Spring break, a sort of national past time for students all across the United States. Depending on their age it either means simply an opportunity to stay up later than normal and perhaps enjoy having fun outside but to college students it is an invitation to voyage to some tropical locale to officially enjoy one week of pure freedom before the homestretch towards final exams. On the flip side, as a teacher its a time to relax and recharge before that same stretch correcting projects and final tests. While the rest of the working world may grumble at the week-long hiatus, its a necessary thing for both the sanity of the teacher and the students. The NHL has already had its version of “Spring Break” with the February layoff for the Olympics, and as we have seen some teams have come out of that break better than others. The same can be said for students who struggle to refocus after going a week without school; and with a limited time left in the regular schedule or the rest of school year as the case may be a few lapses can have significant consequences. Minnesota stumbled out of the Olympic break and ostensibily killed off its fleeting chances at the playoffs. It could be a mixed blessing to miss the playoffs as the Wild will as it will assure it of a decent position in the draft, which is an area where the organization really needs to start taking full advantage of those picks.
Missing the playoffs is without question a disappointment, but so far the Wild have relished the role of spoiler delivering two costly defeats to Calgary and Los Angeles respectively. If Minnesota can manage to beat Chicago tonight, it will not help thwart their chance to qualify for the post season as the Blackhawks are currently 2nd in the Western Conference with 99 points but the Wild could show some pride with another strong performance tonight. Will Minnesota show their focus at home, or will the Blackhawks give the rest of the league another reason to believe they’re a true Stanley Cup contender?
Minnesota had some outstanding chances early as a failed connection between Martin Havlat and Guillaume Latendresse where Latendresse’s hustle caused Dustin Byfuglien who has been moonlighting on the Blackhawks’ defense to lose his edge and this ultimately allowed for Kyle Brodziak to be set up for a chance from near the crease that was shut down by Antti Niemi. A bit of a scary moment after a big hit by Shane Hnidy on Colin Fraser left him worse for the wear, but just moments later the Minnesota training staff flagged down the officials to blow the whistle and Wild trainer Don Fuller headed to the Blackhawks’ bench where doctors moved in and very carefully led him to the locker room. Not too often do you see the opposing trainer do what they can to stop the game to help a player on the opposite bench. The Wild were counterattacking very well, as the energy line would race up the ice and Cal Clutterbuck found some space for a backhander from in close but again Niemi was there to stonewall him. What was more notable was the missed opportunities throughout the first period. The first coming off some great hustle by Derek Boogaard who correctly guessed which way Niemi was going to try to throw the puck along the boards towards and he would intercept it and quickly pass it out front to Casey Wellman who just could not get a handle on it and the Blackhawks goaltender was able to get to his crease without harm and Minnesota did not even manage to register a shot on goal. Moments later, another turnover in the Chicago offensive zone by Owen Nolan which should’ve been a great scoring chance again amounted to nothing as he couldn’t get the puck to settle as he attempted to carry it towards the crease. Lastly, a tripping call on Jonathan Toews gave Minnesota a power play and the Wild were rather nonchalant on the man advantage and overhandled the puck and failed to generate a single shot on goal. Minnesota just did not seem to have a lot of urgency and its lack of focus would cost them as the Blackhawks would score late on a hard slap shot taken by Tomas Kopecky that Niklas Backstrom just got a piece of with the glove but it still found the back of the Wild net to give Chicago a 1-0 lead going into the 2nd.
The 2nd period did not start out well for Minnesota as they forgot to hustle as they did in the 1st and the result was the fact Chicago really put the Wild on its heels for most of the period. The Blackhawks were really pouring it on as Patrick Sharp ripped a wrist shot off the cross bar and a few more great chances near the Wild crease as Chicago swarmed near the crease and Niklas Backstrom was on his back and out of position only to be bailed out by the quick stick of Nick Schultz who swept the puck out of danger. On the other end, the Wild were not able to get much of anything going the other way offensively and Minnesota appeared tired. The Blackhawks’ pressure finally broke through the Wild defense and it was the 4th line who tallied its 2nd goal of the game as Ben Eager tapped a puck by Backstrom to lift Chicago to a 2-0 lead. The goal finally started to spark some better effort by the Wild, and Minnesota started to skate and they were able to put some pressure on Chicago as veterans like Owen Nolan started to get involved. The Wild’s hustle would eventually yield a fantastic opportunity when Dave Bolland high sticked Antti Miettinen in the face. Just 29 seconds later, the Blackhawks’ Brent Seabrook would be tagged for hooking giving the Wild a 5-on-3. This was a huge moment in the game, and Wild Head Coach Todd Richards would call a timeout to talk things over. Immediately on the 5-on-3 the Wild had two great chances as Mikko Koivu fired a snap shot that was stopped by the leg pad of Niemi and then later he stonewalled a shot from the slot by Antti Miettinen. Minnesota moved the puck rather predictably on the 5-on-3 and they would take a few shots from the point that never really threatened Niemi all that much. You could sense the anxiety building with each shot that failed to find the back of the net. At the very end of the 5-on-3, the Wild had the best chance of the power play when Owen Nolan carried the puck from behind the net and tapped a pass over to Mikko Koivu who tried to lift a shot over Niemi who stacked the pads to make the circus-like save. The Blackhawks earned the big kill to a serenade of boo’s from the home crowd who felt the Wild were failing to show a killer instinct and you could sense the momentum trailing away from Minnesota in the closing seconds of the period as Chicago bottled them up in their zone. Minnesota was being outshot 25 to 10 and down 2-0 showing few signs of being able to mount any sort of comeback.
