Every year the President of the United States issues his State of the Union address around the last week of January. In essence it is sort of a parent-teacher conference for the nation. Depending on how you view the nation this can be a time for some anxiousness, ego-boosting or just a general lack of concern of any kind. Either way, the President is going to do his best to tell you where America stands, areas where its making progress and problems or concerns that need to be addressed. Normally, those are outlined in a rather general fashion and delivered in a way that even when most signs are not too promising there is at least something positive that can be gained from the struggle and that there is hope things will be better in the future. In professional sports its much the same way as leagues like the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball have their season’s somewhat split by an All Star break. The NHL is slightly different in the fact that the Olympics occasionally are the reason for this break in the regular season. For those players not invited to play in this game, its a chance to heal up, get some much needed rest and or family time. When these breaks occur its also time for the fans and members of the media to reflect on the ‘1st half’ of the season and seriously consider the direction of the team. Each team does its very own “State of the Union”, although mostly in private to evaluate the progress that has been made and attempt to look for solutions to the concerns and problems if they can be had. Instead of the President leading this reflection its a team’s General Manager and other upper office staff; like Professional and Amateur Scouts, coaches, and sometimes even hired outside consultants. It does not matter if you’re President Barack Obama or a high school Social Studies teacher like myself, you may have say some things that could be uncomfortable to hear or help add validity to what a nation / child may already be doing, but no matter what its likely to stir up some additional conversation. Or at least you hope it does.
Going back to the parent-teacher conference thing, what grade would you give the Wild? (please vote in our poll) If you had that chance to talk about what needs to be done for the team to qualify for the post-season what changes would you suggest? Or do you believe the team going in a different direction altogether? What do you think Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher say about the team’s direction once the All Star break begins after tonight’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks? The last few games have offered a mixed picture to anyone looking for a clear path for the Wild. The team had managed to string together some great road wins, but then had some struggles as well. Minnesota played like a team that was desperate and hungry on Saturday night against San Jose in a 4-3 loss. Without question, San Jose who was at the time in a virtual tie with the Wild probably felt a little better after the win, and it is fitting that Minnesota plays another team close to the playoff picture edge in Chicago. The Blackhawks are still a very formidable team, but they look far less invincible than the squad that won the Stanley Cup last season. Will the Wild give Chuck Fletcher reason to believe this team is one that has the strength and perseverance to fight their way into the playoffs with a win tonight or will they make him wonder if the team is too fragile mentally, emotionally, physically and lacking the endurance to overcome the early season hole it dug for itself?
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1st Period Thoughts: Hard not to like the way the Wild started the game, with Martin Havlat scoring less than two minutes into the game. It was something Havlat needs to do more of, and that is just taking a chance and firing a shot on goal and this time he managed to find a corner. The momentum of the early goal did not last long as the Wild started to play on their heels. Minnesota’s defense stopped moving their feet while the Blackhawks were motoring all over the ice, and the result was predictable as the Wild found themselves a man down due to a lazy interference penalty on Cam Barker. Chicago’s power play moved the puck very effectively from the points down to the half wall before Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews managed to just have enough on a cross ice pass to find its way through an attempted interception by Mikko Koivu and the puck reached a wide open Patrick Sharp who fired it by Niklas Backstrom to tie the game. Minnesota’s penalty killers looked as though they were in slow motion as they speed of Chicago’s puck movement completely overwhelmed them as they just turned and reached instead of moving their feet. The goal really got Chicago going as they begin to win all of the battles for the puck along the boards, and were carrying the play physically while Minnesota really started to look timid. The Wild’s lack of jump and confidence turned Minnesota’s zone into a veritable shooting gallery for Backstrom who was under siege in the crease. Even members of his own team seem to be conspiring against him as Andrew Brunette was chasing Blackhawks forwards in the Wild zone and he inadvertently ran into Backstrom knocking him completely out of his crease. To Backstrom’s credit and focus he’d not give up and he’d make a diving save on a point-blank range chance for Troy Brouwer. Brouwer would make no mistake a few minutes later as the Blackhawks kept swarming around the Wild crease and Brouwer would bang home a rebound chance as Minnesota’s defense looked to be locked in ice. No one on the Wild seemed interested in answering back physically against Chicago even when the opportunities presented themselves. Moments later, Backstrom would be knocked down again as Brad Staubitz shoved Nick Boynton into his goaltender. Bonyton did not seem to be looking for such a collision and as he turned around to face Staubitz, all the Wild enforcer did was give Boynton a weak shove. Minnesota got lucky and Boynton was tagged with an interference penalty. On the power play the Wild really struggled against an extremely aggressive Blackhawks penalty kill that had 3 players standing up near the blueline to challenge he entry into the offensive zone. Their aggressiveness nearly came back to bite them as Ryan Johnson tripped up Mikko Koivu giving the Wild a fairly long 5-on-3. However, Minnesota’s patience and perhaps a level of overconfidence on the power play as they were simply too picky waiting for the perfect shot. The Blackhawks collapsed down into a triangle not too far out from their crease and forced Minnesota to attempt to thread the needle and they were unable to do so. The penalty would expire and you had to feel a huge amount of potential momentum had been lost but despite Chicago’s domination of the period they still only trailed by one.
