In Minnesota, hockey never really stops. Summer youth programs and adult leagues continue throughout the summer. The pace of life at local arenas does slow down a bit but that is steadily changing even if it doesn’t quite feel like summer has completely vanished as of yet. The Xcel Energy Center is no different since the team opened training camp midway through September. College hockey, soon to be followed by high school hockey will begin and pretty soon hockey parents / fans will feel their life become rather busy again. The Wild have certainly raised the level of expectation with their combination of off-season moves and their decision to fire Todd Richards (who will be back at the “X” tonight as an assistant coach for the Blue Jackets) and replace him with 38-year old Mike Yeo. I think there is an interesting mix of both nervous energy and excitement as the Wild start their 2011-12 season. In many ways, much the same can be said of the Wild’s opponent, its expansion cousin Columbus. Columbus has only made the playoffs once in franchise history, and has never won a playoff game after being swept by the Detroit Red Wings in its lone appearance in . Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson is clearly feeling the heat and he tried to boost the confidence of Columbus’ waning fan base by making some significant moves of their own in trading for Jeff Carter and adding defenseman James Wisniewski. Wisniewski will be sitting for another 7 games after a dangerous hit he put on Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck in a pre-season game, but either way Columbus has recognized the time for action is now instead of a slower and more steady building approach through the draft. The Blue Jackets stumbled out of the gate after losing 3-2 to division rival Nashville yesterday. Columbus, whether they wish to admit it or not have always had a bit of chip on their shoulder and when they play the Wild they seem to have a little chippiness to it. No doubt the dual suspensions to Wisniewski and Brad Staubitz eliminate a few of the usual suspects for that animosity to flare up into fisticuffs but I would still expect it to be a bit ugly out there tonight.
The Wild had a nice start to their pre-season, but lost their last 4 games to go 3-4. While pre-season games mean nothing, its tough to say the team built up a lot of momentum going into its first regular season game. With so many new faces and so much inexperience it is almost inevitable for the Wild to have some growing pains but now the games count and if Minnesota suffers through another slow start could have an anxious (Wild) fan base have that feeling of “here we go again.” Wild fans will be looking for a team with more intensity, and will be watching closely for chemistry on its top two lines which many hope will make Minnesota a more dangerous opponent. So will the Wild match expectations this evening?
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1st Period Thoughts: My first impression was you could see a definite difference in team speed that had been lacking the last few seasons. The Wild were just flying around the ice from the drop of the puck. I know Columbus played the night before, but Minnesota seemed to have gears that the Blue Jackets did not. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi was looking hungry as Koivu had a great early move down low where he used his agility to lose the defender and then take the puck right to the crease. It was clear they were trying to set up Dany Heatley for a blast, and he didn’t disappoint. He doesn’t have great wheels, but he knows where the open areas on the ice are and I think they will light the lamp sooner rather than later. I have to admit, I was surprised to see that the Wild put out Dany Heatley on the penalty kill, but it didn’t turn out too bad as a faceoff win in the Minnesota zone turned into a 2-on-1 for Heatley and Koivu and after ‘Heater’ tee’d up a slapper it should have been the perfect set up for Koivu who fanned on what should have been a gimme. The Wild’s increased team speed was also evident in its ability to transition as Guillaume Latendresse made a beautiful outlet pass up to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who delivered a perfect saucer pass to a rushing Matt Cullen who got behind the defense and he beat Steve Mason on a nice little wrist shot. Columbus looked tired, except Rick Nash who was causing the Wild some problems in their own zone as he drew two penalties. Yet at that point you could see the influence of former Wild coach Todd Richards as the Blue Jackets muddled their way through two very forgettable power plays that were punctuated that aforementioned shorthanded 2-on-1 that Koivu fanned on. I thought the Wild got excellent play from defenseman Jared Spurgeon who looked poised and fast as he glided around the ice, and it was his hustle that resulted in the Wild padding its lead. Minnesota’s power play started out a bit slow as the team looked a little wary of making a mistake, but Spurgeon bailed them out as he led a late power play rush where he dished the puck to Marco Scandella who gave us shades of Brent Burns as he skated in and beat Mason with a pretty wrist shot to give the Wild a 2-0 lead. Brett Bulmer looked a little lost out there; like a deer in headlights but we’ll see if he can calm down as the game goes on. On the flip side I like how Colton Gillies played and he looked pretty comfortable out there. Niklas Backstrom wasn’t tested all that much but Columbus was trying to get some traffic near his crease but for the most part he was seeing the puck pretty well. Yet, I’d advise Backstrom to stay in his crease on the penalty kill because he nearly gave Columbus a freebie on one of his sojourns during their 2nd power play. Overall it was a great 1st period for the Wild. Hopefully they can keep up this intensity.
