Watching the World Junior Championship Gold Medal game against arch-rivals Sweden and Finland I was struck by how it reminded me of watching the Minnesota Wild. When the Wild were struggling, they were playing a lot like team Sweden, trying to make offense happen with fancy plays that more often than not failed to click. The Swedes were not paying the price to get the puck in close and so often they were one and done. Meanwhile, in the Wild's last two games the team has recommitted itself to play more responsibly defensively. Finland did a great job at denying Sweden from having the slot; and when Minnesota was struggling they were letting teams have the slot whenever they wanted it. Offensively the Finns may not have had a lot of shots on goal but they were getting pucks on goal and they buried their chances in a timely fashion. Sweden was static on the power play, with little in the way of puck movement making it easy for Finland to get into the shooting lanes. The Wild took a more simplified approach on Saturday night against Washington and they were rewarded with two power play strikes in the course of a minute. The WJC's always great theatre, so much enthusiasm and excitement.
Minnesota has found its offense a bit and after the last two games its learned it can score without having to resort to playing irrresponsibly in its own zone. The Wild set an NHL record of scoring 5 goals on the fewest shots ever in a game with just 11 shots on goal. While I don't think the Wild will believe 11 is all they need to win games, it was good to see the team bury those opportunities. Perhaps the injuries have finally convinced the whole team they have to raise their game instead of just waiting for a few to take up the charge. So will the Wild be able to make a big statement by earning 2 points against one of the West's better teams in the Kings on the road or will Los Angeles put a halt to Minnesota's momentum?
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1st Period Thoughts: I thought the Wild looked a bit jittery as one would expect with lines thoroughly reshuffled due to the large numbers of players out with injuries. Darcy Kuemper was noticeably nervous too as he gave up a huge rebound off a long range shot by former Wild defenseman Willie Mitchell. After a minute or two the Wild would settle down and they would even create a little offensive pressure thanks to Jason Zucker and Nino NIederreiter. It started with Zucker who motored into the Kings' zone where he sort of turned and swung a shot on goal that was directed to the corner by Jonathan Quick. The puck was then tracked down by Nino Niederreiter who won the battle for the biscuit along the boards and then took the puck to the net for a close-range shot that Quick was able to knock down and cover for a whistle. Minnesota would then get a little lucky as Dwight King would hook Keith Ballard in the Wild zone giving the State of Hockey its first power play of the game. Just like the rest of the lines, the power play units were also completely redone and I think many fans like myself were excited to see how they'd fare. The initial results looked pretty promising as the power play were able to get a few shots on goal through the first half. I thought Mikael Granlund was a massive improvement over Mikko Koivu along the half wall where he was far more decisive with the puck, taking the opportunity to fire a wrist shot right away instead of waiting and waiting like the team captain normally does. Unfortunately after the Kings managed to clear the zone, Ryan Suter would help Los Angeles' penalty kill with some lazy plays with the biscuit that turned into easy giveaways. The Wild came up empty on the power play but at least they were able to create a little pressure on the Kings. Meanwhile at the other end of the ice, Darcy Kuemper seemed to calm down and his rebound control greatly improved. Defensively the Wild were collapsing down around him pretty quick to help sweep away rebounds and getting their sticks and bodies into shooting lanes to limit the amount of pucks making it to Kuemper. The Wild were also able to keep Los Angeles at bey offensively with some token offensive pressure as Nino Niederreiter would chase down a puck, bowling over Drew Doughty in the process and then outworking him (along with some help from Granlund) for the the biscuit and then lowering his shoulder and muscling his way to the net only to be stopped by Quick. It was a great strength along the wall by two players who were really exhibiting some great effort early for Minnesota. The Kings would start to assert itself on the forecheck and Minnesota was content to circle the wagons and chipping it off the glass and out of the zone to get a line change but the result was the Wild were more or less pinned in its own end. However, as dominant as the Kings were in puck possession in the offensive zone Minnesota was doing a good job at contesting shots and keeping Los Angeles to the perimeter instead of in close to do damage. Minnesota would get out of the first knotted at 0-0 and outshot 17-5 but it was a good first road period for a team that had gone through so much changeover in its lineup. Solid period for Kuemper. I thought Dany Heatley was terrible, looked disconnected and lazy. The Kings had a few instances where they fanned on pucks and overskated them but the Wild are right where they want to be after one.
