In some ways its almost like deja vu. Two years ago, Jacques Lemaire decided to call it quits with the Wild. Some speculated that Wild management had sort of told Lemaire that the team wanted to go in another direction shortly after owner Craig Leipold told Doug Risebrough he was not going to renew his contract. It did not take Jacques Lemaire very long before finding another team as he was welcomed by his former team the New Jersey Devils. After one season where Lemaire led the Devils to an Atlantic Division title the momentum was quickly quashed by a clean sweep at the hands the Philadelphia Flyers. Lemaire would again choose to step down as bench boss and it seemed as though that may be the end of the two-time Jack Adams Award recipient’s coaching career. Or so everyone thought. Devils General Manager Lou Lamiorello, having weathered the long and boring drama over the attempt to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a ridiculous 17-year contract that was submarined by the league for a slightly less ridiculous (but not my by much) 15-year $100 deal, Lamiorello then tabbed former Devils forward John McLean to be the next coach. What happened next is still tough to deal with; as McLean has endured the team’s worst start since the early 1980’s when the Devils used to be the laughingstock of the NHL. After terrible start that just continued to worsen and indifferent play by many of the team’s players Lamiorello axed McLean and called up Lemaire who came back to the Devils’ bench. So once again it will be Lemaire behind the bench when the Wild face their former coach / teacher. Last time it was a high scoring affair where the Devils eventually overwhelmed Minnesota’s defense, and Lemaire was predictably perturbed by the lack of defensive discipline his squad had shown. I think Lemaire may soon be wishing he had chosen to stay retired as he has inherited a leaderless team, with a terrible defense and veteran goaltending legend struggling through his worst season as a professional and already past the point of no return in terms of qualifying for the 2010-11 post season.
That is precisely why this is the perfect trap game for the Minnesota Wild. It is fairly similar in situation to the one the team faced last week Friday when the Nashville Predators arrived in St. Paul. Like the Devils the Predators were saddled by numerous injuries and struggling in the standings. The Wild failed to show up and were beaten in pathetic fashion 4-1 in front of a sellout crowd. While there likely will not be a sellout tonight at Prudential Arena in Newark, New Jersey the Wild could again find themselves trapped by overconfidence but Lemaire will no doubt have his team jacked up to take another team that has been very inconsistent throughout the 2010-11 campaign. So the Wild better be ready for a battle against a team that has very little to lose and hopefully they are ready to play at their best and take care of a team that has been struggling as much internally (off the ice) as it has with its opponents. So will Minnesota play down to the level of their competition or will they finally show the ability to finish off a beleaguered foe?
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With most of Prudential Center dressed as seats the Wild started the game with its energy line of Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck and John Madden as Nystrom attempted a bouncing cross-ice pass that just failed to work with Madden who was driving towards the Devils’ crease. Minnesota followed that up with their top line, where Andrew Brunette created an opportunity for Mikko Koivu who pushed a shot just wide of Johan Hedberg. The Wild were controlling the pace of play early as they kept the Devils bottled up in their own zone and even when New Jersey managed to dump the puck deep into the Minnesota zone they were physical as Clutterbuck lit up Colin White with a big hit. Minnesota was being aggressive and firing every puck it could on goal as the Wild were swarming all over the Devils end of the ice. The Wild just kept plugging away, ripping shot after shot on goal forcing Hedberg to make saves. The Devils’ David Clarkson tried to spark his team as he got challenged by Brad Staubitz who took offense to a hit he gave Nystrom; but it was more of a grappling contest as Clarkson just grabbed jersey turned and fell seat first to the ice on what could barely be called a fight. The referees apparently agreed with me and Staubitz would earn the extra roughing minor while Clarkson had just one called on him giving New Jersey its first power play of the game. Minnesota had the first great scoring chances, on a shorthanded breakaway for Clutterbuck after he picked the pocket of Ilya Kovalchuk but before he could pull the trigger Hedberg foiled his chance with a diving poke check. The Wild did a great job of killing off the penalty as a few boo’s (from those not dressed as empty seats) cascaded down as Minnesota’s penalty killers deprived the Devils of time and space. The Devils got their first shot of the game, almost 11 minutes in as Jame Langenbrunner drove wide right and rifled a shot that was blocked to the corner by Jose Theodore that earned the hometeam a Bronx cheer. Minnesota would counter with a hardworking rush by Clutterbuck who again stole a puck from Kovalchuk and he raced in and he hammered a snap shot short side that clanked on the underside of the crossbar and in to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. The Devils attempted strike back as Clarkson worked the puck down behind the Wild goal and he fed a pass out front to Rod Pelley who shoveled a shot on goal that wsa steered aside by Theodore. Minnesota would renew its attack and Martin Havlat would make a sneaky move near the Devils blueline before dishing a pass to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who tried to quickly pass the puck to Kyle Brodziak who was waiting near the crease but his attempt would be helped wide by a desperate play by New Jersey’s Mark Fraser. The Devils had a tremendous chances late as Brian Rolston helped work a puck to David Clarkson that near pinballed its way into the goal before it was slapped out of danger by Clayton Stoner. Minnesota would respond with a terrific chance of their own as a defensive breakdown that yielded a 2-on-1 for Havlat and Bouchard and Havlat ripped a shot high that was partially stopped by Hedberg and Havlat tried again to lift a shot up and over the Devils goal that did not miss by much. New Jersey would try to earn the equalizer as Travis Zajac fed a pass towards the Wild crease that bounced around until it was swept up by the quick glove of Theodore. The Devils’ energy line would draw a hooking penalty on Brent Burns late in the first as the Wild carried their 1-0 lead into the 2nd period.
