“I might as well be on Mars, you can’t see me, I might as well be the man on the moon, you can’t hear me, Oh, can you feel me so close, and yet so far, Baby, I might as well be on Mars” are lyrics from Alice Cooper‘s I Might as well be on Mars. The Wild seem to have been standing at the window staring at the 8 teams in the playoff picture for a while now, winning most of those games as they hope to get their place on the other side of the glass. It is almost like it has been teasing us. Minnesota still has those precious games in hand on most of the Western Conference so tonight is another huge opportunity to have a chance to advance and still keep their advantage of having more games yet to play. The Western Conference Standings as they were just prior to tonight’s game say it all.
1st Vancouver Canucks – 55GP (35-11-9) ~ 79pts
2nd Detroit Red Wings – 55GP (33-16-6) ~ 72pts
3rd Dallas Stars – 55GP (31-18-6) ~ 68pts
4th San Jose Sharks – 56GP (30-20-6) ~ 66pts
5th Anaheim Ducks – 56GP (31-21-4) ~ 66pts
6th Nashville Predators – 55GP (29-19-7) ~ 65pts
7th Phoenix Coyotes – 56GP (28-19-9) ~ 65pts
8th Calgary Flames – 57GP (28-21-8) ~ 64pts
9th Minnesota Wild – 54GP (29-20-5) ~ 63pts
10th Los Angeles Kings – 55GP (30-22-3) ~ 63pts
11th Chicago Blackhawks – 55GP (28-22-5) ~ 61pts
12th Columbus Blue Jackets – 55GP (27-23-5) ~ 59pts
13th St. Louis Blues – 53GP (24-20-9) ~ 57pts
14th Colorado Avalanche – 55GP (25-24-6) ~ 56pts
15th Edmonton Oilers – 55GP (16-31-8) ~ 40pts
As you can clearly see the Western Conference is ridiculously tight from about 6th to 14th. That makes every game a big game. Its cliche of course, but its true. Now, let’s add the fact its Hockey Day in Minnesota. It has been a marvelous 11 hours of hockey already. This is my 5th article that I’ve written today, and I’m still ready to write another (well maybe I am). Minnesota showed remarkable resilience last night, can they repeat that tonight and earn another win over the Blues tonight?
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1st Period Thoughts: Wow, what a period. Maybe the best 1-0 period I’ve seen played all season by the Wild. The intensity, focus and hustle was nothing short of outstanding by all of the Wild’s skaters. From the drop of the puck the Wild played like a team with a sense of urgency. Mikko Koivu was like a man possessed, taking every opportunity to race into the Blues zone and create a scoring chance. It was refreshing seeing Koivu this assertive, because when he’s playing like this he is at his best. Although when he’s playing with this level of intensity he tends to take penalties and he took a tripping penalty. During the penalty kill the Wild were aggressive at the start as John Madden and Clayton Stoner worked well to clear the puck. In the 2nd half of the Blues’ power play it got a bit nerve wracking, as the Wild failed to clear the puck 3 different times in one 25 second sequence until Niklas Backstrom finally absorbed the puck to get a crucial whistle. The Wild got the big kill and from here the Wild went back on the attack. Minnesota was shooting the puck with great frequency and Jaroslav Halak found himself under siege rather quickly. The Wild are not skilled enough to be picky, and I was happy to see this straight and simple approach. Cam Barker would take a cross check from Matt D’Agostini he attempted to embellish and when he didn’t get the penalty he was hoping for he challenged D’Agostini to a fight. Ok, so you go to challenge D’Agostini to fight and luckily for him he obliged and dropped the gloves willingly to avoid the instigator infraction but when are you going to start throwing punches? I know he has a hold of you, but if you’re going to fight you have to try to punch right? Not Barker, he likes to just hold and dance with his partner. A few minutes later, Brad Staubitz, Eric Nystrom started to dish out the hits but despite the big checks Minnesota seemed to be under control. Staubitz would give Carlo Coliaiacovo a big check, and Cam Janssen took exception and almost before he got back up on his skates Janssen was asking him to drop the gloves. Janssen would get a good hold of Staubitz but Staubitz would land a few hooks every now and then before finally knocking him off balance with a nice punch and they would fall to the ice. The Wild were persistent, and the extra penalty to Janssen would come back to bite the Blues. Minnesota was moving the puck very well, and they created a number of outstanding chances near the crease. The Wild were showing remarkable control, as they set up Matt Cullen in the slot but his shot would deflect off the stick of David Backes and into the netting over the glass. Minnesota never gave up and as the penalty expired Jared Spurgeon dished it to Cal Clutterbuck who sort of fanned on the shot but it had enough mustard to squeeze through the wickets of Halak to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead going into the 1st. At the very end of the period, former Wisconsin Badger Brad Winchester attempted to take a run at Brent Burns where he literally lept at Burns as the horn sounded. A fracas ensued afterwards, and understandably so after an attempted dirty play like that. Burns just missed the hit and if it had connected the arms were out and if he had connected it would’ve been a Steve Downie-like blind side type hit. Yet no penalty at all, what a joke. The hustle was awesome. Backstrom was also looking pretty sharp early too.