2nd Period Thoughts: Yikes! That is the best way to describe how Minnesota started the 2nd period. Minnesota looked flat, and perhaps worse yet, careless. The Wild started making absent-minded plays with the puck that turned into prime scoring chances as Marco Scandella just mishandled it right to Dustin Brown who was all alone for a quick chance that Kuemper steered wide. The bad turnovers continued for the Wild and again Scandella was at the core of it as a weak clearing attempt didn't make it out of the zone and the Kings apply pressure and Matt Cooke was forced to slash the stick of Drew Doughty so he couldn't pull the trigger giving Los Angeles its first power play of the game. On the power play it was a shooting gallery as the Kings peppered Kuemper with shots, but the 6'4" goaltender was solid and lucky. When he wasn't stopping the biscuit and absorbing rebounds, the iron was friendly once again as the Kings rang a few shots of the pipe. Minnesota was scrambling in its own end, but for the most part doing a pretty good job of preventing Los Angeles from having the 2nd chance opportunities. Kuemper made a great glove save on Justin Williams late in the man advantage to keep the game scoreless. Unfortunately the Wild mistakes continued and the result was more time spent in the Minnesota end as another failed clearing attempt by Keith Ballard turned into what appeared to be another full minute of possession time in the Wild zone. Kuemper again was able to make some huge saves as Dustin Brown directed a low shot that the Wild goalie got his leg pad on before it was escorted out of danger by Erik Haula. The Wild's top line was who got caught out there, and I thought they looked clueless and lazy. Veterans Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley were disappointing with their lack of effort. As the period went on, the Wild started to wear the Kings down. Minnesota really poured it on with a great forechecking effort in the last two minutes of the period. It all started with the 'Kid Line" of Granlund, Zucker and Niederreiter who outhustled the Kings for pucks and while the shots were not reaching Quick the Wild were swarming and getting closer. The top line went out and had a decent shift where they too controlled the zone but not enough pucks were being directed on goal and despite nearly two minutes spent in the Kings' zone no shots reached Quick. Still, a good effort after spending so much of the period pinned in their own end. Minnesota was being outshot 30-9 at this point. It was not the best period for Minnesota; who were thoroughly out played but Kuemper was keeping them in the game I doubt too many expected to say that at this point with the shot totals so lopsided in the Kings' favor.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd would have a somewhat predictable result as the Wild worked the puck deep on its first shift. Torrey Mitchell would create a bit of space as he won a battle for the puck in the corner where he fed a pass towards the crease where he had a wide open Kyle Brodziak but he was totally unprepared for the puck and it just skittered right on by him. The Kings would counter attack and Jeff Carter would carry the puck deep and zoom behind the Wild net while Brodziak just sort of lazily watched as he threaded a back door pass to Jarrett Stoll who fired a wrist shot off the inside of Kuemper's leg to give Los Angeles a 1-0 lead. It was an apathetic shift by Brodziak whose lack of focus squandered a golden opportunity to score and his poor effort gave the Kings the lead. Luckily, the Wild had other players who were ready to step up. One player who had a great game, from start to finish was Nino Niederreiter and he'd play like a player with a sense of urgency. Jason Pominville would take a Mikael Granlund pass and skate into the Kings' zone before making a diagonal pass towards the goal that was tapped home, 5-hole through Quick to tie it up at 1-1. Los Angeles would try to answer back quickly and they'd storm into the Wild zone and Minnesota would scramble near its crease as Keumper dropped to cover up the biscuit. Unfortunately, Niederreiter was forced to take a slashing penalty as the Kings look poised to re-take the lead. This put Minnesota on the penalty kill. It was another scrambly effort as the Kings controlled the zone, working the puck to the point for Slava Voynov and Drew Doughty to blast slap shots but Kuemper was able to make some saves and the penalty killers were able to sweep away the loose pucks and Minnesota got another big kill. Minnesota would try to regroup and their hustle and persistence was frustrating Los Angeles who would bump into Kuemper for a penalty as Justin Williams sat in the sin bin. Unfortunately the Wild were unable to get much of anything going on the power play. A few token shots from the perimeter, where all but one were blocked before they reached Quick. Like a Rocky movie, the Wild waited until the last few minutes before they went on the attack as the line of Granlund, Mitchell and Coyle nearly cashed in on sheer effort as Mitchell was hauled down by Anze Kopitar before he could get a shot off to no call and the game would go to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: Overtime was pretty cautious for the first few minutes as both teams did all they could to avoid a costly turnover. Both the Wild and Kings rarely got shots on goal and when they did they were forced to settle for opportunites from the perimeter. Kuemper had to make a few saves but did not have much in the way of traffic in front of him and the game would go to a shootout.