2nd Period Thoughts: Predictably, the Blue Jackets had a bit more fire this period after being absolutely dominated in the 1st. The Wild were scrambling a bit in their own zone, and Columbus came dangerously close to cashing in as R.J. Umberger‘s backhander slides just off the right post and out on an open net as Backstrom was sprawled out near the top of his crease. Nick Schultz was showing some good jump in his skates as he started the rush a few times. Minnesota’s speed was again evident in 4-on-4 play as they were pressing the attack with an interesting forward combination as Darroll Powe skated with Dany Heatley. Columbus was determined and created a few chances as Derrick Brassard nearly cashed in on a wrap around only to be denied by a timely leg pad save by Backstrom. Backstrom had a few good stops early to keep Columbus at bey and prevented them from gaining much momentum. Minnesota would again pounce on the man advantage, just 10 seconds after Marc Methot‘s holding penalty as Pierre-Marc Bouchard made a pretty pass from the top of the right faceoff circle to Heatley who deftly redirected the pass top shelf by Mason to give the Wild a 3-1 lead. The sellout crowd gave a huge ovation to Heatley’s tally which is the kind of play the Wild have simply been unable to create since the departure of Marian Gaborik. The crowd also felt bold enough to serenade Steve Mason with a “Mason, Mason” chant which is the first time I’ve heard something like that since the playoffs. The Blue Jackets would try to rally back but the Wild’s defense was responsible, and Marco Scandella showed another aspect of his game as he used his 6’3″ frame to body R.J. Umberger off the puck and then control it and work the biscuit out of the zone. The Wild would strike late in the period as Dany Heatley carried the puck into zone where he turned and slid a cross-ice pass back to a waiting Devin Setoguchi who unloaded a slap shot that Mason just couldn’t get enough of and Minnesota was up 4-1. The big one-timer gave me flashbacks of Brian Rolston. The Wild also had some great shifts from its 4th line of Nick Johnson, Darroll Powe and Colton Gillies as they caused the Blue Jackets fits with a suffocating forecheck. Brett Bulmer had a much better period, as he was asserting himself physically even earning a nice cheer as he delivered a nice hit to Columbus’ captain Rick Nash. Columbus would score with less than 5 minutes left in the period as they stormed the crease and Backstrom tried to snow angel but couldn’t cover up the puck and it was shoveled in by Derek Dorsett. There was a review but it was pretty clear that Dorsett was in the crease because Dany Heatley had pushed him there and it was the former Medicine Hat Tiger who was able to get his stick on it to put it in the back of the Wild’s goal. The Blue Jackets played a bit better, but Minnesota still was more or less in total control which is something that was missing far too many times last season. A nice change for sure. Pierre-Marc Bouchard would get his stick into the grill of Matt Calvert causing him to be left a bloody mess earning a double minor despite angry pleas by Columbus’ bench boss Scott Arniel. Either way, the Wild have a lot to be happy about with two periods behind them.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period was pretty sloppy. The result was lots of end-to-end action which the fans liked, but its something I have little doubt head coach Mike Yeo will be lecturing his team about in their post-game talk. Kyle Brodziak had a nice-redirect chance that was stopped by Curtis Sanford who replaced Steve Mason in the 3rd period. At the other end of the ice, Niklas Backstrom made a number of high quality saves as Columbus tried to claw its way back into the game. Minnesota was trying to be a little cute in the neutral zone and hope for a cheap turnover and they nearly got their wish as Cal Clutterbuck stole a puck and raced in and he fired a shot high over the goal as he attempted to pick a corner. Columbus would score with less than 5 minutes left as Maxim Mayorov found a little space and he rifled a shot by Backstrom to cut the lead to 4-2. The Blue Jackets pulled Sanford at around the 2-minute mark for a desperate attempt to tie the game but it wasn’t meant to be as Minnesota circled the wagons and earned the victory.