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota started out with great energy at the beginning of the period. They were flying around. Minnesota was still hustling and forechecking and Halak again found himself facing a ton of shots on goal. Alexander Steen would run over Backstrom for an easy goaltender interference penalty and the Wild wasted little time making them pay for their lack of discipline. Just 9 seconds into the power play, Antti Miettinen would hustle and seal off the Blues defender from clearing the puck and he’d cycle it back to Andrew Brunette who dished it from behind the goal to Miettinen who fired it by Halak to put Minnesota up 2-0. A few minutes later the Wild added another after a nice faceoff win by Kyle Brodziak who drew the puck back to Brent Burns who unloaded a heavy wrist shot that pinballed off the skate of Patrik Berglund and then the leg of Brodziak and into the goal to put Minnesota up 3-0 and Blues Head Coach Davis Payne had seen enough and he swapped out Halak for Ty Conklin. In the first few minutes after the goaltender change the Wild continued to apply pressure and Conklin was being tested right away. The Blues would rally back and Minnesota started to back off a bit and this allowed St. Louis to get its forecheck going. It was at this point that the direction of the game took a complete 180. The Wild were settling to just play rope-a-dope, trying to chip the puck out of the zone, and at times Minnesota found itself really bottled up as the Blues swarmed all over its zone. The Blues did not give up and their persistence would pay off when they got a power play off a high sticking call on Greg Zanon. The Wild pressure well early on the penalty kill, but their agressive style bit them a bit as the Blues found some space in the slot and T.J. Oshie fed a pass off the rush to Berglund who tapped it home for an easy power play goal. With the Wild leading 3-1, they played a little better in the last minute or so, drawing a holding penalty on Eric Brewer to have a power play to start the 3rd. Not bad effort, but easing up is not something you ever want to see.
3rd Period Thoughts: Minnesota went back to basics and went back on the attack and that was crucial to the Wild earning a victory tonight. The Wild’s forecheck kept St. Louis at bey and forced the Blues to really have to work by taking the puck up the full length of the ice dealing with lots of pursuit and pressure as they do. Eric Nystrom was fantastic down the stretch, really causing St. Louis a lot of problems. I was really hoping he was going to cash in when his forechecking caused a turnover but his wrist stop was denied by the leg pad of Conklin. One Blues player who looked dangerous was the very slippery and shifty T.J. Oshie and Cal Clutterbuck demonstrated what you do with a player like that and he drove him into the boards. You could see the desperation in the Blues, as they attempted to swarm but Minnesota was chipping the puck out of the zone and being physical when it had to be. They’d pull Conklin with nearly 1:30 left, as they needed to score two goals to tie the game and it would be frantic. The puck would bounce around along the ice like some sort of hockey version of a rugby scrum but the puck stayed out and Minnesota earned a victory. As the horn sounded, tempers boiled over as Zanon and Steen went at it, but the real showdown was between Backes and Stoner. The Wild defenseman made Backes regret his decision as he pummeled the Spring Lake Park, Minnesota-native with big haymakers as he left the former Minnesota State Maverick bloodied the sight of which was greeted with cheers.
Niklas Backstrom was tremendous, stopping 24 shots for the victory. He was normal poised and efficient self. Moving well in his crease, and bailing his team out with some key stops, especially on shifts where the team just couldn’t seem to clear the zone to save its life. Those are the types of saves that win games and often its about when you stop the puck as much as it is about stopping the puck. It kept St. Louis from building momentum. Defensively the Wild were pretty solid, and the forwards were back checking very well all game long.
