As I was watching the NCAA Men’s Final between the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Michigan it sort of dawned on me about halfway through the 3rd period, this game was going to be the last game played in the Xcel Energy Center until next fall’s pre-season match ups. No more high school hockey, no more college hockey, and now after today no more NHL hockey in this state. Obviously there are the playoffs to watch but it isn’t quite the same. It has been a long 2010-11 season, with plenty of ups and downs; and while the bad taste from the conclusion of this season will likely linger into the summer there have been some good signs. I will probably write about that later this week. However, a game played earlier today between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings turned this game between Dallas and the Wild from a ‘who cares’ rubber match to a game with some pretty serious implications. The Blackhawks lost 4-3 and that means their playoff chances hang on the outcome of today’s game. If Dallas wins this game in regulation or in overtime it goes to the playoffs, if the Wild win or force a shootout no matter the outcome the Blackhawks go to the playoffs. For the 2nd year in a row the playoffs hang on the last game of the regular season, unfortunately its not the Wild playing for its chance at the post-season. Last year, if you remember it came down to a shootout between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Flyers prevailed and came within two games of winning a Stanley Cup in the process. It is literally the last regular season game in the NHL, can it be staged any better than this? The Wild just got a huge new array of fans as Chicagoans are now rooting heavily for Minnesota to pull off the improbable upset.
The Wild have a great opportunity to change the face off the playoffs, but do they really want to? The Wild at this point are looking forward to rest and relaxation as well as the NHL Entry Draft which will be here in late June. Being bad will give the team its best chance at landing a quality player in the first round. So do the Wild roll over take the loss to help their chances in the draft or do they relish the role of spoiler and do whatever they can to deny the Dallas Stars of its prize?
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1st Period Thoughts: You could tell the Wild realized the implications of this game right away as they started the period with some great jump in their skates. Minnesota’s energy resulted in 3 quality scoring chances in the first 3 minutes of the game. The first scoring chance was a quick little chance for Mikko Koivu who fired a shot that was turned away by Kari Lehtonen. The next chance came off a turnover in the neutral zone that resulted in a 3-on-2 for the Wild and a pretty passing play by Cal Clutterbuck who feinted at a shot and dropped it back to Matt Cullen who had Lehtonen guessing big time but he couldn’t get off a quick shot and his backhand bid would slide into the sprawling goalie. Moments after that it was Pierre-Marc Bouchard making a nice little move where he took a wrister short side that was stopped by the shoulder of Lehtonen. Minnesota was outworking Dallas who seemed to be a bit surprised at how determined the Wild’s effort was proving to be. The Wild were persistent and they would strike first on some great work moving the puck along the perimeter before setting up a blast from the point by Brent Burns that was stopped by Lehtonen but he’d give up a rebound that was collected by Brad Staubitz who backhanded a shot into the goal to give Minnesota a lead and no doubt sending Chicago into a mini-pandemonium. The Stars were suddenly feeling the urgency of their game and they started to go on the attack. As their level of hustle increased the Wild started to find themselves winding up in the penalty box as Drew Bagnall was called for hooking. Minnesota’s penalty killers were caught chasing the Stars’ power play a bit and the Wild would get lucky as Stephane Robidas would wire a shot from the point that beat Theodore that struck the right post and the puck just sat in the crease until it was swept out of harm’s way by an alert Jared Spurgeon. The Wild seemed to be in rope-a-dope mode and Minnesota would give up the tying goal about midway through the period as an attempted shot from the point by Maxim Noreau was blocked by Brad Richards who set up a shorthanded rush that was executed perfectly before setting up Richards for a one-timer that Theodore had no chance on. The Stars could sense the momentum shift and they continued to pour it on and there pressure would draw another Wild penalty as Greg Zanon was tagged with a high sticking call. Dallas made quick work of the power play and a heavy snap shot by Loui Eriksson was tipped by Brendan Morrow and eluded Theodore to give the Stars a 2-1 lead and sending Chicago Blackhawks fans into a state of depression. The Wild tried to strike back, and in the closing minute nearly tied the game on a hard shot by Cullen which created a rebound that had Lehtonen attempting a snow man and the puck was picked up by Bouchard who slid a backhander that skittered harmlessly through the crease and Minnesota would trail by one going into the 2nd. I like the initial hustle but after Dallas scored the Wild started to play hesitantly.