The Devils started the 2nd period with nearly a full power play on Burns’ hooking penalty still to work with. Minnesota’s penalty killers were aggressive as they outworked the Devils to steal away the puck and clear the zone. New Jersey was able to create just two quality scoring chances on the man advantage when Zajac fed a pass to a crashing Langenbrunner who’s redirect on goal was pounced upon by Theodore. The second one came on a remarkably similar play about 25 seconds later as Langenbrunner again found himself hacking and whacking at the puck near the Wild crease and again Theodore stood strong making multiple saves before jumping on the biscuit for a whistle as Minnesota killed off another Devils’ power play. Minnesota was not moving well though to start the period and New Jersey was swarming well enough as some good cycling work in the Wild zone where Ilya Kovalchuk found a little time and space and he rifled a wrister that Theodore did not even see to tie the game at 1-1. The game would start to open up as Minnesota tried to answer back when Martin Havlat blazed a heavy shot that was directed to the corner by Hedberg, and the Devils responded with a scoring chance of their own as Theodore found himself fending off a few quick shots as the Wild were scrambling about their own end. Kovalchuk was really starting to ramp up his play as he was pivoting and being shifty as he was hounded by the always hustling Clutterbuck and through some good defensive support the Wild were able to take away the puck and go on the attack and Clutterbuck would fling a high wrister that was blocked out of the air by Hedberg. The Devils kept attacking as Jason Arnott would blast a shot on goal that Theodore would block wide of the mark as he was sprawling in his crease but the Wild would avoid any serious damage. With the momentum of the game beginning to tilt in the direction of New Jersey, the Wild tried to answer by being physical as Greg Zanon stepped up to deliver a nice hit on Kovalchuk. You could see the Wild responding to the hit as they started to go back on the attack, as they moved their feet and showing a willingness to pay the price as Chuck Kobasew got set up for a chance from the slot that was held onto by Hedberg. The physical play of Minnesota began to back off the Devils and now the game started to become a chess match as both teams appeared patient to wait for the other to make a mistake. Minnesota started to win the territorial game and their hustle started to pay dividends as Minnesota nearly cashed in as a long range blast by Mikko Koivu would miss wide and carom out where it was jumped on by Stoner who hammered a shot that was stonewalled by the quick post-to-post footwork of Hedberg. The Wild would have another great shift a few minutes later when the modified energy line of Patrick O’Sullivan, Matt Cullen and Cal Clutterbuck would create some havoc on the forecheck as they were helped out by a nice pinch by Stoner as they created a nice little chance for Cullen who tried to carry the puck to the net before it was paddled wide by the Devils goaltender. Minnesota would struggle a bit late as they created soem needless give aways on some long outlet passes that gave the Devils an opportunity to create a little offense late in the period but Theodore was seeing the puck well and not giving up much in the way of rebounds. The game would remained tied at 1-1 going into the 3rd period and the shots now tilting 15 to 12 in favor of New Jersey.
Minnesota would be the recipient of some rather dumb luck, as a thwarted rush for the Devils turned into a Wild counter attack and as Clayton Stoner who fired a dump in off the boards and the puck would take a bizarre carom off a stanchion that holds the panes of plexiglass together which caught Hedberg out of his net for a flukey goal to put the State of Hockey ahead 2-1. The Devils tried to battle back with some hard work cycling the puck down low in the in the Wild zone as Stoner would showcase some good strength as he outworked David Clarkson. The Wild seemed to be in rope-a-dope mode as they sat back in a very passive 1-2-2 and the Devils began to pour it on, and Minnesota was scrambling about its own zone. While the Devils were dominating time of posession it was not resulting in that many shots reaching Jose Theodore, but it was only a matter of time before the Devils’ pressure would yield a penalty as Havlat would get frustrated as he attempted to clear the zone by Anton Volchenkov and he’d slash the stick to put New Jersey on its 3rd power play of the game. Minnesota’s penalty killers were pressuring well early on as Matt Cullen would pounce on a lazy pass to carry it into the Devils’ zone to kill valuable seconds off the New Jersey power play. The Wild were winning the battles along the boards as well as droping to the ice to block shots and not a shot would reach Theodore on the Devils’ man advantage. On another bizarre play after the killed Devils power play, Ilya Kovalchuk tried to give a cross-ice pass from inside his own blueline that would glance off the skate of Volchekov to go on goal to Hedberg who was forced to make a surprise save as an anxious groan could be heard from the hometown crowd. Minnesota was playing smart hockey, dumping the puck deep and then battling well along the boards and giving the Devils little time and space to work with. The Wild were taking every opportunity to poke, chip, sweep whatever they could do to push the puck deep into the New Jersey zone to force the Devils to bring the puck up the full length of the ice. The strategy was working rather nicely as New Jersey was unable to create almost any kind of offensive pressure. The Devils would pull Hedberg back around 1:15 left to play, and Jacques Lemaire would call a timeout at 1:04 to talk things over. New Jersey’s Jamie Langenbrunner would win the struggle for the loose puck as he chipped a shot on goal that was held onto by Theodore. The Wild were denying the pass from down low out to the slot where the Devils hoped to work the puck and they were able to set up an empty net chance for Matt Cullen that was deflected up and into the netting behind the goal with just 23 seconds left. Minnesota would take its timeout as Todd Richards would try to come up a strategy to keep the Devils scoreless for the next 23 seconds. The Wild would scramble a bit and keep any real shots from reaching Theodore in the closing seconds and had to feel as though they lucked out in a strange 2-1 road victory.
