I think the video below says it all. The Minnesota Wild have steadily developed into a M*A*S*H unit. (knock on wood) It seems like the Wild are losing another player due to injury with each game. Normally fans get a bit anxious when their opponents wind up for a big slap shot because they fear its going to end up in the back of their net. Wild fans now see the big slap shot and cringe when they see a Wild player step in front of it because they fear they'll only see another player be lost due to injury. With the exception of Josh Harding who is out of the lineup with an illness we can only guess is somehow related to his battle with Multiple Sclerosis the Wild's injuries are all confined to the foot and ankles resulting from blocking shots. The Wild's M*A*S*H unit of shot blocking casualties are Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon, and now possibly Marco Scandella. As anyone who has played the game can tell you, the puck may be made of rubber but it sure doesn't feel like that when you get in the way of a slap shot. In fact, it feels like getting hit with a hammer, with more than enough ability to break bones and leave nasty bruises. Could these injuries have been prevented? Wild beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Michael Russo, discussed this with Minnesota General Manager Chuck Fletcher in this article here. Players complain the plastic skate overguards are heavy and limit movement, but at this point can the team really pander to such complaints over comfort?
So far (knock on wood) the team has managed to rally around its collective adversity and dig out some key wins. However this is just the beginning as most members of the M*A*S*H unit are expected to be out around 4 weeks to a month. Can the kids carry the team while some of its veteran stars are on the mend? The Wild have a tough challenge tonight in the suddenly explosive offensively Phoenix Coyotes. Will the Wild use its pain to strengthen its resolve or will the team's injury woes finally catch up to them?
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1st Period Thoughts: The game was one like I'd expect against Phoenix. More chess match than run and gun affair. Even though the Coyotes have been lighting the lamp a lot this season, The Wild were trying to make their 'offense' their defense by dumping the puck into the corner where it would die and then chase it down. Initially it was working pretty well, the Wild were doing all they can to limit Mike Smith's ability to play the puck. The Wild was chased back into its zone a few times, but they were able to sweep away rebounds before they could end up in the back of their net. Both clubs were not afraid to clear the zone by icing the puck which led to a sort of flow-less stop and go hockey. Minnesota was starting to cause havoc on these clever dump in plays as well as Jason Pominville would help win a battle for the biscuit and he'd work it down low to Mikael Granlund and Granlund fed it back to Pominville to the slot for a close range slap shot that struck the post and was covered up by Smith. A few minutes later the Coyotes had their best scoring chance of the game as Jason Zucker would break his stick and the puck was worked back to the Phoenix point where Derek Morris would side step the Wild forward who tried all he could to stay in front of the defenseman as he let go a backhander that surprised Backstrom and rang off the crossbar and out. As the period went on the ice would start to tilt into the Wild'z zone and Niklas Backstrom found himself under siege. It all started with a failed clearing attempt and the Wild would get caught in a long shift and didn't have the legs to chase and the Coyotes started firing pucks towards the net as they tried to set up the quick tap in goals but Minnesota was scrambling and getting sticks on shots at key moments to keep it out. A great example was the Coyotes leading goal scorer Radim Vrbata nearly alone in the slot where he got Backstrom to drop but a smart play by Ryan Suter was able to force him to push a shot wide. Minnesota would counter attack and it was Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine as Cooke partially deflected a poor decision to pass by Keith Yandle that wnt out to Justin Fontaine who moved in and fired a wrist shot by Mike Smith who had dropped expecting the shot to be a low one. It had to have neen a demoralizing goal for the Coyotes to have given up since they had the lion's share of the scoring chances. The Wild had to be thrilled leading 1-0 after being outshot 16-8. I thought Fontaine and Cooke were the best Wild forwards of the period, not just because they combined for the goal but for their hustle and their attention to detail on their dump in's.
