Mental toughness. Its an important thing for nearly anyone to learn in life, whether at the workplace, school or at home and in sports as well. Some of you may know that my job as a teacher also involves coaching two sports and without a doubt mental toughness is something that can separate successful athletes from the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s. It is my experience that the best athletes are usually very strong from psychological standpoint, meaning very little will phase them from their goal and often it is quite difficult to get them frustrated or off their game. Lesser athletes are often more easily upset or disrupted by the actions of their opponent or other things out of their control (i.e. officiating, game conditions, etc). Mental toughness is something that can be improved, but the effort has to be focused and reflective. Right now the Minnesota Wild look like they are in need of some lessons in mental toughness.
The St. Louis Blues are in the Wild’s heads both on and off the ice. Its obvious in the way the Wild are playing the game and how they’ve allowed themselves to get caught up in the post-whistle scrums that are more of a regular occurrence in the post-season. As former NHL’er, original Mr. Hockey Award winner and Stanley Cup Champion Tom Chorske told me on Twitter its going to take some serious soul searching on the Wild’s part.
The Wild will have some significant mental gymnastics to overcome the hole they’ve dug for themselves. Can the Wild cut the Blues series lead in half with an afternoon victory on Easter Sunday?
1st Period Thoughts: (sigh) It was not the start you want if you’re a fan of the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota started the game looking tired and quite frankly a little uninspired to start the game and they’d get a rude awakening. The Blues were amped up by the sellout crowd and were playing the game at full speed while Minnesota seemed to have stiff legs with no little initiative. The poor start was magnified when Minnesota tried to pinch a bit and got caught in a 2-on-1 that had Christian Berglund finding Colton Parayko with a slap shot that beat an unscreened Devan Dubnyk top shelf, glove side. 1-0 Blues. The shooting gallery continued over the next few minutes as Minnesota’s dead legs continued to be an issue as it resulted in turnovers near the blueline and in the neutral zone that resulted in counter attacks for St. Louis and Dubnyk had to be sharp making a number of saves on bang-bang plays. The Wild struggled just get the puck into the Blues’ end of the ice, let alone into the middle to take some shots. One player who was getting some flak on Twitter was Ryan White, but he seemed to be in the line to try to work pucks into the middle of the ice and after winning a rare battle for the puck in the offensive zone he’d send a pass into the high slot that found Nino Niederreiter who bobbled it away and resulted in another 2-on-1 for the Blues as Ryan Suter seemed to be fatigued as he hooked Robert Bortuzzo who had a strange breakaway. Suter had two minor penalties that gave the Blues power plays and they looked hungry and determined to add to their lead but Dubnyk and off-target shots were merciful to the Wild as Alex Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko both rang a shots off the post. Minnesota only had a few token chances of their own, but it was also a sign of the deflated nature of the team at this point in the series. Zach Parise gets a little bit of room and skates into the Blues end in the middle of the ice and he lets go a wrist shot from the high slot that Allen stopped but he gave up a big rebound and as St. Louis tied up Parise, Eric Staal just floated in instead of driving hard to pounce on the opportunity. In the closing seconds of the period the Wild had its best chance of the game as Jared Spurgeon managed to track down a flip pass and skate in on a breakaway only to be denied by a leg pad save by Jake Allen. Minnesota had to feel fortunate to only be trailing by one going into the 1st intermission, but they also had to be terribly disappointed in their overall effort and energy to start such a crucial game to their season.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Blues would sit back into lockdown mode inviting the Wild to attack as they knew Minnesota had to be feeling a little desperate at this point. Minnesota started to send more pucks on goal and initially it started with shots from the outside and then crashing the crease but Jake Allen was doing a good job of gathering up the puck and limiting his rebounds. The Wild kept attacking and while I thought Allen kind of ‘played up’ his saves a bit with a bit of dramatic panache he was able to make those saves because the Wild were not screening him at all. Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle were drifting out almost above the faceoff dots, are you kidding me? You aren’t screening anyone by being that high in the zone and if anything you’re making it almost possible to use your two point defenders to disrupt passes to your so-called screener too. When the Wild weren’t playing catch with the goaltender they were passing up chances to shoot the puck. Niederreiter would get a pass near the right faceoff dot where he’d feint at a shot before passing it to Koivu who then tried to pass it across to Mikael Granlund who couldn’t reach the puck for what would’ve been an easy tap in. The Wild would eventually be rewarded as Coyle gave a drop pass to Zach Parise who fired a shot and Coyle who skated right towards the goal was there to backhand home the rebound tying the game at 1-1. The Wild would then get tagged on a bad high sticking penalty to Ryan White, even though the replay clearly showed the stick belonged to Martin Hanzal who was on the follow through off the faceoff. Either way the Wild were down a man and the Blues would take full advantage of their good fortune on the bad call. Minnesota’s penalty killers failed to clear the zone and the Blues kept moving the puck around the ice to the point where the Wild were reduced to standing and reaching and it was Alex Steen taking a puck from behind the goal and sending it out front where it was shoveled home by Jaden Schwartz before Dubnyk could get across his crease. 2-1 Blues. The goal was a deflating end to what was a better, somewhat more determined effort by the Wild as they outshot St. Louis 13-8 in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period was kind of more of the same as the 2nd to a certain point. The Wild would again try to crash the net early as Chris Stewart seemed to be the one who had the hunger for a goal but Allen was there to hold on and get the whistle. Minnesota just couldn’t bury the biscuit as Niederreiter was stopped off a redirection of a centering pass by Jared Spurgeon. The Wild’s aggressive attack also invited the Blues to counter attack and Devan Dubnyk had to make some clutch saves to bail out his team including a partial breakaway for Tarasenko who he just managed to get enough of his body in front of it. The Blues started taking the body more and the Wild seemed to wither under the pressure and the shots on goal started to become fewer and far between. Minnesota would pull Dubnyk with just over two minutes left in the period, but to little real result as the Wild could not get any real open opportunities and the Blues were able to reduce the play to board battles. The smaller Wild didn’t win the board battles and the puck would work its way out of the zone and it was Steen putting the nail in the coffin with an empty net goal, 3-1 and giving the Blues a 3-0 series lead.
Devan Dubnyk wasn’t the whole reason the Wild came up short today, but I am sure he’ll feel a bit haunted by the first goal he gave up on an unscreened shot from the perimeter by Colton Parayko. Ryan Suter didn’t get a stick on it but he also wasn’t screening Dubnyk from seeing the shot either and its a save that he needs to make. Instead its in the back of the net and the Wild were playing catch up virtually the whole game. Whether its fair or not, he has to be better. Speaking of Suter, today was a rough day for the veteran defenseman who seems fatigued and he was a 1-man power play killer with bad passes and tired legs. He had 4 penalty minutes bringing his total up to 10 PIM’s in just 3 games. Another player who I felt has struggled in the series was Mathew Dumba. Dumba handles the puck like he has a live hand grenade on his stick and he’s done nothing to help the Wild offensively where you’d think having a mobile puck-moving blueliner would be an advantage.
Offensively the Wild still waited far too long to start working themselves in close for chances on Jake Allen. The Wild still were choosing the perimeter far too often and oddly enough the players choosing to take the puck in those areas are some of Minnesota’s bigger forwards like Charlie Coyle and Eric Staal. Only Martin Hanzal and Chris Stewart really seemed to want to take the puck to the crease and do some damage from in close. Sure, Coyle scored on a rebound near the crease but he’s still not showing a lot of determination in battles for pucks near the paint. I thought Ryan White wasn’t too bad today, drawing a penalty and sending some shots on goal which is more than what we were getting out of rookie Joel Eriksson Ek. Nino Niederreiter is mostly missing in action as is Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker who were complete non-factors today.
