5, 4, 3, 2, 1...(pause) Happy New Year! I know that's a bit late since its Tuesday, but if you think about it that countdown may have been for something entirely different. It could've been for some major move made by the Minnesota Wild which are in the midst of a record breaking spiral having lost their last six games in regulation time, something they have never done in the franchise's 13-year history. I think just about everyone around the Wild from the players, to the management, to the media and most definitely the fans are all waiting for what is going to happen next but they all sense its going to be big. As a person who loves to read between the lines, if I had to bet, my money is on a coaching change. It is by far the easiest move from an organizational stand point to make as opposed to a trade where you have to get another team involved. Yet who knows at this point. However, I think as anyone who has been out the world of work knows is stress at work can be absolutely miserable and depressing. The odd thing is, its the time spent at home waiting and uncertain; where one is left to their thoughts can be a dark and lonely place. You can't sleep, you can't do just about anything and not think about it. So with that being said I emphathize a bit with Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo who is no doubt is going through the same thing.
So with all the ominous possible news aside, the Wild must try to put that into the back of their minds and do what they can to keep this streak from extending to 7 games. That isn't about Mike Yeo, its about staying in a realistic spot for the playoff race. Perhaps the best medicine for the Wild is to just dig themselves into the hockey, walling themselves off from the rumors and speculation and just play. I know that's easier said than done, but its all they can do. Will the Wild stop the bleeding with a win against Buffalo or will the Sabres just add to the team's woes?
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1st Period Thoughts: If the feeling off the ice was anxious and cautious that feeling was personified by the Wild's play the forst 10 minutes of the game. The Wild looked like a team that was both waiting for a mistake and being afraid of making one of their own. The passes were hesitant and lacking zip and Buffalo was playing rather conservatively as well which meant not much time and space available through the neutral zone. The Wild also looked a ittle desperate as Ryan Suter pinched deep in the offensive zone as he tried to pounce on a loose puck but he'd fan on the shot instead making it easy for Ryan Miller to make a save. With flow nearly non-existant a long shift in which Ryan Suter broke his stick turned into Buffalo's first power play of the game Suter was given a cross checking penalty for knocking down former Wild 2nd round pick Johan Larsson. On the power play, the Sabres waited patiently to set up the perfect shot but this gave Wild penalty killers time to get into passing and shooting lanes and Minnesota was able to get the early kill. Unfortuantely they'd go right back into the penalty box when Marco Scandella would get caught pinching causing a 3-on-1 for the Sabres and as Zemgus Girgensons motored into the Wild zone the Minnesota defenseman would chase back and try to dive to deny the pass but in the process he tripped up the Sabres forward for a tripping penalty. The Sabres power play again was very patient, and the Wild were willing to let Buffalo operate on the perimeter but they would have the best scoring chance of the period as Christian Ehrhoff wound up and blasted a one-timer from the point that beat Niklas Bacsktrom and hit low off the left post and out. It was a fortunate save by the iron and it seemed as though the near miss sort of woke the WIld out of its haze. In the 2nd half of the period, the ice tilted in the Wild's favor as they started to get their forecheck going and the scoring chances would follow. A nice little pass out front by Matt Cooke was hammered on goal by Charlie Coyle but Miller would shut the door. Minnesota was not able to get many clean shots on goal; especially from in close. The Sabres defense are far from the best group in the NHL; but they did a good job at sweeping away the rebounds preventing the Wild from having any 2nd chance opportunities. Minnesota would get a power play late in the period as Mark Pysyk hooked Cooke who was about to have a wrap around chance after some good forechecking pressure by the Wild's 3rd line of Cooke, Coyle and Torrey Mitchell. On the power play, the Wild did what they have done so often over its recent slide. Pass the puck around at the point but not doing much else. Too static, slow puck movement made the Wild power play easy to defend and the Wild only managed to direct two shots towards the goal. Unacceptable, and you can bet the home crowd will not exhibit a lot of patience on their next man advantage of they play like that again. After the power play had been killed off, the Wild tried to press the attack as Jason Pominville found Mikko Koivu on a long pass as he seemed to have as tep on Mark Pysyk. However the big strong forward was shoved off the puck before he could get a shot off where the home crowd wanted a power play but none should've been given. Koivu should be able to force a penalty but moving his feet but instead he was gliding and Pysyk wanted to make the play more than he did. Minnesota ended up outshooting the Sabres 8-7 but it was not that great of a period by the Wild. I still saw lots of gliding and guys waiting for someone else to step up and make a play.