2nd Period Thoughts: Considering everything that went on in the 1st period for the Wild they would surprise just about everyone, myself included with one of its strongest 2nd period performances all season long. Right from the drop of the puck the Wild were hustling well and this immediately began to pay dividends in the form of some puck pressure in the Chicago zone. The line of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Chuck Kobasew had terrific jump early and it was Bouchard who skated into the Chicago zone, pulling up just as he crossed the blueline and nearly drawing the puck back over the line which would’ve been offsides but instead he finds Jared Spurgeon with a pass and he turn and a pursuing Patrick Sharp lost an edge. Spurgeon then fires a shot on goal that it was difficult to tell whether Kobasew got a piece of it or not but the end result was that it trickled through the pads of Corey Crawford and it tied the game. Chicago was the one sitting back and playing rope-a-dope while Minnesota kept pouring it on. When the Blackahawks tried to counter attack, Minnesota’s defense was physical. One player who had a great period defensively was Clayton Stoner whose job it was to shadow Patrick Kane and the shifty Kane could not seem to elude the 6’3″ Powell River, British Columbia-native. On the other end of the spectrum was Stoner’s partner Greg Zanon who was getting caught flat footed a lot, and only another sprawling save by Backstrom kept the game knotted at 2-2. Minnesota would get a big goal late in the period off the rush as Mikko Koivu flung a pass to Brunette who threaded a perfect pass to a crashing Antti Miettinen for a pretty tap in goal to give the Wild a 3-2 lead. The Wild were physical; as forwards Cal Clutterbuck and Brad Staubitz started to throw their bodies around a bit and Minnesota had to feel pretty pumped up with how well they played in the 2nd.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period of this game may have made Chicago fans almost take a moment and forget about Jay Cutler. Well, maybe not that bad but they certainly were fuming, but more on that a bit later. The Wild were having a ton of luck early, as the Blackhawks were pressing for the equalizer as Niklas Backstrom delivered a few sprawling saves. Backstrom’s diving stop to deny Troy Brouwer was tremendous. The hard work by Backstrom was rewarded with some blessings from the hockey gods as a blast from the point by Duncan Keith struck the post. Minnesota was scrambling in its own zone, but it did help out its goaltender even at a considerable physical cost as Clutterbuck was left limping after blocking a shot but he finished his ship by clearing the zone. The Wild would counter attack, as they were chipping the puck off the glass and looking to take advantage of Chicago’s defenseman that were pinching in. Pierre-Marc Bouchard would skate in a 2-on-1 where he fed a pretty saucer pass to Kobasew who made a deke and tried to slide a backhander but he’d miss wide but the persistent Wild gathered up the puck and Bouchard found himself with it in the slot where he fired a wrister over a sprawling Crawford to give Minnesota a little breathing room, 4-2. The Blackhawks were a bit deflated while Minnesota was happy to just lift the puck deep into the Chicago zone and keep their shifts short. This leads to the controversy. The Blackhawks really started to storm the crease and on another crazy play the puck would be jammed by Backstrom just as the whistle blew the play dead and the officials waived off the goal while Chicago Joel Quenneville nearly lost it from the bench. I don’t care how much of a Wild homer someone may be, but the replay showed the puck going over the goal line before the whistle had blown. No matter what the 20,000+ in attendance let their disdain be known for the next 5 minutes of the game. As a puck hit NHL linesman Lonnie Cameron it was met by a loud cheer by Chicago fans. The Blackhawks would pull Crawford with about 1:30 left, and there was another long sustained flurry near the Wild net but it was Brent Burns dropping to the ice to make two key saves when his goaltender was caught out of position as Minnesota prevails 4-2.
