The last time these two clubs played one another the Wild was in the depths of despair. Injuries were mounting, the team couldn’t seem to score almost at all and Minnesota Head Coach Mike Yeo was starting to feel the pressure and rumors started swirling that the organization may be looking to drop the axe. The Wild were tired and mostly uninspired and lost. The pressure is still there, but now the team is motivated, focused and going to into its final 5 games. Pittsburgh’s playoff position is more or less set, and they’re hope is to avoid any serious set back (i.e. injuries) in a season where they’ve had a ton of them to their blueline. No Kris Letang, no Evgeni Malkin, no Pascal Dupuis have forced the team to dress youngsters like Jayson Megna, Brian Gibbons and Simon Despres, the young defenseman have held their own. Minnesota has had to shuffle a bit lately with injuries as the games seem to get more intense as they get closer to the conclusion of the regular season.
In the end it will largely be about who wants it more. The Wild still have to clinch their spot in the playoffs and while they still are command of their own destiny this is that test of character the team’s coaching staff has always talked about. Will the Wild respond to the challenge? Can they will themselves a victory tonight against the Penguins? Or will they take their eye off the prize as they play in the comfort of Xcel Energy Center?
1st Period Thoughts: Sidney Crosby made his presence felt early as he swept up a puck near the blueline and then walked around Marco Scandella with ease before lifting a backhander wide of the mark. Yet the Wild would strike first as Erik Haula started the rush up the ice, pushing the puck up to Jason Pominville who dished it to Matt Moulson who gave a saucer pass back into the middle which Haula raced ahead to reach as he chipped a shot by Jeff Zatkoff to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. It was a beauty of a goal created by Haula’s speed and hustle. Minnesota continued to pressure and Zach Parise found himself set up for a close range chance but his stick was tied up just before he could pull the trigger. The Wild’s pressure would draw a hooking penalty on Lee Stempniak as he hooked Pominville as he tried to skate after a pass by Jonathon Blum. On the power play the Wild were moving the puck reasonably well as they set up Koivu for a big shot that drew a big rebound from Zatkoff but unfortunately no one was ready to pounce on it. The Penguins’ penalty kill was fairly aggressive, pressuring the puck carrier which did not allow Minnesota to ever really get comfortable on the power play. The Wild came up short, but Minnesota was dictating the pace of play and it was time for the top line to make their mark. Mikko Koivu was able to tap a puck up to Zach Parise who swung a pass over to Koivu and then raced towards the goal and Koivu would use the defenseman as a screen before firing a shot against the grain that beat Zatkoff who had Stempniak skating right into his crease. 2-0 Wild. You had to feel a tiny bit for Zatkoff whose own teammate thwarted any chance he had to make the save. Pittsburgh just didn’t seem to have the energy to push back, and Minnesota would add to its lead a few minutes later as Stephane Veilleux chased a dump in and delivered a hard check to Brooks Orpik whose pass was intercepted by Cody McCormick and he’d slide a pass to Veilleux who turned and swung a shot that somehow snuck through Zatkoff’s pads and it was 3-0 Wild. Kyle Brodziak would give the Penguins their first power play of the game as he was called for hooking Crosby. The Wild’s penalty kill were tremendous, getting sticks into passing and shooting lanes and denying Pittsburgh’s potent power play from having much time and space. Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise were especially good on the penalty kill at being pesky with good active sticks and working the puck out of the offensive zone. Marco Scandella would backhand a clear down the ice that made its way to Zatkoff and as he played the puck he was given a rousing Bronx cheer from the fans at Xcel Energy Center. The Penguins would come up empty on the power play and the Wild had to feel awfully good leading 3-0 going into the first intermission despite having just 6 shots on goal.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Penguins had good energy to start the 2nd period, and they’d have a great chance early as James Neal appeared to have an easy goal until it was denied by the paddle of Ilya Bryzgalov who didn’t get a lot of work in the 1st period. Neal was roving a lot in the Wild zone but he was shoved off the biscuit in the corner by a solid physical play by Ryan Suter. Pittsburgh continued to attack and a quick shot Chris Kunitz missed wide and the puck caromed off the boards right to Lee Stempniak who directed a shot on goal that was steered aside by Bryzgalov. With Pittsburgh attacking the Wild would counter attack as Charlie Coyle made two great plays along the wall to work it deep to Zach Parise who patiently set up McCormick in the slot for a quick shot that beat Zatkoff and it was 4-0 Wild. The goal was immensely deflating to the Penguins who had dominated the play until McCormick’s tally. The Wild’s superior hustle and effort started to tell as the ice started to slowly tip back into the Pittsburgh end. Minnesota was still taking every opportunity to shoot the puck as Jared Spurgeon wound up and let loose a slap shot that was redirected perfectly by Parise but Zatkoff was able to come up with the save. The Penguins were sort of going through the motions, clearly not able to motivate themselves to try to scratch and claw for a comeback. Minnesota was more than happy to try to work the puck deep and keep Pittsburgh bottled up in its own zone. One could argue the Wild’s best line in the 2nd was the 4th line as their strong, physical play and energy allowed Minnesota to rest its top two lines. Minnesota would earn a power play late in the 2nd as the Penguins’ Robert Bortuzzo would hook Parise. The home crowd would give an appreciative cheer for another solid period for the Wild as Minnesota outshot the Penguins 10-5 in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota would start the period with nearly a full 2-minute of power play time. The Wild were a little nonchalant as the Penguins’ aggressive penalty kill was able to force a few turnovers early on as Paul Martin stepped into a slap shot that was blocked aside by Bryzgalov. Neither team was really pressing all that hard and both clubs were settling for shots from the perimeter as they just hoped to get lucky. Stephane Veilleux would take an interference penalty after a long shift when he held up Tanner Glass. On the power play the Penguins started to play with the focus that hadn’t really been there for most of the game as they moved the puck with crisp passes before setting up James Neal in the slot for a shot that was denied by a fine save by Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov would come up with a few more saves on the power play and the Wild got another kill to their credit. Minnesota was content to work the puck deep and then chase and try to force turnovers in the Pittsburgh zone. Whenever Pittsburgh tried to forecheck the Wild stayed calm and made the short passes or reverses to elude the Penguins’ forecheckers with relative ease. So it was a surprisingly quiet ending to what was a tremendous victory for the Wild and the crowd would offer their appreciation by giving a standing ovation over the last minute of play.
Ilya Bryzgalov didn’t have to be incredible but he came up with some very timely saves to keep the Penguins off the scoreboard. His fantastic paddle save on James Neal and then a great stop on Neal on the power play really was the nail in the coffin for the Penguins as the Wild then scored later in that period to make it a 4-goal game. Bryzgalov earned his 2nd shutout as a member of the Wild and I think he’s probably earned the starting job no matter if Darcy Kuemper returns or not. Defensively the Wild played pretty well; being physical at the right time and working sticks and bodies into passing and shooting lanes. Minnesota was a perfect 2-for-2 on the penalty kill against one of the more dangerous power play units in the league. I thought Ryan Suter and Marco Scandella both had tremendous games this evening. The other area where I felt Minnesota simply out performed the Penguins was its breakouts as they consistently thwarted the Penguins’ forecheck with nice little passes and well-timed reverses all game long.
Offensively the Wild got 2 goals from its 4th line; which at times was Minnesota’s most effective line simply from its hustle and effort. McCormick looked decent in a 4th line center role and Stephane Veilleux keeps bringing the physical play that makes good things happen for the Wild. It was nice to see both of these players rewarded tonight. Erik Haula’s goal to start the game is precisely what so many fans here knew was possible from the speedy Finn and former University of Minnesota-star, he’s got the wheels to burn opponents as well as the hands to finish. Haula’s goal put the Penguins behind the 8-ball early. Charlie Coyle also had a great game and his outstanding effort to weather two big checks to push the puck deep to Parise on McCormick’s goal was the kind of ‘do whatever it takes’ kind of play teams need if you expect to win games in the playoffs. 2 assists from him.