Offensively the Wild’s simple mantra of shooting the puck served them very well. You certainly could argue the Wild had lucked out on Halak giving up a soft goal to Clutterbuck or the flukey goal that Brodziak tallied but you don’t get any of those if you don’t take a chance and shoot. Minnesota got a little help on the power play and the Wild had offensive pressure from all over its lineup. Outshooting the Blues 31 to 25, and the early assertiveness of Koivu is precisely what you need to win important games. Your best players should raise their level of play in the biggest moments and Koivu certainly did that.
Todd Richards looked like a proud father as he talked to reporters at his post-game press conference. “I thought we played extremely hard and extremely well and we deserved the result we got tonight.” I can’t disagree with that. It was two excellent efforts against an opponent it needed to defeat. You can’t ask for a better way to end Hockey Day Minnesota! I hope you enjoyed these last 14 hours, I know I did!
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Chuck Kobasew, Brad Staubitz, Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Cam Barker, Greg Zanon, Nick Schultz and Brent Burns. Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom. Marco Scandella (concussion), Marek Zidlicky (shoulder), James Sheppard (knee), Josh Harding (knee) and Guillaume Latendresse (groin & sports hernia).
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Brent Burns, 2nd Star Niklas Backstrom, 3rd Star Brad Staubitz
~ Tonight’s attendance at Xcel Energy Center was 19,322.
~ Hockey Day Minnesota Fast Fact: 37 Minnesota-born players have played in the NHL this season.
Wild / Aeros Prospect Report:
D – Nate Prosser ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 53GP 6G 11A = 17pts 25 PIM’s +5
The Elk River, Minnesota native is having a fairly solid first professional campaign. Playing as a top pair defenseman for the Aeros have meant the former Colorado College standout is getting plenty of ice time. Recently, Prosser has been finding the net with a bit more frequency with a goal apiece in the last two games. Not a flashy player, but a steady defenseman who is a reasonable skater and plays solid in his own zone Prosser is earning solid reviews from the Aeros coaching staff and working with Aeros Assistant coach and former NHL defenseman Darryl Sydor has been great for his development.
C – Chad Rau ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 35GP 5G 14A = 19pts 10 PIM’s +10
For the Eden Prairie, Minnesota-native, Chad Rau endured a tough time with an early season injury but since he’s returned to the lineup he has been a nice boost of offense. The smallish former Colorado College star is very shifty and good in small spaces on the ice. While most of his assets of speed, quickness and vision are used in the offensive zone he is also worked hard to be defensively responsible and his +10 is the best on the Aeros. Rau has not been as impressive a finisher at the professional level but he does play an important role on a rather balanced 3-line Aeros attack.
C – Jarod Palmer ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 43GP 5G 14A = 19pts 48 PIM’s +5
It has been more of a roller coaster of a first full professional season for the Fridley, Minnesota-native compared to his Minnesota-born peers. After a fast start during the Aeros rough beginning to the season Palmer’s production leveled off as he began to be relegated to the team’s 3rd line. Palmer at times showed a willingness to drop the gloves. Now with the additions of some more grit in Jed Ortmeyer that hasn’t been quite as necessary. The former University of Miami (OH) star has had to make an adjustment to his game but he’s learning and giving the Aeros quality minutes.
CHL Prospect Run Down:
LW – Kris Foucault (Calgary, WHL) ~ 2 goals and 1 assist, and a +3 in Hitmen’s 4-1 win over Prince George tonight.
D – Josh Caron (Kamloops, WHL) ~ -1 and 2 PIM’s in 3-2 Blazers loss to Vancouver tonight.
LW – Brett Bulmer (Kelowna, WHL) ~ Even rating with no points in a 4-1 Rockets loss to Chilliwack tonight.
RW – Dylan McKinlay (Chilliwack, WHL) ~ Even rating with no points in 4-1 Bruins win to Kelowna tonight.
G – Darcy Kuemper (Red Deer, WHL) ~ Stopped all 27 shots in a 3-0 Rebels win over Lethbridge for his 12th shutout of the season, he only needs two more shutouts to break the single season WHL record.
D – Bjorn Krupp (Belleville, OHL) ~ -2 in 6-1 Bulls loss to Erie tonight.