In the United States Marine Corps, the last part of basic training is the ordeal called the Crucible. It is a 72-hour test of endurance, perseverance and mental fortitude as they prove they are ready for the rigors of combat. It pushes the recruits to their limits and what is forged out of that process are Marines. Maybe that is what is happening to the Minnesota Wild right now. With so many veterans out of the Wild's lineup, Minnesota's young talent is going through its own version of the Crucible. The youngsters are forced to take on roles normally not assigned to them and we'll find out what players are truly ready for the rigors of the NHL and who are not. The young players have been forced to step up and I think the Wild have benefitted from their energy and creativity. Considering this isn't some random self-imposed experiment Wild fans have been both accepting of the play of its young players and enjoying the results so far.
Can the Wild's collection of young talent earn a victory against another team filled with talented young players in the Colorado Avalanche? The Avalanche's struggles have given them a collection of blue chip draft picks and they've had enviable success with their development so far. Colorado is 5 points ahead of the Wild in the Central Division standings, will Minnesota climb a little bit closer or will the Avalanche wash out the progress the team has made so far?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota had good jump to start the period, looking pesky on the forecheck as they started their 3rd line of Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine. The Wild were skating and taking chances to hit as Stephane Veilleux delivered a check to Erik Johnson who did not appreciate it and he retaliated and earned a 2-minute sit in the penalty box. On the power play, the Wild moved the puck quickly as they created a few shooting opportunities for Jason Pominville. While I was happy how the Wild didn't just sit around a pass it from the wall and back out to the point continuously it would be good to see other players take their chance to shoot instead of always passing it up as they try to set up Pominville for a one-timer. Minnesota came up empty on the power play, but they at least were able to create some offensive pressure with it. Colorado would try to counter attack as Nathan MacKinnon turned on the jets and he flew through the neutral zone before firing a shot just wide of the mark. The Wild would have a terrific scoring chance a few minutes later as Jason Zucker made a beauty of a saucer pass to Dany Heatley who was all alone behind the Avalanche defense but the puck would bounce over his stick and he was unable to get a shot on goal before he got leveled by Erik Johnson. Minnesota's speed was evident at both ends of the ice as the forecheck was looking about as sharp as we've seen in weeks meanwhile the Wild were backchecking very well and shutting down Colorado's attempts to counter. The forechecking and cycling started to yield scoring chances as Erik Haula fired a shot that was stopped by Semyon Varlamov and then followed up by Marco Scandella who ripped a shot on goal that was absorbed by the Avalanche goalie. Minnesota was even doing the tiny things right to keep pressure on Colorado, holding the zone with good assertive play at the blue line and entering the Avalanche end with speed. The period would end 0-0, but Minnesota had to have felt as though they carried most of the play outshooting Colorado 7-3. I was really happy with the strong play at both ends of the ice. Niklas Backstrom wasn't very busy, but the Wild were collapsing well around him and sweeping away rebounds. Good team effort so far. I thought Nate Prosser and the Wild blueline as a whole had a real strong period. They were being physical with Colorado in their own zone and moving their feet well to deny time and space.