2nd Period Thoughts: Minnesota really carried the play throughout the 2nd period, as they were hustling well early. The Wild’s hard work would pay off with a plethora of scoring chances as they were winning the races to the loose pucks, as well as the battles along the wall. The hard work would be rewarded with a power play as Brandon Segal tripped up Chuck Kobasew as he was racing into the Dallas’ zone. Minnesota would capitalize on the man advantage after struggling through the first minute of the power play, the Wild worked it down low to Andrew Brunette who fed to just below the right faceoff dot where Jared Spurgeon fired a shot by Lehtonen to tie the game at 2-2. The goal really got the home crowd into it and you could sense the players were feeding off the momentum as well. Minnesota was taking every opportunity to press the attack as Kyle Brodziak carried the puck in the zone where he tried to spin and take a shot but didn’t get much of it and the puck reached Colton Gillies who spun and let go a backhander that eluded Lehtonen to give Minnesota a 3-2 lead and probably sending Chicago into a state of anarchy (briefly). You could feel the anxiety growing in the crowd and a sense of deflation in Dallas, and Minnesota kept pouring it on and it was Colton Gillies charging towards the goal and he had Jeff Woywitka with him and the Dallas blueliner knocked into Lehtonen. As that was going on, Adam Burish skated over to Greg Zanon standing near the Wild bench at the blueline was slashed viciously, but apparently this was not seen and Chicago would go on the power play. Dallas would waste little time on the power play as Alex Goligoski took a draw from Richards and he unleashed a wicked slapper that beat Theodore cleanly to tie the game 3-3 going into the 3rd. This game is really becoming a barn burner, reminiscent of the NCAA game on Saturday night.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period sort of was reminiscent of the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ game in a way as the Wild just would not be denied. Minnesota looked hungry to start the 3rd period, you could just see it in the way the Wild were skating. It was Dallas hoping to get lucky and take advantage of a turnover, to be a counterpuncher while the Wild were attacking. This counter punching style nearly worked as Steve Ott choked on an opportunity near the Wild crease where he pushed a shot wide on what seemed to be a certain goal. The Wild’s hustle though was causing Dallas problems and Colton Gillies would draw a tripping penalty when his work behind the Stars’ goal had him be hauled down by Stephane Robidas. On the power play the Wild really struggled to get much of anything going as Dallas was challenging the entry into the zone very well causing the Wild to go offsides or quickly turn the puck over. Just after the penalty expired the Wild kept working and Brunette turned and threaded a pretty pass from the wall that was slammed home by Antti Miettinen to give Minnesota a 4-3 lead and send most of Chicago into heart palpitations. With Miettinen playing the role of Mike Eruzione, the Wild now had to defend their lead. With Wild Head Coach Todd Richards doing his best Herb Brooks impression reminding his team “to play their game” as the Wild simply hoped to hold on. Jose Theodore meanwhile was relishing the role of Jim Craig, making a great save on a breakaway by Loui Eriksson. The effort was obvious, Wild players diving to block shots, diving to cover pucks and in the case of Chuck Kobasew losing his stick and making two huge plays with his skate to clear the zone. Minnesota was doing all the right things, keeping their shifts short and dumping the puck deep into Dallas’ zone and forcing them to come up the full length of the ice. The Stars would pull Lehtonen with nearly a minute and a half left, and they poured it on by the Wild kept working and battling along the boards and near the crease and their effort was rewarded by Pierre-Marc Bouchard driving the final nail into the Stars’ season coffin with a hard slapper into an empty net to seal a 5-3 stunner!
Jose Theodore was tremendous, making 26 saves in the victory. Theodore made a number of saves with a lot of traffic near his crease and the goals he gave up were the kind any goaltender probably would’ve given up. He was very solid down the stretch. Defensively the Wild had a great game. Jared Spurgeon, Greg Zanon, Brent Burns and Clayton Stoner had big games tonight. Moving the puck well, being strong along the wall and clearing the zone and the crease area when need be. Spurgeon especially really seemed to come into his own the last few games, showing some offensive spark as well and his comfort level was very apparent.