Niklas Backstrom was excellent, making 29 saves; including many close-in chances in the 3rd period. He was a big source of strength all night, but he did make life perhaps a little too interesting during his little excursions from the crease. Defensively the Wild were pretty good, but at times were perhaps a little soft near the crease. However, one thing that was very noticeable was just how deliberate Wild blueliners were with the puck instead of just chipping it out of the zone without any thought as to who may have been open. It was that elimination of pointless turnovers that helped prevent a considerable portion of extra chances for the Blue Jackets. The team also was perfect on the penalty kill, including a 4-minute double minor the Wild’s penalty kill yielded precious few chances for Columbus to pounce on.
Offensively the Wild were pretty solid through the first two periods of the game. The 1st line of Koivu, Setoguchi and Koivu was creating chances early and often each member of the line was taking its opportunities to fire the puck on goal. The 2nd line of Cullen, Bouchard and Latendresse was pesky and cycled the puck very effectively all game long. Minnesota’s power play certainly has some weapons and its two goals came up huge in the team’s win this evening.
I must admit, I took sadistic glee in seeing a Todd Richards’ coached team struggle tonight. The Blue Jackets clearly did not have a lot of jump in their skates tonight, but their overall execution was sloppy and disjointed. In otherwords, a lot like a Todd Richards coached team. While I realize Scott Arniel is the one calling the shots, I couldn’t help but relish the thought of Todd Richards feeling the pain of another loss at Xcel Energy Center. Its ok Todd, that’s a gift of a loss for all the ones you put us through over your two years here! I know that may sound bitter, but I don’t care, I was glad to see him get canned.
The obvious intangible of the evening that really made the difference was the team’s speed and intensity throughout most of the game. When the Wild were really skating hard the Blue Jackets really had no time and space and the scoring chances and odd-man rushes were plentiful. This will be the way Wild win games this season and if they can maintain this level of hustle throughout most of the season I think you have to like the team’s chances in most match ups. All in all it was a terrific debut for Head Coach Mike Yeo and I think the team has given fans reason to be excited and hopeful about their chances this season.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Darroll Powe, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Brett Bulmer, Nick Johnson, Guillaume Latendresse, Colton Gillies, Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon, Greg Zanon and Marco Scandella. Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom. Justin Falk and the suspended Brad Staubitz were the healthy scratches this evening.
~ The 3 Stars of the game as selected by Minnesota Fans were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Dany Heatley, 3rd Star Matt Cullen
~ Darroll Powe wore #14, Brett Bulmer wore #19, and Nick Johnson wore #25.
~ Tonight’s attendance was 19,040, which was the 2nd largest opening night crowd in franchise history.
~ I know this is not hockey related, but the State of Hockey News would like to congratulate the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx on their Championship. At a time when so many Minnesota sports teams being a total laughingstock (cough Vikings, Twins, Gophers football team cough), any team that can achieve ultimate success deserves recognition and celebration. Well done Lynx!
Wild Prospect Updates:
C – Zack Phillips (Saint John, QMJHL) ~ Phillips had a big night for the Sea Dogs as he potted a goal and an assist in a 8-2 victory over the Rimouski Oceanic. He also was strong in the faceoff circle winning 15 out of 27 draws (55.5%) as well as being a +2. Here is a great little player video made by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League on the Wild prospect. Enjoy!
C – Erik Haula (Minnesota, WCHA) ~ The Pori, Finland native is off to a torrid start for the Gophers, lighting the lamp twice an adding an assist in a 6-0 rout of the visiting Sacred Heart Pioneers. Haula had a goal and an assist on Friday night making it 3 goals and 5 points for the weekend. Not too shabby!
D – Sean Lorenz (Notre Dame, CCHA) ~ The Littleton, Colorado-native had an excellent opening weekend to his junior year as he tallied a goal and an assist in the Fighting Irish’s 5-3 win over the UMD Bulldogs. Lorenz is not typically known for his offensive acumen but he tallied a goal and two assists in the two game series.