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota kept up its good hustle to sratr the 2nd period. The Wild were skating the puck in deep and trying to direct pucks towards the goal where they were looking to redirect it on goal. Give Colorado's defense credit as they were using their body to seal off Wild forwards. Both clubs were playing well in their own end and shots were hard to come by. The Wild would draw another power play as Karl Stollery held up Dany Heatley from chasing down a dump in. On the power play the Wild didn't move it quite as well as they did in their first power play as they got caught waiting a little too long before pulling the trigger and when they did it was blocked. As the penalty expired the Avalanche would block a shot and the counter with a 3-on-2 rush of their own and Matt Duchene would get a step on Marco Scandella where he'd swing the puck up to Gabriel Landeskog who tapped it by Niklas Backstrom to make it 1-0. It was a momentum crushing goal. Colorado would draw a Wild holding penalty on Veilleux a few minutes later and go on their first power play. Minnesota's penalty killers did a decent job of keeping Colorado to the perimeter and tracking down loose pucks but Matt Cooke would make the Wild's job that much tougher when he hooked Erik Johnson as he entered the zone. This would give Colorado 48 seconds of 5-on-3 power play itme. Minnesota's penalty killers did a great job at being aggressive on the puck carrier in a timely manner, forcing the Avalanche to settle for a shot from the high slot and Backstrom was up to the task. The Wild would escape the 2-man advantage without any damage, and the Avs still had over a minute of power play time left. Minnesota would do pretty well on the penalty kill but as the penalty expired Ryan O'Reilly would managed to sneak a shot through Backstrom 5-hole that trickled over the line and it was 2-0 Colorado. Game over right? Nope. Minnesota would rally back as the 2nd line of Jason Zucker, Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle would put the team on their shoulders. Off the rush a little saucer pass by Coyle to enter the zone was picked up by Heatley who passed it back to Coyle who moved and beat Varlamov on a sneaky backhander 5-hole to cut the Avalanche lead in half, 2-1. Just 40 seconds later, the same line would chip the puck in and cycle well along the wall as Nate Prosser fed a pass down low to Heatley and he again found Coyle alone in the slot who fired a quick shot by Varlamov to tie the game at 2-2. With the crowd roaring the Wild would come close to making it 3-2 as Jason Pominville got some space in the slot but his shot would just be fought off by Varlamov. The crowd gave the team an appreciative cheer for its nice rally late to even the game. Minnesota was outshot 7-9 in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period had the feel of a chess match if you were playing the game while driving a car at 100mph. It was up and down as both teams were trading rushes with one another but when they moved in a position to shoot, time and space would disappear as stick checks helped direct shots wide. Minnesota started to control the pace a bit as the line of Zucker, Coyle and Heatley made their presence felt as Zucker turned on the jets to fire a shot, looking short side as he hit Varlamov in the shoulder with the chance. The Avs would try to counter with its 2nd line of O'Reilly, Jamie McGinn and John Mitchell and they tried to storm the crease and jam a shot through Backstrom but he'd drop to his pads and get some timely help from Jonas Brodin as he stopped a shot and tucked under Backstrom. That line would keep pressing and Duchene found O'Reilly with a pass on the back door for an easy tap in goal, 3-2 Colorado. Minnesota tried to rally back but they're attempt would be delayed a bit after Matt Cooke was caught hooking MacKinnon. The Avalanche were not interested in adding to its lead as much as killing valuable time from the clock. You could tell the WIld were waiting for its chance to go on the attack as they killed off the penalty. Minnesota tried to pour it on, but the Avalanche did a good job at tying up Wild forwards and giving them nothing in the way of room through the middle of the ice forcing Minnesota to settle for shots from the perimeter. The Wild would pull Backstrom for an extra attacker but almost as soon as he left the ice the Avalanche worked the puck out of the zone and Maxime Talbot swung a long shot from center ice into the empty net to seal a 4-2 victory.
Niklas Backstrom was ok, making 14 saves in the loss. The 2nd goal he gave up was kind of soft and the timing of it really added insult to injury after killing off a long power play. Backstrom got reasonable support from its defense who I felt played a pretty good game. I thought Nate Prosser had a terrific game, as did Jonas Brodin. The penalty kill went a perfect 0-for-3 which is another sign of this units improvement throughout the season.
Offensively the Wild had a great game from its 2nd line of Coyle, Zucker and Heatley. I thought Heatley looked significantly more engaged then he has been in the last two games. That makes a big difference for that line because then he's not a big liability that only serves to slow the line down. Coyle's two goals helped get the team back into the game, and for a guy who has been a little quiet on the scoresheet it was good to see him jumping up and taking his chances to shoot the puck. Another player who had as strong game along the boards and in the offensive zone was Nino Niederreiter who continues to hang out near the paint looking to bang home rebounds and driving opponents crazy in the process. Pominville is really sort of pressing lately, trying to hammer shots as hard as he and I think he's perhaps feeling the pressure that he has to somehow carry the team. The team certainly needs him to take his chances to shoot but he doesn't have feel he has to drive the puck through goalies all of the time. Either way, the team is still having a different young hero each game. In the last three games, Niederreiter, Fontaine and now Coyle brought the offense. You can see the confidence of these young kids is spreading through the lineup and that can only be a good thing.