Niklas Backstrom was terrific, making 31 saves in the victory. His never give up attitude paid off with a few improbable saves that turned out to be game savers, preventing the game from getting out of hand in the 1st period where the Wild were really being outplayed. Defensively the results were mixed. I thought Burns, Stoner and Spurgeon played very well while Cam Barker and Greg Zanon did not play very well. The Wild had good backchecking from its forwards and through the last two periods, players were paying the price to block shots and that’s often the difference between victory and defeat in close games.
Offensively the Wild counter attacked very well. Wild Head Coach Todd Richards summed the game up, “Didn’t start off great, they took advantage of some opportunities but we weathered the storm yet I thought we really played well in the 2nd,” He added, “These guys were coming off a tough loss on Sunday, we were bending but not breaking and we regrouped and came out and played a strong 2nd and got the win.” I have to completely agree with his assessment of the 2nd period. It was the best 2nd period this team has played all season. It was skating, it was hitting and it was creating some offensive pressure 5-on-5 and this was where Minnesota took this game away from the Blackhawks.
Minnesota now goes on the All Star break. For many players that means they’ll be taking small vacations to relax and rejuvenate. It sort of is unfortunate to stop the momentum now, but this team has earned a rest and hopefully they can re-establish that momentum when they return against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, February 1st. The win places Minnesota right along the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture, so it probably puts Wild GM Chuck Fletcher in a tough position going forward but at least he probably feels the team has a lot of positives going for it rather than the alternative.
~ Wild roster for tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, John Madden, Kyle Brodziak, Chuck Kobasew, Brad Staubitz, Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, Jared Spurgeon, Cam Barker, Clayton Stoner, Greg Zanon, Nick Schultz and Brent Burns. Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom. Marco Scandella and Cody Almond were the healthy scratches. Marek Zidlicky (shoulder), James Sheppard (knee) and Guillaume Latendresse (groin and sports hernia) are on injured reserve.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Jonathan Toews, 3rd Star Martin Havlat
~ Attendance tonight was 21,247 at United Center.
~ The State of Hockey News would like to congratulate Martin Havlat on being named to the 2011 NHL All Star Game. Replacement or not, he still warranted enough consideration to be selected and that’s no small accomplishment, and at the very least his addition was far more deserved than it was for Filip Kuba back in 2004.
Boys High School Hockey Report:
South St. Paul Packers ~ 11-5-0 record (Classic Suburban Conference)
Most recent game: South St. Paul 3, Simley 0
The South St. Paul Packers have a long and storied tradition. The banners speak for themselves at Wakota Arena that attest to State Tournament Appearances, and some of the legends to played for the SSP Packers like Doug Woog and Phil Housley. South St. Paul and Head Coach Jeff Lagoo has another strong squad earning quality wins against Cloquet/Esko/Carlton and Mahtomedi while sporting some very respectable games against some of the state’s best in two goal losses to St. Thomas Academy and Hill-Murray. The Packers are led offensively by senior Jesse Poznikowich who has 12 goals and 32 points, but the real key cog that makes everything South St. Paul go is senior defenseman Adam Barlow. Barlow stands out in my mind for his strong play 1-on-1 defensively and his on-ice vision and cannon-like shot from the point make him an excellent power play threat. The Packers have a solid #1 goaltender in senior Luke Palmquist who has a respectable 8-5 record, 2.29 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. South St. Paul plays Spring Lake Park this evening.
Bemidji Lumberjacks ~ 16-1-1 record (Mariucci Conference)
Most recent game: Bemidji 6, Hermantown 2
Bemidji are appropriately named the Lumberjacks when you consider their feat of handing the last undefeated team in the state, Hermantown a decisive 6-2 loss last Saturday. Yet this is not Bemidji’s only big victory; as they have wins against strong teams teams like Brainerd, Warroad, Roseau, and a tie against Moorhead. This is not the kind of team that will blow you out, but they are the type of team that will wear you down. Head Coach Wade Chiodo‘s squad has a very balanced attack featuring 3 solid scoring lines that make them very difficult to match up against. The Lumberjacks have 5 forwards with at least 10 goals or more with senior forward Steven Heller uses his 6’2″, 200lbs frame effectively as the leading scorer with a modest 10 goals and 25 points. Between the pipes , senior goalie Jeremiah Graves carried the mail for Bemidji and boasts an impressive 14-1-1 record, a very stingy 1.47 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. The Lumberjacks play against an excellent Grand Rapids team this evening at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids.