Sort of like the song ‘the cat came back’ the Minnesota Wild seem to have a strange connection to the Buffalo Sabres. The two clubs seemed to enjoy trading players back and forth to one another and it is both funny and perhaps a bit bizarre of how many Wild or Minnesota connections there are. From long departed former Wild draftees like Benoit Pouliot and Justin Falk to back and forth traded players like Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson Minnesota hockey legend Phil Housely behind the bench the two fortunes / misfortunes of the club seem to be intertwined.
A few years back and with a different head coach on the bench for the Minnesota Wild (on multiple occasions) a meeting between the Wild and Sabres was seen as a possible flashpoint to let the axe fall if Minnesota came up short. While I don’t think Bruce Boudreau has to worry (yet) about his job security, it is interesting that the Wild again seem to be at that crucial turning point as they sit at the bottom of the Central Division standings in desperate need for a win. The Sabres have been struggling mightily as of late, is that a chance at redemption or demoralizing trap game prior to the holiday break?
1st Period Thoughts: The Wild started the game with about as much urgency as your family has making its way to the dinner table on Thanksgiving. A slow leisurely stroll where you don’t want to appear to excited to gorge yourself in front of your family. So with no real urgency the Wild and Sabres spent the first few minutes chasing the puck to no real consequence. The Sabres seemed to recognize the Wild lacked a sense of urgency and they started to apply more pressure. Buffalo would find the back of the net first as Jack Eichel tried to jam a puck in near the right post as Devan Dubnyk tried to cover as best he could and with some persistence and a lazy effort by Minnesota’s defense made it possible for him to jam it home. The officials would say ‘no goal’ for whatever reason but the play would be reviewed. The review showed the puck sitting on top of Dubnyk’s leg pad and Eichel managed to poke it in, and NHL referee Chris Rooney would overturn the ‘no goal’ call and just like that it was 1-0 Sabres. The goal wasn’t really Dubnyk’s fault, but rather his defenseman who didn’t show much hustle to help out their goaltender by either sweeping the puck away or putting a body on the Sabres forwards poking at the biscuit. Matt Cullen and Mike Reilly just kind of stood there and watched it all happen. Trailing 1-0 to a last place team, the Wild could sense they were in a little trouble as the goal seemed to awaken the pessimistic home crowd and the Sabres were enjoying this ray of hope. The momentum continued to build for the next two minutes until a small battle for the puck along the wall was won by Marcus Foligno who pushed a puck up to Tyler Ennis and Ennis spun and fired a backhander that beat Chad Johnson 5-hole tying the game at 1-1. It was a very weak goal and it completely deflated the home crowd who have grown used to losing the last few seasons. I’ll give the Wild a little credit here, they recognized that any shot was a good shot against Johnson and for the rest of the period Minnesota was sending as many shots on goal as they could regardless of the angle hoping to get lucky against a struggling goalie. Minnesota steal a puck near the blueline sending Mikael Granlund and Daniel Winnik in a 2-on-1 and the young Finn would skate in and instead of dishing to Winnik he’d wire a shot by Johnson to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. A charging penalty to Benoit Pouliot would put Minnesota on the power play. The Sabres were a perfect 26-for-26 on penalty killing efforts at home this season, but the Wild would not take long to break their streak as Mikko Koivu sent a pass from the half wall that was redirected perfectly by Nino Niederreiter that beat Johnson 5-hole again giving Minnesota a 3-1 lead. The Wild seemed content to hold a 2-goal lead and they’d ease up their pressure and they’d feel good about themselves going into the 1st intermission.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Sabres swapped out Johnson for Robin Lehner between the pipes. The Wild would appear a bit lethargic to start the 2nd and part of that was a lack of mental focus. Just past the two-minute mark the Sabres would cut the Wild lead to one as Jordan Nolan sent a wrist shot on goal that appeared to surprise an unscreened Dubnyk. 3-2 Wild. It was a soft goal and even though it may have deflected off of the leg of Jonas Brodin, Dubnyk still had a pretty good angle on the shot but instead of blew right by him. The Wild also seemed to get lazy with their defensive play, most notably Reilly who seemed to be physically overpowered in just about every small battle for the puck which prompted him to tackle Sabres’ skaters. Fortunately for the Wild, the Sabres power play isn’t that great and they didn’t pay for Reilly’s mistake. Minnesota would counter attack a few minutes later as Eric Staal carried the puck deep and beneath the goal line where he sent a pass to a crashing Niederreiter who tapped it by Lehner. 4-2 Wild. The next few minutes were mostly spent with bad passes and few shots being taken. The Sabres would take another penalty late in the period as Nathan Beaulieu was called for roughing. Minnesota’s power play was again efficient as they again worked a redirection play to perfection with Granlund deflecting the Koivu centering feed behind Lehner. 5-2 Wild. Now holding a 3-goal lead the Wild seemed to go into coast mode and the Sabres would try to rally for a comeback. With less than 2-minutes left, Jake McCabe would send a diagonal pass towards the goal that was lifted up and over the shoulder of Dubnyk and behind the crossbar to cut Minnesota’s lead to two going into the 3rd. It was the kind of omen that just told you the Wild were going to turn this gimme into a nailbiter.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild were certainly playing not to lose rather than playing to win in the 3rd period. Minnesota was trying to keep it simple by working pucks deep and then changing to try to tire the Sabres’ out. After the first few minutes where that strategy was working pretty well the Wild seemed to just tire of that effort and the result was they began to give the Sabres chances to enter the zone to try to create offense. This was not a good idea and the Sabres would benefit from another soft goal as Jordan Nolan scored his 2nd goal of the game (and season) on a shot from the wall that seemed to catch Dubnyk napping in his crease. The Fox Sports Net broadcast attempted to blame a phantom screen for the goal, but the replay clearly showed Dubnyk had a very clear view of the shot and he simply didn’t see it until it was by him. 5-4 game and now the Sabres were playing with life and the home crowd tried to make some noise to help the rally. Minnesota seemed tired and desperate as they were reaching for pucks and taking any chance they could to clear the zone. The Sabres were really pouring it on and the Wild were having all kinds of trouble handling the puck as the fanned on clearing attempts or watched them be blocked by Buffalo’s forecheckers. Dubnyk had to make a few nice saves late and the Wild managed to escape with a 5-4 victory.
Dubnyk had 30 saves in the win, but I thought he was kind of shaky throughout most of the game. Two of the goals were soft, including the one that really gave the Sabres life in the 3rd period. It wasn’t anything his defenseman did, it was just a total lack of concentration on Dubnyk’s part and they were fortunate it didn’t cost them anything more than just a goal. I thought Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly again look overwhelmed and I am not sure why the organization chose to gift them one-way contracts. Neither player seems physically ready for the NHL and in the last two games we’ve seen opponents take advantage of their physical limitations on a consistent basis. Reilly ended up being benched, which Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said was ‘well deserved.’ I know they want to give these young players NHL action, but are they really ready to perform?
Offensively, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter continue to be the hot hands as of late. That is both good and bad news for the Wild, who continue to lean upon the streaky play of its own team. Jason Zucker appears to be hurt because he simply doesn’t have the jump in his skates anymore. It looks like a groin injury because he just can’t really get up to speed and is showing little want to take shots and has tried to be more of a set up guy but overall he’s a shadow of his normal self. Koivu continues to get chances but he hasn’t been able to bury them. The power play is getting better and they are finding more success at working for deflections as it connected twice this evening.
Yet overall this was another example of how the Wild turned what should’ve been a gimme game into a nailbiter. The reason wasn’t a great effort from the Sabres who seemed to be just as content to lose another game at the opening drop of the puck, but Minnesota gave them hope with a lazy play in its own end. Then the Wild got a bit of a cushion and then coasted and nearly threw the game away. Depending on what happens between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Anaheim Ducks the Wild might find themselves in the last wildcard spot in the Western Conference going into the Thanksgiving break. That may seem trivial, but teams in the playoff picture at Thanksgiving are often who will be there once the regular season closes. In a way that is something to be thankful for, but it’d be nice if this team didn’t insist on making everything so tough on itself.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Daniel Winnik, Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Marcus Foligno, Matt Cullen, Tyler Ennis, Zack Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Mathew Dumba, Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson. Alex Stalock backed up Devan Dubnyk. Kyle Quincey was the lone scratch.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Nino Niederreiter, 2nd Star Mikael Granlund, 3rd Star Mikko Koivu
~ Attendance was 17,418 at KeyBank Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Dmitry Sokolov (Sudbury, OHL) ~ Here is an article all about the enigmatic (if that’s fair to say) Wild prospect. I wouldn’t say I necessarily buy everything this article is selling but it does offer some perspective on the talented Russian sniper. https://theathletic.com//158718/2017/11/21/the-video-room-dmitry-sokolovs-heavy-and-hard-shot-sets-him-apart/?redirected=1