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would give the Coyotes its first power play of the game on a foolish cross-checking penalty taken by Matt Cooke. The Coyotes were again looking for the tap in style of goal as they were directing pucks towards the crease. After a fine save by Niklas Backstrom, the Coyotes would tie the game as Shane Doan fed a pass to Mikkel Boedker who fired a shot on goal and then got his rebound where he shoveled home a rebound as Backstrom seemed to think the shot might be going top shelf instead of along the ice. The Wild then had a power play of its own as Cooke drew a holding the stick call on Twitter sensation Paul Bissonette. On the power play Minnesota had a great opportunity to take the lead as Mikael Granlund found himself near the crease for a point-blank chance that was denied by the leg of a sprawling Mike Smith. Minnesota was not able to do much else with the power play other than a shot taken from the slot by Fontaine that was absorbed by the Coyotes goalie. The Wild would have like to have gone on the attack but a bad triping penalty in the neutral zone by Stephane Veilleux put Minnesota a man down. On the penalty kill the Wild did an ok job of keeping Phoenix to the perimeter but the defensive coverage left something to be desired as Doan carried the puck down low where he fed a pass out into the slot to Yandle who hammered a shot on goal that was stonewalled by Backstrom. Minnesota would get the big kill but the team just didn't seem to have the legs to get anything going in the offensive zone. One line that was driving me nuts for its genaral ineffectiveness was the line of Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Dany Heatley. The line reminding me of a car doing a brakestand, as you could tell Zucker and Coyle wanted to push the pace while Heatley kept the line anchored at a slow speed. Instead of using Zucker's speed which would make the most sense, Heatley tried to chip and chase but he lacked the wheels to get around Michael Stone so instead of a possible scoring chance the Wild turn the puck over. Shots on goal were nearly non-existant and the Wild to feel fortunate they were not trailing in this game. Phoenix held a 13-8 shot lead in the period. Nino Niederreiter looks a bit tired out there. A boring. ugly game so far but the Wild still very much in it so far (knock on wood).
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota had a little more get up and go to start the 3rd period as Niederreiter won a battle for the puck along the boards and he took it to the crease where Smith was there to freeze the biscuit. The Wild seemed to play with more assertiveness as they were catching the Coyotes a bit flatfooted as they raced through the neutral zone with speed. A simple flip of the puck over the stick of a defeneman by Kyle Brodziak was followed up by the Wild forward as he raced in on a breakaway where he fired a shot high over the shoulder, glove side on Smith to make it 2-1. It was a pretty finish for a player who had been snakebitten most of the season. Minnesota kept taking its opportunities to attack and its pressure would draw a Coyotes penalty as Connor Murphy tripped up Charlie Coyle. One area of the ice where the Wild really were struggling including on this power play was in the faceoff circle and the Coyotes were able to get a few quick clears of the offensive zone. As what seemed to be another dead-end power play the Wild would benefit from a fortunate bounce as a dump in would take an odd bounce off the stanchion and Smith had left his crease to play the puck only to find himself horribly out of position as a hooked down Fontaine slid into tap the puck into the yawning net to make it 3-1. It was a power play goal and because of that the Wild would go back on the power play as Antoine Vermette was sitting in the sin bin for hauling down Fontaine. On the power play the Wild were rather disorganized and Minnesota was not able to generate much in the way of shots on goal. Shortly after the penalty expired, the Wild's grind line would direct a shot on goal as Torrey Mitchell fired a shot off Smith that he couldn't control and the puck was tapped home by Cooke as NHL referee Don Van Massenhoven blew his whistle which negated the tally. Cooke immediately protested and Van Massenhoven apologized for the whistle. One had to wonder if that quick whistle was going to come back to haunt the Wild. The Coyotes tried to answer back and the M*A*S*H unit would get another patient as Jason Zucker would block a heavy slap shot by Michael Stone and it appeared to hit him in the knee and he was writing in pain on the ice. Wild Athletic Trainer Don Fuller would help Zucker make his way back down to the locker room and adding insult to injury was the fact Minnnesota was tagged with a delay of game penalty as Nino Niederreiter tried to play a puck with a broken stick. This would give the Coyotes a great chance to make it a one-goal game but Backstrom and Minnesota's penalty kill raised their level of play. The Wild had excellent active sticks, denying passing and shooting lanes well and when they didn't Backstrom again was there to make the initial saves while Minnesota's skaters were escorting rebounds out of danger. Minnesota was continuing to counter punch offensively, burning valuable seconds off the clock and keeping Phoenix from going on the attack. Fontaine would seal it with about a minute left as he'd direct a loose puck into the empty net to give the Wild a huge 4-1 victory and his first career hat trick.