The Blues wanted this game more and its been that way the entire series. St. Louis is doing what Colorado used to do when we had Marian Gaborik. They’re standing up the Wild as they try to cross the blueline, we slow down and we’re not moving our feet to draw an interference penalty. Eventually we start slowing down and we begin to just give away pucks. Minnesota has slowed their game down and that is precisely what the Blues want and until the Wild are willing to pay the physical price this is going to continue to happen. There are too many guys waiting for their peers to step up with a big play instead of taking the initiative themselves. Down 3-0 in the series, there is no more time to figure it out. Bruce Boudreau told the media, “we have to treat Game 4 like its Game 7,” in the words of Jacques Lemaire…no doubt, there’s no doubt!
~ The Wild roster this afternoon was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville, Chris Stewart, Martin Hanzal, Erik Haula, Ryan White, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Mathew Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Nate Prosser. Darcy Kuemper backed up Devan Dubnyk. Jordan Schroeder, Christian Folin, Joel Eriksson Ek and Alex Stalock were the scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Jake Allen, 2nd Star Colton Parayko, 3rd Star Jaden Schwartz
~ Attendance was 19,344 at Scottrade Center.
Iowa Wild Report:
Iowa 3, Chicago 2 OT
In Iowa’s last home game of the season, the Wild made it a memorable one for the 9,817 in attendance at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. In a fairly even 1st period, the Wolves would score late on a tap in goal by Samuel Blais off a wrist shot from the point by Morgan Ellis that drew a rebound right to Blais to give Chicago a 1-0 lead with just 35 seconds left in the opening period. Iowa would answer back early in the 3rd period when Pat Cannone made a nice cross-ice pass to Gerald Mayhew who one-timed a shot by Ville Husso tying the game at 1-1. The good feelings would be short lived as the Wolves would take back the lead a few minutes later as Morgan Ellis beat Alex Stalock on a point shot just a little under 4 minutes after Mayhew’s goal. Iowa would tie the game again late in the 2nd period as former University of Minnesota standout Justin Kloos would pounce on a loose puck and beat a sprawling Husso tying the game at 2-2. The stalemate would continue through out an exciting 3rd period and the game would go to overtime. It didn’t take long in 3-on-3 overtime as Alex Tuch and Zack Mitchell helped force a turnover in the Chicago end, and Mitchell fed a pass out front to Tuch who beat Husso on a quick shot glove side to give Iowa a 3-2 victory just 13 seconds into overtime. Stalock had 23 saves in the victory.
Iowa 5, Rockford 2
Iowa saved arguably one of the best games of the season for their last one on Saturday night against the Ice Hogs. The Wild would jump out to an early lead as Pat Cannone made a nice pass to Gerald Mayhew who rifled a shot by Lars Johansson to give Iowa a 1-0 advantage. Canonne would set up Mayhew for another pretty goal late in the 1st, but the Wild were not done there as Luke Kunin lit the lamp after burying a rebound off a Tyler Graovac shot. With Iowa leading 3-0 going into the 2nd, they’d keep pouring it on as Kurtis Gabriel and Dmitry Sokolov (his first professional goal) scored in the span of about 40 seconds early in the period. Ice Hogs’ Head Coach kept Johansson in the game and the game would calm down a bit with Iowa content to hold onto a 5-0 lead. The Ice Hogs would score twice in the 3rd period, on goals from Pierre-Cedric Labrie and William Pelletier but that was as close as it got as Iowa rolled to a 5-2 victory. Cannone had 3 helpers to his credit and Steven Michalek had 32 saves in the win.
Wild Prospect Camp Tryout Watch:
RW – Reid Gardiner (Kelowna, WHL) ~ the veteran of at least two Wild prospect camps has a solid overage year in a season Kelowna. Gardiner is making his presence felt, big-time in the playoffs for the Rockets as he had 4 goals and 2 helpers in Kelowna’s 6-2 win over Portland on Friday. Injuries limited Gardiner to just 28 regular season games this season but he still managed 18 goals and 37 points. Beyond that he’s always been a top-notch finisher throughout his major junior career which he’s proving in the playoffs so far for the Rockets. The 5’11”, 198lbs right-shooting Humbolt, Saskatchewan-native has 12 goals, 22 points, 2 PIM’s and is a +5 in 11 playoff games.