canadiens off its game. Not a great period, but the Wild weathered the storm and now it has to re-focus its efforts and get more going offensively. The Wild were outshot 7-9 in the period.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Canadiens would start the 2nd period where they left off, working the puck deep and forcing the Wild to play in its own end and Montreal would start to build some momentum. Their approach was simple, work pucks towards the goal and hope for a fortunate bounce. They would get just that a little less than 4 minutes in as Max Pacioretty took a pass off the skates and by Harding to make it 1-0. Pacioretty made no kicking motion, he just turned his skates to stop and it was a legit goal. The Wild would try to answer back as Zach Parise would be tripped by by Evgeni Yemelin giving Minnesota its first power play of the game. Unfortunately the Wild were not able to do much of anything with the man advantage. The Wild had great difficulty working the puck into the offensive zone to get the power play set up. It would be over a minute into the power play by the time the team would get set up and when it did all it could manage was a few weak shots from the perimeter that did not reach Price. Montreal would go back on the attack and they worked the puck deep, which would result in another tripping penalty on Spurgeon who was having a rough game. On the ensuing power play the Wild's penalty killers were able force the Habs to settle for the perimeter where they challenged the point men. Good hustle and some key shot blocks would stonewall another a Habs power play. Unfortunately, the Wild would see the game slip farther away as Pacioretty would rip a shot by Harding to make it 2-0 and you could sense a rout was in progress. The Wild did not have a lot of push back, and a few minutes later the Habs would go back on the power play. The Habs would work the puck to the point and P.K. Subban would unleash a heavy wrist shot that was redirected by Harding by Pacioretty who earned the rare pure hat trick, 3-0. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo felt no reason to waste anymore good saves in a lost cause so he would swap out Harding in favor of Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper did not inspire a lot of confidence as he got scored on a sharp angle, unscreened shot taken by former Shawingan Cataractes star Michael Bournival to make it 4-0. The Habs would ease up a bit the last few minutes and the Wild would manage to create a few offensive opportunities late but it was always one and done. A disastrous period where the Wild were far too careless with the puck and the Wild more less tried to defend their own zone the whole period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild continued to have problems with the Gallagher, Pacioretty and Eller line. They would tur almost every shift into a Habs' power play. The Wild would try to answer back with a great shift by the top line of Koivu, Parise and Charlie Coyle as they cycle the puck well as they would work the puck out to the point where Ryan Suter was able to tee up a few shots. Unfortunately they couldn't light the lamp. The Habs would respond with another goal as Daniel Briere scored on another soft goal given up by Kuemper, 5-0 Montreal. The Wild would answer back though, as Nino Niederrieter would charge into the Montreal zone where he fired a shot on goal that Price stopped but he'd follow it up to chip a puck up and over the Habs goalie to make it 5-1. A great individual effort by Niederreiter who had been hustling well all night. Niederreiter kept making his presence felt as he unleashed a heavy wrist shot that was held onto by Price. The Wild would get tagged with another penalty as Kyle Brodziak would get sent to the box for tripping. On the power play, the game would go from ugly to uglier as some simple puck movement freed up Alex Galchenyuk who got off a quick shot that eluded Kuemper to make it 6-1. The play of the Wild seemed to just sort of get worse, bad passes, poor decisions continued to pile up even on simple hockey plays. A good example of this was on a late power play after a tripping call to the Habs' Brendan Gallagher. The Wild had the most time and space they've had all game long and they found ways to thwart their own opportunities through a combination of poor execution and poor decision making. Case in point, Chalie Coyle was playing in the slot, apparently the player they wanted to set for a quick one-timer. Koivu sets up Coyle perfectly in the slot and instead of taking a one-timer as he should he instead tries a quick pass to Zach Parise who is not positioned to really shoot the puck and so he juggles it a bit and no shot ever gets taken as the puck gets chipped up into the netting for a whistle. It didn't get any better as the 2nd unit comes out as the Habs were quick to jump all over the Wild's puck carrier whenever he moved with his body towards the boards and this closed down space causing the Wild to make some foolish passes and Minnesota would not even create positive momentum on the man advantage. Marco Scandella would trip up Pacioretty as he tried to go for his 4th goal of the game, and the Wild would go back on the penalty kill. Fortunately for Kuemper, more than the Wild, the Habs didn't care to do much of anything with the power play and they lazily moved the puck around the offensive zone. Daniel Briere would tie up Mikael Granlund giving the Wild a power play to close the game. Minnesota would score one last time as Jonas Brodin threaded a beauty of a diagonal pass from the point over to Ryan Suter who then fed it across to Dany Heatley who banged it by Price to seal a 6-2 win for Montreal.
Josh Harding really shouldn't get much blame for the loss, as he simply did not have almost any sort of support. He had a save of the year candidate when he robbed Pacioretty early, but the former Michigan star would get his revenge with 3 tallies that chased Harding from between the pipes. One thing is for certain, the Wild need to re-think their backup goaltender situation as Darcy Kuemper was more than a little shaky as he gave up 3 goals on just about 10 shots on goal. Most of those goals were of the yogurt soft variety and you could dismiss that if Kuemper had another ugly performance the last time he was between the pipes for Minnesota. Defensively I thought Jared Spurgeon was awful, taking lazy penalties and struggling to handle the Canadiens bigger forwards. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin also did not have their best game and even though I thought the Wild had some good moments on the penalty kill but it wasn't good enough.
Offensively the Wild had little pushback most of the game. Minnesota was not able to get comfortable at all through the first two periods of the game. They were not able to do what they did the last time they played Montreal, by bottling them up in their own end with a strong puck-possession game. This time the Wild were giving up lots of easy turnovers and it was Montreal who were working the puck deep in the Minnesota zone forcing the Wild to spend time chasing around in its own end. The Wild managed to score twice in the 3rd, but that was after the Habs started to ease up defensively yielding the time and space they had denied Minnesota for the rest of the game. It was good to see Niederreiter's hustle be rewarded with a goal, but it was too little, too late.
This was a predictable, ugly effort on the part of the Wild. Getting blitzed for 4 goals in the 2nd period is not something I expected though. In previous bad efforts, the Wild still usually had managed to keep things close. Some of that was due to replacing Harding with Kuemper, but the team's effort dropped off as well. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo's key word for this team going into a back-to-back against Ottawa was "respond". He said he hopes the team plays a little ticked off tomorrow, and I'd say I hope so too!
~ Wild roster was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Justin Fontaine, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Darcy Kuemper would share the duties between the pipes with Josh Harding. Mathew Dumba was a healthy scratch.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were as selected by Derek Felska were: 1st Star Max Pacioretty, 2nd Star Brendan Gallagher, 3rd Star Darcy Kuemper (He played very well for the Habs tonight)
Wild Prospect Report:
D - Daniel Gunnarsson (Lulea, SHL) ~ Gunnarsson appears to be heating up a bit after a slow start to the 2013-14 season. The lanky defenseman could still stand to add some bulk to his 6'2" frame, however he remains as one of the Wild's more intriguing prospects having played in Sweden's top league the last 2 seasons. Gunnarsson has no goals and 8 assists to go along with 4 PIM's and a -4 rating in 22 games this season.