Anyone who has played sports understands what happens when you play a team you just absolutely hate and loathe. Whether its a rival or just that one club you can't stand because their players are cheap, or they embellish a lot or are genuinely unsportsmanlike you know you want to raise your game and hit just a little harder against these kinds of opponents. You make sure you finish your check with violent authority, or perhaps go looking for that open ice hit because you just can't stand that one player who yaps all game long. I have a very good feeling that sort of 'feeling' will soon be a part of every game where the Minnesota Wild face the Winnipeg Jets. Not just because of the action on the ice, but in the stands as well. From back to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, where the NHL allowed the Atlanta Thrashers to re-locate to Winnipeg, fans from that city flocked to St. Paul to let themselves be seen and heard. Heck, on that day, I even pretended to be a Winnipeg fan (wearing one of my two Jets jerseys) just to enjoy the novelty of it all. I even gave my 'pick' for the Jets on that day to a Canadian TV station who thought since I was wearing a Jets jersey (and an Atlanta Thrashers hat too) that I had to be from above the 48th parallel. The team hadn't even made an official announcement that the team was going to be named Jets yet. Yet just prior to the draft word had leaked out that was going to be the new club's name (much to the chagrin of their ownership group who wanted something different only to be shouted down by a very rabid and hungry fanbase). The fans on that day were loud and proud and Wild fans will have to raise their game if they don't want to be shouted down by these invaders from the north.
Before the Wild was around, a similar sort of clash of fanatics occured between North Stars fans and those of the much-hated Chicago Blackhawks. I don't think we'll see the Wild ever get quite that intense against Chicago, at least not at first, but I certainly see the potential for some ugly nastiness in the stands between Jets fans and Wild faithful. It will start out as some mild trash talking here and there, but toss in a few (or many) beers and you have the potential for some confrontations. Personally I don't have a giant problem with that, its only natural to hate your opponents, especially those that are your rivals. I don't not think it will return to the almost constant nasty confrontations of the St. Paul 'Fighting' Saints days, where there were as many fights in the seats as there was on the ice but today will be the Xcel Energy crowd's first real test in a long time. Can it put the visiting crowd in its place and will the Minnesota Wild finally figure out how to earn a victory and give its home fans some ammunition (for trash talk) to work with?
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1st Period Thoughts: Good thing there are no patterns in sports right? Oh wait, we're talking about the Wild so it has to be one step forward and two steps back. As I was getting myself primed to write about period in which the Wild controlled most of the play; dictated the pace and was tilting the ice in the Winnipeg zone. Well, that did happen but as great as Minnesota played in the period by the find the period was over the Wild were tied at 1-1 thanks to some lazy and foolish penalties. Minnesota was again starting the game out with some good physical play as Clayton Stoner delivered two huge hits on Mark Schiefele and Michael Frolik respectively. Minnesota was winning the little races to the loose pucks and it was turning into shots on goal. One player who I felt had a terrific period for Minnesota was Nino Niederreiter who got upgraded to the top line with the lineup changes this evening. Niederreiter was poised and creative as he set up teammates for scoring opportunities. He was anticipating the play well but being patient and timely with his decisions. Jonas Brodin was the lucky recipient of a nice shot by Matt Cooke on a good sequence off the rush. 1-0 Wild. Defensively the Wild were retreating back to the offensive zone to take away chances from the Jets. The Wild crowd even stepped up to neutralize the many Jets fans that made the trip down from Winnipeg. Minnesota was hustling well, so what went wrong? The same thinig that went wrong in Nashville. Penalties, taken in quick succession. The first one was a penalty by Brodin who hauled down Schiefele and then 4 seconds after that penalty it was Kyle Brodziak taking a boneheaded hooking call to give the Jets a long 5-on-3. The Jets power play moved the puck well, setting up its point men of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom. It was only a matter of time and finally Enstrom was able to rip a low-lying shot that would go off the stick of Bryan Little and sneak through the pads of Josh Harding and the Wild's lead was gone. Making matters worse, even as the period ended the Jets still have power play time left on the clock. Kyle Brodziak was particularly awful in the period. Making some poor passes to his teammates skates when they were in prime scoring position and squandering potential chances. Toss in the bad penalty and you had a one-man disaster. Mathew Dumba was looking more comfortable as he stepped into two nice shots that were nabbed out of the air by Ondrej Pavelec who was sharp by his standards. Justin Fontaine looked good to me too, keeping it simple and showing good awareness on the ice. The Wild need to learn to sustain a lead going into the 2nd period instead of just giving them away. Also, the Wild must figure out its penalty kill problems because they are not giving their team any margin for error. The power play still looked good, with terrific movement but it had its chances to finish but didn't. Jason Pominville was given a perfect pass but didn't realize it was on his stick until Pavelec had time to get across his crease to make the save on what should've been an easy tap in goal. Missed opportunities like that are really killing the team this season so far.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild started the 2nd much the same way they started the first with great hustle. Minnesota was able to bottle up the Jets in its own end as they outworked Winnipeg. The 4th line of Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell and Justin Fontaine were really driving the Jets crazy. Konopka was focusing his energy on being a factor on the forecheck and the faceoff circle instead of dropping the mits. Another player kind of surprising me this period was Dany Heatley seen on a few occasions backchecking and (gasp) winning a race or two to a loose puck. I almost decided to hit rewind on my DVR just to confirm what I thought I saw, Heatley contributing to the team with a few timely instances of defensive play to deny the Jets from having some prime scoring chances. Minnesota's persistance would finally be rewarded as Matt Cooke pounced on puck that was stopped by the skate of Pavelec but who did not drop to cover it up and he moved in and poked the biscuit into the back of the net to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. The Minnesota Wild serenaded Cooke with Sesame Street's "C is for Cookie" which drew some laughter from the non-sellout crowd. Now the Wild are going to squander this lead right? I have to admit I was half expecting that to happen as Minnesota seemed to take its foot off the gas a bit the last few minutes. Yet immediately after Cooke's goal, the Wild kept pouring it on. The top line of Niederreiter, Koivu and Parise were causing all kinds of problems as Koivu was taking his chances to shoot the puck but in typical fashion couldn't light the lamp. Parise was just all over the ice, pestering Jets forwards all over and causing turnovers and other kinds of havoc. Minnesota would get tagged with a holding penalty on Stephane Veilleux and I have to admit I thought the Wild lead was again going to disappear. Yet Minnesota's penalty kill stepped up big time as Ryan Suter made some big plays to clear the zone. Josh Harding had a few nice saves. In the final few seconds, Zach Parise gave a demonstration of how hustle can pay off as he raced after a puck to negate a potential icing call and in the process draw an interference penalty on Byfuglien. Its that constant effort that hockey fans love about his game. The Wild outshot the Jets 12-4 in the period. Good effort, but can they finish?