Offensively the Wild got contributions from players you certainly wouldn’t expect to be heroes in a game like this. Brad Staubitz really had a great finish to this season, providing a surprising amount of offense including a goal tonight. Colton Gillies had a great game on the forecheck and in the offensive zone where he used his body effectively to protect the puck and deliver hits. You could really see the effort all game long and Minnesota was playing hard as if they were the team with everything to lose.
Wild Head Coach Todd Richards was smiling as one would expect in the post-season, but with a definite hint of regret as he said, “It was a great game, lots of fun, but the game leaves us with a bitter taste and it would be nice to have had 15 or 20 more like that.” He admitted knowing that Dallas’ playoff hopes were on the line got him and his team more motivated for the last game of the season. The question now becomes, will this be Todd Richards’ last game. Two seasons in a row without the playoff revenue that owners claim are what make owning an NHL team payoff may be too overwhelming to keep Richards around. However, in the short term this victory sure feels sweet.
~ The Wild roster for this early evening game was: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Carson McMillan, Chuck Kobasew, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Drew Bagnall, Jared Spurgeon, Greg Zanon, Clayton Stoner, Maxim Noreau and Brent Burns. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Cam Barker, Martin Havlat, Marek Zidlicky, Marco Scandella and Guillaume Latendresse were the ‘healthy’ scratches. Nick Schultz (post-concussion syndrome), Josh Harding (knee) and James Sheppard (knee) are on injured reserve.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Colton Gillies, 2nd Star Jared Spurgeon, 3rd Star Loui Eriksson
~ Attendance this evening was 18,504 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The State of Hockey News wishes to congratulate the University of Minnesota-Duluth on winning its first NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey title in school history last night in a 3-2 overtime thriller at Xcel Energy Center last evening. It was Hermantown, Minnesota’s Kyle Schmidt scoring 3:22 into overtime for the win; it is ironic that Schmidt was named the Derek Hines’ Unsung Hero Award just prior to the game. Schmidt will not have to worry about being an unsung hero any longer! One of the intriguing aspects of the win was that it starred many undrafted college players in Junior Travis Oleksuk who was causing havoc all over the Michigan zone as well as Rosemount, Minnesota’s J.T. Brown who had a motor all game long, and lastly the most dangerous offensive player on the ice in Mike Connolly and I thought senior Mike Montgomery looked very solid and mobile on defense. Note to the Wild, you might want to talk to some of these guys about a contract.
WHL Playoff Update:
Red Deer Rebels 0, Medicine Hat Tigers 5 ~ I must admit, I am completely shocked at the total dismantling of the Red Deer Rebels at the hands of Medicine Hat. The Tigers have a dominating 2-0 series lead, after outscoring the Rebels 14 to 1 in those games. For the second time in the series, the Rebels out shot the Tigers 33 to 21 but it didn’t matter. You hate to point fingers, but perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the performance of Wild prospect goaltender Darcy Kuemper who was the top goalie during the regular season but has been shellacked so far; giving up 10 goals in two games on just 38 shots for a rancid .263% save percentage! Ouch!
Houston Aeros Update:
Like the Wild, the Houston Aeros finish their regular season today with a game against Oklahoma City. The only difference is the Aeros season will continue after this game; as they are going to finish 2nd in the West Division regardless of today’s outcome. Today’s game would start out innocently enough as Houston looked a little rusty after nearly having a week off. Oklahoma City was carrying the play early on; as they were on their 3rd game in the last 3 nights. The Barons would strike first late in the 1st period as Mark Arcobello scores. Houston would answer back in a big way in the 2nd period as Chad Rau fired a shot underneath the crossbar on a nice pass by Robbie Earl. Houston continue to apply pressure and the Barons would get into penalty trouble and the Aeros would make Oak City pay the price for their lack of discipline. Houston would strike on the power play as Patrick O’Sullivan fires a missile from the point that beat Martin Gerber cleanly to make it 3-1 Aeros. The Barons cut the lead back to one on a goal by a bullet shot by Phillippe Cornet. Penalties would continue to haunt Oklahoma City as the Aeros would strike two more times on the power play on goals from Cody Almond and Warren Peters. Peters and Jed Ortmeyer would strike twice more on the power play in the 3rd period before Colin McDonald scored late as Aeros win going away, 6-3. Matthew Hackett had 30 saves in the victory. Houston’s first playoff game is Wednesday.