In my opinion, part of what I believe is an important quality of a leader is a person who says the tough things that others may not wish to hear. Last night after the disappointment of a 3-1 loss, the Wild assistant captain had some harsh words for his teammates about the way they have been playing lately. Since the Wild signed Zach Parise he's done about all you can ask of anyone on the ice, but off the ice his comments are sharp and spot on even if what he's saying may make those around him a tad bit uncomfortable. Leaders still say them regardless of how it may make your teammates feel, they simply say what needs to be said. "We played a soft hockey game, we made it easy for them" should be posted on the wall of the dressing room and if that doesn't inspire the Wild to play with a bit more fire and tenacity from start to finish then nothing will.
I think the real question that will only be answered once te game begins is the team going to answer Parise's challenge. Will they take those words that may have caused them to look deep inside themselves and ask if they were responsible for the 'soft' play of the team and take the necessary steps to change it. If they don't heed Parise's words, then the character of those teammates can be questioned. So will the Wild respond, to use a Mike Yeo-ism, or will they cheat and play the soft game which has the club in its current funk?
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Before I begin, I want to explain that this post-game report will be a little bit different from my normal posts. Maybe that's good but maybe that's bad. If its not something you're pleased with I will simply say that I decided spending Thanksgiving time (we celebrated it today, not Thursday because we all had other things going on) was more important. Still, I will jot down some reflections of the game as I still managed to watch it all.
I again appreciated the speedier lineup the Wild put on the ice. However, I have to say that much of what Zach Parise had been harping about after Friday's game was still apparent on Saturday as well. Certain players were still trying to side step hits and giving up the puck consistently, while others were slowing it down upon crossing the blueline and allowing the opposing defense time to get back into the zone where potential scoring chances were squandered. You could even see the frustration on Parise's face as he watched his teammates making those same mistakes. Until the team takes significant steps to address these problems at practice we'll continue to see what we have been lately? Inconsistency and an inability to score goals because we're not willing to pay the physical price to do so.
That is not to say the team was not hustling or working hard. With the lone exception of Dany Heatley I felt the Wild were flying all over the ice. However, it is that x-factor of fighting through a check instead of simply avoiding it is where goals are scored versus not having a scoring chance at all. Down the stretch when the Wild were throwing all but the kitchen sink at Colorado, the team was paying that physical price and its no coincidence that it managed to bury two goals late in the 3rd by displaying that selfless effort Parise had been alluding to. The line of Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke and Torrey Mitchell was very pesky and it was good to see their persitence be rewarded. Cooke lighting the lamp was his first goal in 22 games (Oct. 12th) so he was long overdue for his 4th goal of the season after his strong start.
The Wild's next best line was the line of Heatley, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Coyle and especially Niederreiter were very strong along the boards and they used their size to protect the puck and did a good job of creating scoring chances from in close. Niederreiter has been playing very well lately, and I think even Parise would have to admit he's been willing to pay the physical price to win games and make big plays. His effort was deserving of at least a goal this evening and its hard to imagine him not lighting the lamp in the near future.
Oddly enough, the one line that didn't impress me all that much was the top line of Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville. While Parise was flying all over the zone, and was a total pest on the forecheck his linemates spent a lot of time cherry picking and waiting to reap the reward from their teammates' hard work. The line is far too unselfish with the puck and often tries to make that one extra pass when it really should just pull the trigger and crash the net. This line finally was rewarded when a player didn't make that one extra pass and just took their own chances to laser a shot on goal, in Koivu's game-tying tally.
Defensively, I thought Marco Scandella was both good and bad. I liked how he was assertive in the offensive zone, taking his chances to shoot the puck and helping support the offense by keeping the puck in the opposing zone. However, he had some horrendous turnovers in the defensive zone, which were due to a lack of focus with the puck and Minnesota came withing just a little under 5 seconds from coming away without a point at all to show for its good effort due to Scandella's mistake that turned into Nathan MacKinnon's goal. I thought Jonas Brodin was way too passive, and he was showing a lack of confidence by retreating early and thus Minnesota had to give up the offensive zone when he should've been able to step up and support the offense without any undue risk defensively. Besides, if any defenseman is able to recover from a mistake and scramble back to get a stick on a puck its Brodin.
Minnesota did play a better game than it did on Friday, but at the end of the day the opponent ended up with 2 points and the Wild lost its fourth straight game. Yes it's a "skills competition" Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo, but its a skills competition that results in points in the standings and still determines who goes to the playoffs and who does not. Or did you forget about last season already? The team had some opportunities to tie the game far earlier and may have been able to take the lead if it would've only been a little more willing to crash the net with a bit more tenacity. A great example was Matt Cooke's near goal where the the puck squeezed through Varlamov and then just sat on the goal line a few seconds before Torrey Mitchell actually ended up palying it back underneath the pads of the Avalance goalie.
Close may seem to some like its good enough or that its a step in the right direction. While getting a point is better than none, its still a loss to a divisional foe. An opponent that is directly above the Wild in the standings and after the two-game series Colorado has 4 points to the Wild's one. Doesn't seem so great anymore now does it? I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but this team will not have a lot time to bask in the glory of its mercy point. The club travels back to Minnesota to face an improving Philadelphia Flyers squad that has been winning more than its been losing lately. The Flyers will want nothing more than to keep Minnesota miserable. This should be another good physical test for the Wild, in a game Minnesota not only should be able to win but they are points it really cannot afford to give up.
~ The Wild lineup is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Matt Cooke, Torrey Mitchell, Justin Fontaine, Charlie Coyle, Kyle Brodziak, Jason Zucker, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Zenon Konopka was out with an eye injury, while Mike Rupp was still attending to a family funeral. Nate Prosser and Mathew Dumba were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game according to Marc Moser of Altitude Radio were: 1st Star Semyon Varlamov, 2nd Star Ryan O'Reilly, 3rd Star Nathan MacKinnon
~ Attendance was 17,857 at Pepsi Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
RW – Kurtis Gabriel (Owen Sound, OHL) ~ The rugged power forward continues to be constant on the scoresheet registering a single assist and a +2 rating in the Attack's 3-2 win over Plymouth Whalers on Saturday night. The Attack's Assistant Captain has 7 goals, 23 points and 47 PIM's in 22 games this season.