It was a scrappy effort by the Wild who are still battling well and even though it sucks to see the 4-game winning streak end the team is still working hard and playing competitively which is something you couldn't always say even when they had everyone healthy. The team now has to put this game behind them, board the red eye flight to Nashville and take on what should probably be an annoyed Predators team who are coming off a shootout loss to Ottawa.
~ Wild roster tonight was as follows: Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Jason Zucker, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Torrey Mitchell, Erik Haula, Stephane Veilleux, Jonathon Blum, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Keith Ballard and Mike Rupp were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild.com were: 1st Star Charlie Coyle, 2nd Star Ryan O'Reilly, 3rd Star Dany Heatley
~ Attendance was 19,117 at Xcel Energy Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Recent Score: Iowa 3, Grand Rapids 2
The injuries the Minnesota WIld have been facing have meant Iowa has had to make due without some its more talented players, but like the big club its been no problem. The roster changes have prompted the team to play a more detail oriented game and this superior focus has led to more wins. Iowa would feel the pressure early as Cory Emmerton on a long wrist shot that trickled by Johan Gustafsson just 50 seconds in. The Wild would settle down and go on the attack and Brian Connelly would fire a slap shot that Tim McCollum struggled to control and Raphael Bussieres was there to tap in the puck lying in the crease to tie the game at 1-goal apiece. Iowa would take the lead mid way through in the 2nd period as alternate captain, Carson McMillan intercepted a bad clearing attempt and then beat McCollum before he was able to get back into this crease on a quick wrist shot to make it 2-1. Grand Rapids would get the equalizer when Teemu Pulkkinen tapped home a rebound chance mid way through the 3rd period. Iowa stayed calm and went back to work and Eau Claire, Wisconsin-native Jake Dowell would chip home a rebound after Marc Hagel's long wrist shot to give the Wild a 3-2 lead with less than 5 minutes left in the game. McCollum seemed to lose sight of the puck after he made the initial stop and Dowell crashed the crease and was rewarded. The Griffins pushed hard to get the game-tying goal but Iowa circled the wagons around Gustafsson and the Wild would come away with a huge road victory. Gustafsson was outstanding, making 41 saves in the victory. Iowa plays Grand Rapids again tonight. You can see the highlights from last night's game below.
Wild Prospect Report:
D - Gustav Olofsson (Colorado College, NCHC) ~ Olofsson would blast a shot by North Dakota's Zane Gothberg in the 1st period Friday night but it wasn't enough as Colorado College fell 5-3 to the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux. Olofsson finished the night a -1 with three shots on goal. The Swede has 3 goals, 5 points and 6 PIM's in 13 games played this season.
LW - Mario Lucia (Notre Dame, H-East) ~ The lanky winger was playing on Notre Dame's 3rd line and had an assist and 3 shots on goal in the Fighting Irish's 7-1 victory over Alabama-Huntsville on Friday night. Lucia has 10 goals, 15 points and 6 PIM's in 20 games played this season.
D - Nick Seeler (Nebraska-Omaha, NCHC) ~ The former Eden Prairie star is playing on the Mavericks top defensive pair and he had an assist in Nebraska-Omaha's 3-2 loss to UMD. Seeler has just one goal and 4 assists as well as 43 PIM's in 19 games played this season.
D - Carson Soucy (UMD, NCHC) ~ The freshman is already getting prime ice time for the Bulldogs as he played on the top pairing with Andy Welinski. Soucy was a +2 in UMD's 3-2 win over Nebraska-Omaha. The 6'4" defensman has no goals and 5 assists as well as 12 PIM's in 15 games played this season.