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild are amazingly lucky that Winnipeg struggles offensively as much as it does. Minnesota had plenty of opportunites to add to its lead, to give itself some cushion with some time on the power play. Yet it was at this point the Wild's power play simply seemed to be ok with the fact the Jets wouldn't be attacking their end of the ice and so it failed time after time to enter and stay in the offensive zone. The sequence was painfully familiar. A Wild forward skates across the blue line and then dishes a short pass to a player standing near the blue line themselves and the Jets' penalty killer pokes the puck back across the line almost immediately and the team has to re-group and try to re-enter the zone. It was ridiculous how predictable and unproductive it was. I really thought the squandered power play opportunities were going to come back to haunt the Wild. Winnipeg started to pour on the pressure and they would draw a late power play on a strange cross-checking penalty on Jonas Brodin. MInnesota's penalty kill again stepped up and was being aggressive and making it difficult for the Jets to have shooting lanes they could exploit. Harding came up with some big saves down the stretch and the Wild escaped with a 2-1 victory. I thought Niederreiter had another strong period along with the penalty killers Torrey Mitchell and Matt Cooke.
Josh Harding was pretty good in his first start of the season, making 14 saves in the victory. Defensively the Wild did a great job at limiting the Jets' chances although that was helped by the fact they spent a fair amount of time killing Minnesota power plays. I thought Mathew Dumba had a real good game, stepping up and working to get his big shot on goal. Suter and Brodin were again pretty solid, especially under the pressure of Winnipeg's forecheck. Stoner had a good game, and I think his physical play set the tone early for the Wild.
Offensively the Wild got a lot of shots, outshooting the Jets 30 to 15 but still just 2 goals to show for it. That was enough tonight, but the team is still lacking finish. Most notably from its captain, Mikko Koivu who was set up for a variety of prime chances and he simply couldn't bury the biscuit or even put it on goal. Nino Niederreiter was outstanding on the 1st line, looking very comfortable as he set up teammates and even exhibiting some nice power moves. His power move, backhand chance was very impressive. I felt the Wild's 2nd line was also better with Pominville's speed on the 2nd line to go along with Mikael Granlund and Dany Heatley who had just 2 shots on goal the line did create some offensive pressure which it hadn't the last few games. Pominville is really blasting away with the big slapper but it would be nice to see him get some opportunities closer to the crease. The power play fizzled out tonight as I discussed earlier. It started out great, but then it sort of reverted to last year's futility play. Matt Cooke's goal was the simple and ugly variety this team needs to try to create more on the man advantage. Too many times I think they're only interested in burying a shot created off a tic-tac-toe like play. Embrace the KISS principle boys; keep it simple, stupid!
At this point, beggars can't be choosers and you have to be happy the team managed to earn a victory against a divisional opponent. While I certainly do not think it was the team's best performance, the victory still feels a hellvua lot better than the "close but not quite" overtime / shootout losses. There are certainly some good trends going for Minnesota right now, they have been outstanding in faceoffs and in each game they've outshot their opponent by a decided margin. Those are both things that will help yield victories. The Wild now have to try to build on this and try to create some positive momentum.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley, Mikael Granlund, Matt Cooke, Torrey Mitchell, Justin Fontaine, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Zenon Konopka, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Keith Ballard, Mathew Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner. Darcy Kuemper backed up Josh Harding. Charlie Coyle (knee), Mike Rupp (knee) and Niklas Backstrom (knee) were out while Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Matt Cooke, 2nd Star Jonas Brodin, 3rd Star Nino Niederreiter
~ Attendance was 17,366 at Xcel Energy Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
C - Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ The rugged centerman notched his first goal of the 2012-13 season in a 3-2 loss at the hands of the Erie Otters last night in Erie, Pennsylvania. The 6'3", 218lbs forward is off to a great start, scoring at more than a point per game pace with 5 points in 4 games so far.