2nd Period Thoughts: The 2nd period was much different for the Wild. Instead of playing tight, frenetic the Wild would strike early and could get that much-needed sigh of relief and play a little more relaxed. It all happened on a nice little play by Matt Cooke to get a pass by Pysyk and to a streaking Marco Scandella who raced in on a breakaway and the former Val 'd Or Foreur did not disappoint as he ripped it by Miller to make it 1-0. You could sense a a great deal of tension sort of left the team after that. Minnesota would start to go on the attack, working the puck deep and battling well along the boards and the Sabres zone started to resemble a shooting gallery. The Wild would strike a few minutes later as Mikko Koivu found former Sabres captain Jason Pominville all alone as he fired a quick shot that beat Miller to make it 2-0. Pominville's goal gave Minnesota the cushion to play a bit more loose. The Sabres tried to counter a bit, but Niklas Backstrom was able to make the save. Minnesota would earn a power play soon after as Marcus Foligno was given a roughing penalty as frustration started to settle in for the Sabres. On the power play the Wild moved the puck with more purpose and used more movement and lo and behold the team was able to create a small burst of quality shots on goal. Koivu would feed Pominville near the blue paint and he would get off two quick chances which were stonewalled by Miller. The Wild came up empty, but at least they continued to keep Buffalo under siege instead of taking their foot off the gas as they did against the Islanders. As the Sabres tried to send its forwards deep, the Wild would counter punch stealing the puck near the Buffalo blueline where Jason Zucker set up Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter in a 3-on-2. The confident Finn would race in and unleash a heavy wrist shot that beat Miller only to ring off the cross bar and out. However the line was persistent as a few minutes later it was Nino Niederreiter chipping a puck off the glass which was swept up by Zucker who turned on the jets for a 2-on-1 with Jared Spurgeon and the former Denver University star let loose a wicked wrist shot off the post and in to make it 3-0. It was Zucker's 1st goal of the season, but the kind of goal that has become his trademark. The Wild then dealt with something hadn't in quite a while, cheers as they left the ice instead of boo's. What a difference a few goals and a 3-0 lead makes eh? Minnesota outshot Buffalo 15-5 in the period. However, it wasn't just the skilled players shining in the period. I thought Minnesota got some great work from Stephane Veilleux who was really causing the Sabres some problems in their own end with some great work along the wall.
3rd Period Thoughts: The game would sort of erode into the Wild just continuing to play with confidence of swagger against an opponent that was not that much of a threat to rally back. Yes, I said the Wild had swagger, as much swagger as you can have after having lost your last 6 games in a row. The Sabres tried to raise the physical level of the game and former Wild defenseman John Scott started to take some liberites with some of Minnesota's smaller players. Scott was taking every opportunity to knock Jared Spurgeon to the ice. Scott would line up against Ryan Suter on a faceoff and after a misdraw of the puck he was tripped up by the Norris trophy finalist and he wasn't impressed and he decided to shove the Wild assistant captain. I thought it was sort of comical to see Mikael Granlund and Jared Spurgeon skate over to Suter's defense. Scott wasn't done causing trouble as he'd give a shove to Clayton Stoner after a Niklas Backstrom save and the two tough guys would be sent to the box. I think Stoner is lucky Scott decided it should end there because he would've been a punching bag against big John Scott if they had managed to drop the gloves. Minnesota would have another power play after Scott's double-minor for roughing. Minnesota would be a bit more static than their power play from the 2nd period, and all they really managed were a few shots from the point by Ryan Suter. The only question that seemed to remain is whether Niklas Backstrom would earn his first shutout of the season. The answer, nope. The Sabres would storm the Wild zone with about a minute left and a big point shot by Matt Weber was stopped by Backstrom and the rebound was tapped home by Matt Ellis to make it 3-1. Buffalo would pull its goaltender for an extra attacker, but they never were able to get a shot off as the Wild were not taking any chances in the closing seconds putting out its top penalty killers up front in Koivu, Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. The Wild would get a fortunate turnover in the neutral zone and Brodziak appeared to be poised to get the empty netter but he was tripped up by Mark Pysyk as he was just about to go on the breakaway so NHL referre awarded the gritty centerman a goal to seal a 4-1 Wild victory.
Niklas Backstrom was better, making 19 saves in the win. He didn't have to make a lot of big saves in this game, but he didn't give up any backbreaking soft goals allowing the Wild to have time to get the first goal and take control of the game. Defensively the Wild did a pretty good job of taking away time and space and sweeping away loose pucks. It is unfortunate Backstrom did not get the shutout, but I am sure he'll be happy to have earned a win at home. It was Backstrom's first win at home since April 23rd of 2013. I liked how the Wild's defense didn't let the Sabres intimidate them. While they were not beating up they were at least standing up to them and not just skating away. Stoner was especially good in this capacity as he made his return felt on the ice by dishing out 5 hits in the game.
Offensively, it took a little while but the Wild finally got it going with a little help of the Wild's blueline jumping into the play. Scandella's goal broke the ice and took a lot of pressure off the team that was really feeling it. After that it was good to see the team play a bit more loose and up tempo and that is really where the Wild dominated the game. I also loved seeing the "KID" or "Youngbloods" line of Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter. Speed, skill and creativity; and they provided their own fresh bit of energy to the game. Zucker's goal was a beauty and I hope the team gives that line a chance to stay together for a bit. However, I think the power play could use some of that youth too to keep Minnesota from being too stale and predictable with the man advantage.
It was an important win for the confidence of the Wild, and likely one that will tone down the heat building up under the seat of Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo. Don't get me wrong, the pressure is still very much there as the playoffs are very much a big maybe compared to the confident position they had a month ago. Let's try to keep a little perspective, this is the worst team in the league we just beat. The team played pretty well and I liked their hustle but the Sabres lack the talent to make the Wild pay for its miscues the way Washington will. Still, its a win and points are precious and you have to appreciate that.
~ The Wild roster was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Stephane Veilleux, Justin Fontaine, Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner. Darcy Kuemper backed up Niklas Backstrom. Mike Rupp and Keith Ballard were the healthy scratches, Josh Harding was out with an illness.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild Radio were: 1st Star Jason Pominville, 2nd Star Mikko Koivu, 3rd Star Clayton Stoner
~ Attendance was 18,229 at Xcel Energy Center.