Shootout Summary: The Los Angeles Kings would elect to shoot first and their first shooter was Jeff Carter. The former Sault Ste. Marie Soo Greyhounds star would race in and he'd give him 5-hole and as he tried to stuff it through he'd shut it down, nice save by Kuemper. Mikael Granlund would be the Wild's first shooter, and he'd move wide left as he beared down and Quick would use the poke check to prevent Granlund from ever even pulling the trigger. Anze Kopitar would be the Kings' next shooter and he'd move out to the right and then back to the left before moving back to the right and he tried to slide one through 5-hole but Kuemper closed the pads and kept it out. The Wild's next shooter was Jason Pominville and the former Sabres' captain would race in and he'd try to beat him with a wrist shot by Quick snared it with the glove. The Kings' next shooter was Mike Richards and he'd move in rather slowly where he tried to beat Kuemper with a wrist shot buy Kuemper had nothing of it as he snagged it with the glove and tossed the biscuit aside. Minnesota's next shooter was Charlie Coyle and the power forward would move in where he wanted to rip a wrist shot but his stick would fail him as it shattered as he leaned into it and the puck slid harmlessly to the corner. The Kings then sent out Justin Williams and he'd move in on fast approach where he tried to lift a wrist shot up and over Kuemper but he got his blocker on the shot and batted it up and over the goal. Minnesota's next shooter was Nino Niederreiter and the Swiss Olympian would take a slightly windy approach down the middle where he got Quick to bite before lifting a backhand over the sprawling goalie to give the Wild an improbable 2-1 shootout victory.
What a performance by Darcy Kuemper, who made 39 saves as well as stopping all 4 shooters in the shootout to give his club a huge 2 points in the standings. After the first few minutes, Kuemper was poised and came up with some great saves and demonstrated tremendously improved his rebound control. Simply put, Kuemper gave the Wild a chance to win and they took advantage of it, but without him it never would've happened. He did get some good help from the Wild's skaters who did a good job of collapsing around their goaltender. Defensively, it was a horrible night for Keith Ballard who made a lot of bad turnovers and it was very telling down the stretch that he was riding the pine for the entire 3rd period. I thought Nate Prosser had a reasonable game as did Jonas Brodin. The penalty kill gave up a lot of shots, but they scrambled near the crease when they had to to dig pucks out and get it out of danger.
It was another night where shots were again very hard to come by for the Wild with just 17 for the game. I thought the Wild's best line was the line of Granlund, Pominville and Niederreiter. Granlund carried the puck with confidence although at times I felt he overhandled it a bit and was guilty of sort of painting himself into a corner along the boards. Niederreiter was a beast. He was strong along the boards and was the closest thing the Wild had to a consistent scoring threat as he tied for the lead in shots on goal with 4. I loved how he used his frame to protect the puck and then took it to the paint. Of course it was nice to see his pretty move in the shootout and it shows he's more than just a guy who jams the puck near the crease, he has some good moves in his arsenal of tricks. I thought Heatley was a complete waste of a roster spot. Hesitant, little energy and a liability defensively. Pominville wasn't much better until the 3rd period when he was taken off that line with Coyle and Heatley. The team needs to simplify its power play and try to work quick passes and shots on goal. In their first power play they did this and the result was a few scoring chances, but they went back to the wait and pass and wait and pass that has dogged this power play the last month or so. Keep it simple boys!
Huge win for this team that seems to have had nothing but bad news the last 48 hours. Its hopefully a win they can rally around, especially Kuemper who had a huge game. I think if anything was troublesome to me beyond the lack of shots on goal was the relatively poor effort from the teams' veterans. I thought Heatley, Ballard and Brodziak all looked like they just mailed it in tonight. This team needs all of its players giving their all whether they're tired or depleted or not. I thought the Wild had a great effort from its collection of youngsters, but the vets need to tow the rope. The Wild are going to have to be even better on Thursday against Phoenix.