In the 3rd period you could say the Wild packed it in and just plain quit. Minnesota was only half-heartedly trying to claw their way back in this game, and then when Chicago would counter attack they would glide back to their zone and hope Niklas Backstrom would bail them out with a big save. The Wild looked as though they were under siege and again it was Chicago’s 4th line lighting the lamp as Ben Eager set up Tomas Kopecky who blasted a shot by Backstrom to give the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead. Minnesota would only offer up a mild response, by creating a few weak long range shots that never even made it on goal. You could see Todd Richards juggling the lines trying to find something that worked and basically it looked like a young and old type of ideas by having the more experienced vets Andrew Brunette, Mikko Koivu and Owen Nolan on one line and on the 2nd line it was Casey Wellman working with Martin Havlat and Guillaume Latendresse. Chicago would add one more goal late, after transitioning quick off a failed Wild rush by its top line the Blackhawks raced into the Wild zone and Jonathan Toews took a quick pass from Marian Hossa and drilled a shot by Backstrom to give Minnesota a 4-0 deficit. Oddly enough it was at this point, with under 5 minutes left to play in the 3rd the Wild started to shoot the puck with any sort of urgency. But it was too little too late and while they were finally able to put the puck on goal no one was in position to pounce on the rebounds and Minnesota would be shutout 4-0 as a small chorus of boo’s could be heard from the remaining Wild fans at the “X”.
Niklas Backstrom should sue his team for negligence since they did nothing to give him any offensive support in this game. Backstrom made 31 saves in the loss. Defensively Chicago conveniently pounced on the team’s weakest defense pair of John Scott and Shane Hnidy who were abysmally slow and very ineffective all night long. Why are we still evaluating Scott and Hnidy? What more do we need to know? That they’re very slow and are both ineffective puck movers? Its obvious that the team can do better and has young defenseman waiting to take their spots in the Wild roster. I would much rather see Justin Falk or Nate Prosser get a shot than watching two players who I think do not have a future with the Wild when you consider Clayton Stoner is almost a lock to be on the team next fall. How could they be anyworse than Scott or Hnidy who were -2 on the night.
Offensively the Wild were not doing enough to put shots on goal and really put some pressure on Antti Niemi to make some quality saves. The performance on the 5-on-3 was not the worst the team has ever been on, but they were not doing much to really put Niemi and the Blackhawks penalty killers in a state of conflict nearly often enough. In the 3rd period it was really disappointing to see how relaxed the Wild were when they still had the game very much in reach being down just 2-0. It seemed as though everyone on the team was waiting for another player to step up and do something bold so the result was nothing was happening. Casey Wellman looked more like a deer in headlights at times tonight but he played better down the stretch. Cody Almond was ok, but doesn’t look to be all that assertive at this point. One player was attempting to be assertive whenever he could was James Sheppard who is in career survival mode. He may have been -1, but he was taking the initiative and one of the few Wild players that seemed to be playing like he cared.
Hopefully it will be different in Minnesota’s next game on Friday against San Jose. An effort like this should never be tolerated. 18,933 fans showed up tonight, which is better than their average which has been about 18,200 all season and no doubt the number was achieved because of the high numbers of Blackhawks fans you could see in the crowd. Minnesota better show its fans it cares a bit more, even if it has no more playoff hopes to speak of.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Antti Miettinen, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, James Sheppard, Cody Almond, Derek Boogaard, Casey Wellman, Guillaume Latendresse, Shane Hnidy, John Scott, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky, Brent Burns and Greg Zanon. Anton Khudobin backed up Niklas Backstrom. Andrew Ebbett, Justin Falk and Nate Prosser were the healthy scratches. Clayton Stoner and Chuck Kobasew were out with lower body injuries while Pierre-Marc Bouchard still isn’t skating as he deals with post-concussion syndrome.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey are: 1st Star Tomas Kopecky, 2nd Star Antti Niemi, 3rd Star Niklas Backstrom
~ The State of Hockey News would like to congratulate Wild defenseman Brent Burns and his wife Susan on the birth of 7lbs 11 ounce daughter, Peyton Gabriann.
Wild Prospect Report:
F – Erik Haula ~ Omaha Lancers (USHL)
2009-10 Stats: 54GP 26G 41A = 67pts 59 PIM’s +31
Minnesota’s most intriguing skilled forward prospect other than Casey Wellman is Finnish-born forward Erik Haula who has had a fantastic season before he joins the Minnesota Golden Gophers next fall. Haula is a flashy playmaking forward who has tremendous hands and makes plays look easy at high speed. The Pori, Finland-native has been scoring at over a point-per-game rate all season, but has leveled off a bit as Omaha struggled through the middle portion of the season. With Haula having not yet played college hockey, there is still a long way to go in the development process but so far looking as though he’s on track. He has been given an opportunity to play in all of the important situations for the Lancers, both on the power play and penalty kill which should serve him well for play in the WCHA for a Gophers squad that will have some significant holes to fill. He still needs to fill out his 6’0″, 175lbs frame for the rigors of NHL hockey, but that of course will come in time.
F – Anthony Hamburg ~ Omaha Lancers (USHL)
2009-10 Stats: 52GP 5G 16A = 21pts 35 PIM’s -5
It has not been an overly stellar season for the Wild’s other prospect currently playing for the 1st place (West Division) Lancers in Phoenix, Arizona-native Anthony Hamburg. Unlike Haula who recieves ample ice time, Hamburg is more of a role player with the Lancers but is an effective forechecker for the Lancers. Possessing decent speed and a solid frame he plays a game reminiscent of Branko Radivojevic. Being used as more of a shutdown player has often put Hamburg against the opposition’s top line. He will never be a big scorer but projects to perhaps max out as a 3rd or 4th liner in an energy role. Hamburg’s next challenge will come next fall when he joins the Colgate Raiders.