The two points put the Wild in great shape over the final 4 games of the season. Minnesota was rewarded for its focus and its commitment to keeping things simple. The Wild avoided trying to dazzle at home and simply played a hard-working blue collar style that resulted in some early goals. Minnesota buried most of the prime opportunities the Penguins gave him and the result was a one-sided game. However, its still a tough road the next week or so as they travel to Winnipeg on Monday in what should be an intense game as the Jets have embraced the role of spoiler. Do I think the Penguins gave it their best tonight? Nope, they looked tired and mostly disinterested, but kudos for the Wild for taking advantage of the opportunity to earn another 2 points. The Wild have a lot to feel good about right now.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Zach Parise, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Moulson, Jason Pominville, Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Matt Cooke, Cody McCormick, Nino Niederreiter, Stephane Veilleux, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jonathon Blum and Nate Prosser. John Curry backed up Ilya Bryzgalov. Mike Rupp, Dany Heatley, Christian Folin, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner were the scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Wild TV were: 1st Star Ilya Bryzgalov, 2nd Star Cody McCormick, 3rd Star Stephane Veilleux
~ Attendance was 19,409 at Xcel Energy Center, the largest ever in Wild history.
Iowa Wild Report:
Recent Score: Iowa 1, Milwaukee 4
One team that isn’t spending its time scoreboard watching right now is Minnesota’s AHL affiliate, the Iowa Wild. Very much out of the playoff picture for the last few weeks, the Wild are focusing on finding future talent and evaluating who they should bring back for next year and who should be sent on their merry way. Lately that means giving ice time to young players who have just finished their major junior or college seasons in a sort of late-season professional audition. On Friday night it was Kurtis Gabriel making his professional hockey debut to go along with Gustav Olofsson, Dylan Labbe and Brady Brassart who got their first taste of the pro game in the last few contests. Youthful energy has helped energize the Wild, but their inexperience and lack of chemistry with the rest of the roster has meant the result has been largely inconsistent. Milwaukee, a team with veteran-laden squad would strike first as Taylor Beck managed to get by a Wild defender and then rifle a shot by Johan Gustafsson and it was 1-0 Admirals going into the 1st intermission. In the 2nd, it didn’t start much better as Milwaukee struck on the power play as Francis Walthier bombed a one-timer off a pass by Vinny Saponari to make it 2-0 Admirals. Iowa would cut Milwaukee’s lead in half late in the 2nd, as a shot from the point by Steven Kampfer was redirected perfectly by Zack Phillips to make it 2-1 but that was as close as the Wild would get. Momentum was turning, and it would get another huge boost as the Wild’s Corbin Baldwin dropped the gloves with Milwaukee’s Michael Liambas. The Wild were feeling a comeback, but it wasn’t meant to be. Filip Forsberg, the former 1st round pick of the Washington Capitals would bury a power play goal with just 17 seconds left in the 2nd period and the momentum created by the Wild’s surge was gone going into the 2nd intermission. Taylor Beck would find the twine for a 2nd time early in the 3rd period. Frustration would settle in, and the Wild would try to start trouble as Brad Winchester and Kurt Gogol started throwing their weight around and goading Milwaukee players to fight, but they wanted no part of it. Gustafsson had 23 saves in the loss.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Zack Mitchell (Guelph, OHL) ~ It was a crazy first game of the series between Guelph and the London Knights. The Storm raced out to a 4-0 lead, only to see the Knights rally back to tie the game at 4-4. Guelph would score twice late in the 3rd period to pull away for a 6-4 victory and the Wild prospect chipped in an assist and was a +1 on the evening. Mitchell has 2 goals, 9 points and is a +6 in 6 playoff games this season.
D – Mathew Dumba (Portland, WHL) ~ Portland too would start its 2nd round series against the Victoria Royals on Friday and the result was a blowout as the Winterhawks cruised to an 8-2 victory. It was also a big night for the Wild’s bluechip defense prospect as he contributed 2 goals an assist and was a +3 in the win. Dumba has 2 goals, 7 points and is a +9 in 5 playoff games played this season.