I think Backstrom had a good game but not a great one as he was giving up some rebounds, but I will give him credit for making some timely saves to prevent the Coyotes from ever taking the lead allowing his team to believe they had a chance. Giving up 1 goal 40 shots is a pretty damn good percentage. Minnesota's defenseman did a good job at being stubborn near its crease and if they were not sealing off opposing forwards they did a nice job of carrying away rebounds. I thought Jonas Brodin and Ryan Suter had a nice game and I though Jonathon Blum didn't look out of place.
Offensively it wasn't a work of beauty but the team has found ways to get pucks in the back of the net without ignoring their defensive responsibilities. It has been a different hero each night, and obviously Fontaine was that player this evening. Maybe part of that is a side effect of not having as many star players making more players feel as though they have the green light to shoot the puck. One thing that has been evident in the last few games is the benefit of having more speed from top to bottom in the lineup. That speed has made this team more difficult to play against. Kyle Brodziak's breakaway goal was really the turning point in my opinion it was good to see him keep it simple and just turn on the jets and take his chances to fire the biscuit.
There are lots of reasons to be amped after this game. The team has its first four-game winning treak of the season and the fact the team pulled ahead of the Coyotes in the standings without yielding a point in the process. To think the lynch mob which I will admit I was a card-carrying member ready to fire the coach in its 6-game slide its been a tremendous and improbable turnaround. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo was doing his best to suppress a smile as he talked to reporters in the post-game press conference. Yeo chuckled, "As a team we're playing a type of game that is allowing a different guy to be a hero each night." When talking about Fontaine he said he's paid his dues and doesn't take his opportunity for granted. He also felt its important for his team to keep an even keel after having won their 4th straight. I think that's important and they can expect an inspired effort from a sputtering Avalanche team on Saturday night.
~ Wild roster tonight was as follows: Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine, Erik Haula, Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Dany Heatley, Stephane Veilleux, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jonathon Blum, Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella and Clayton Stoner. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Keith Ballard and Mike Rupp were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game according to the Coyotes Broadcast Team were: 1st Star Justin Fontaine, 2nd Star Niklas Backstrom, 3rd Star Shane Doan
~ Attendance was 10,075 at Jobing.com Arena.
~ Jonathon Blum wore #7 in his Wild debut which was last worn by Matt Cullen, as well as Clayton Stoner (briefly) and Erik Westrum.
Wild Prospect Report:
G - Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) ~ While the big club may be battling uncertainty between the pipes the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are not. Belanger is their workhorse and he continues to deliver quality starts as he did on Wednesday when he stopped 19 of 21 in the Huskies' 4-2 win over Drummondville. The Sherbrooke, Quebec-native has a 21-9 record, a 3.23 goals against average and an .879% save percentage in 32 games played this season.
High School Boys Hockey Report:
Here are the Top 15 Class AA & A (Boys) rankings as according to FollowthePuck.com, made as of January 8th, 2014.
3. Lakeville North
7. Holy Family Catholic
8. Benilde-St. Margaret's
9. St. Thomas Academy
11. Grand Rapids
12. Elk River / Zimmerman
14. Duluth East
15. Eden Prairie
1. Breck School
3. East Grand Forks
5. New Prague
6. Mankato West
8. St. Cloud Cathedral
9. Duluth Marshall
13. St. Paul Academy
14. Thief River Falls