~ The Wild's lineup tonight was as follows: Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Erik Haula, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Stephan Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Nino NIederreiter, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner. Niklas Backstrom backed up Darcy Kuemper. Jonathon Blum and Mike Rupp were the healthy scratches tonight.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game by the L.A. media were: 1st Star Anze Kopitar, 2nd Star Darcy Kuemper, 3rd Star Jonathan Quick ~ (Seriously? Kuemper with the 2nd Star? And Kopitar for the first? KISS' Gene Simmons did more in dropping the puck than Kopitar did in this game. He was a -1 in a 2-1 game? Ridiculous.)
~ Attendance was 18,118 at Staples Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Recent Score: Iowa 3, Milwaukee 4 SO
Thanks to Miley Cyrus being, well, herself the Wild's road trip was a little longer than expected. The Wild to wait in frigid Milwaukee just a little bit longer because of it. Iowa would strike first as Brett Bulmer would bury his 10th goal of the season on a sneaky little spin-a-rama shot after moving from beneath the goaling that beat Magnus Hellberg. The Admirals would tie the game just 1:10 into the 2nd on a power play tally by Austin Watson. Milwaukee would pull ahead about 7-minutes later as Colton Sissons found the twine behind Johan Gustafsson on another power play goal to make it 2-1 going into the 2nd. However, before the period ended Brett Bulmer would get tangled up in a nasty collision along the boards and the Wild's leading goal scorer was writhing in pain to what was a lower body injury although the team's radio broadcast speculated it was a another nasty knee injury for the rugged forward who was having a bit of a bounceback season after an injury-riddled campaign last year. No official word as of yet. The Wild would try to rally back and Kyle Medvec blasted a shot from the point to tie the game at 2-2 just 1:30 into the 3rd. Milwaukee would answer back just a little over 2-minutes later as Taylor Beck sniped a shot over the shoulder Gustafsson, to make 3-2. Iowa would tie the game about midway through the period on Chad Rau's 1st goal of the season and the game would go to overtime. The Wild would have a bit of good fortune in OT as the Admirals' Joe Piskula was given a minor for high sticking, giving Iowa a chance to win it on a 4-on-3 power play. Unfortunately, the Wild's normally lethal road power play went cold and they came up empty and the game would go to a shootout. In the shootout the Wild sent out 4 shooters and all of them couldn't get it by Hellberg and Milwaukee struck twice to make a 4-3 victory. Gustafsson had 28 saves in the loss. Iowa's next game is Friday against Grand Rapids.
Wild Prospect Report:
C - Adam Gilmour (Boston College, H-East) ~ Last week the NHL had its 'spectacle' in the Winter Classic and college hockey has been apt to have its own outdoor games. On Saturday night it was 'Frozen Fenway' in Boston's Historic Fenway Field as the BC Eagles played against Notre Dame. Gilmour anchored the Eagles' 4th line where he tallied an assist in their 4-3 victory. The 6'3" centerman has 2 goals, 9 points in 19 games played this season.
LW - Mario Lucia (Notre Dame, H-East) ~ Facing Gilmour was another Wild prospect in lanky winger Mario Lucia. Lucia would score Notre Dame's first goal, but it wasn't enough as the Fighting Irish fell 4-3. The former Wayzata star has 10 goals (leading the team in goals, 2nd in points), 14 points in 19 games played this season.
D - Dylan Labbe (Shawinigan, QMJHL) ~ Shawinigan battled Rouyn-Noranda on Saturday, but there was no head-to-head matchup against Wild prospects. Alexandre Belanger didn't start between the pipes for the Huskies. Perhaps that's how the Cataractes were able to beat the high scoring Huskies as Labbe chipped in a goal in their 5-3 victory. Labbe has 5 goals and 17 points in 37 games played this season.
D - Gustav Olofsson (Team Sweden, WJC) ~ The lanky defenseman was a standout for a strong Team Sweden squad that battled their way to the Gold Medal game at this year's WJC's in Malmo, Sweden. Olofsson had a goal and 4 assists and was a +6 in 6 games played. Rumors were also circulating that Olofsson may leave Colorado College for Portland of the WHL after the conclusion of the tournament. Its a very interesting rumor since it has been believed Dumba would also be going to Portland after the WJC's too. I am sure he'll be a little disappointed after losing to Finland in the WJC Final.
D - Mathew Dumba (Team Canada, WJC) ~ It was a far less impressive showing for the Wild's hyped defensive prospect as Dumba managed to register just a single assist and 12 PIM's in 7 games. Canada's power play did not score a single goal on the power play in the medal round which was a big reason they ended up finishing without a medal this year.