Jose Theodore was pretty solid, giving up just one goal on 22 shots to give Minnesota a must-have road victory. He was a source of stability all game long, and was seeing the puck well and did a superb job at eliminating rebounds especially as he had the Devils crowding his crease all night long. Minnesota had great work from its defense, especially the play of Clayton Stoner who apart from notching the game-winning goal had a rock solid game defensively using his big body well to seal off opposing forwards from the puck. Another player who could use a little kudos was the more composed play of Jared Spurgeon who made some nice plays with his legs to alleviate pressure and then making a nice first pass.
Offensively the Wild really only showed up in one period of this game; just the 1st and then sat back and focused on defense. I was not happy with that effort offensively. Yes the Devils stepped up their game in 2nd period, but that’s no reason to just sit back in a 1-2-2 and they’re lucky that passive approach still resulted in a victory because 9 times out of 10 that is a recipe for disaster. The Wild had another lethargic 2nd period and the Devils nearly were able to climb back into the game. Martin Havlat needs to be greedy and take his chances to shoot the puck whenever they present themselves. He is at his best when he’s being selfish and firing it on goal. Clutterbuck continues to provide timely offense and a big reason he has done that is he is a player who always looks to shoot when he has the chance to pull the trigger and his teammates could earn a lot from that straight forward philosophy.
No matter what, the Wild need to be a lot better if they expect to earn a win against a pretty solid Boston Bruins team that plays stingy defense, has physical players at forward and defense as well as some pretty nice skill as well. Minnesota cannot be assertive just one period and have a chance. The Wild certainly can play better, and it needs wins anyway they can get them. Yea I’m happy we earned 2 points but its not a victory to brag about. Its one where you worry about how karma will come back to bite you.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Chuck Kobasew, Brad Staubitz, Patrick O’Sullivan, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker and Brent Burns. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Marco Scandella is the lone ‘healthy’ scratch as he battles sickness, and Antti Miettinen is out with a charley horse while Marek Zidlicky is out of the lineup with an upper body injury. Guillaume Latendresse is still rehabbing from surgery he received in November.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Cal Clutterbuck, 2nd Star Martin Havlat, 3rd Star Clayton Stoner
~ Attendance for tonight’s game is 13,257 at Prudential Center.
Houston Aeros Report:
2010-11 Record: 19-17-1-2 41pts 7th in the West Division
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #17 Robbie Earl ~ 10G 12A = 22pts
2. #14 Jon DiSalvatore ~ 7G 15A = 22pts
3. #26 Maxim Noreau ~ 7G 15A = 22pts
4. #12 Cody Almond ~ 10G 11A = 21pts
5. #62 Jean-Michel Daoust ~ 5G 12A = 17pts
Top 3 PIM’s:
1. #42 Matt Kassian ~ 87 PIM’s
2. #12 Cody Almond ~ 76 PIM’s
3. #23 Petr Kalus ~ 68 PIM’s
1. #30 Anton Khudobin (12-9-1) 2.58GAA .911%SP
2. #31 Matthew Hackett (7-9-1) 2.66GAA .906%SP
In many ways the Houston Aeros are a terrific reflection of their parent club as they too have taken a two steps forward, two steps back approach that has mired the team to near the bottom of the league’s standings. Both teams are also modest offensively and have a score by committee approach. While its tough to know who will be the offensive contributor from game to game it also makes the team very streaky offensively. Sound familiar? The up-and-down like play hasn’t hurt at the gates as the Aeros still average over 6,000 per game good for 6th in the American Hockey League, not too bad for a Sunbelt market minor league team. While the winning hasn’t been what the Wild would’ve hoped, the youngsters have been getting lots of ice time and when they’ve been called up they’ve managed to contribute which is all that really matters. In terms of player development, Head Coach Mike Yeo has done a terrific job as the prospects season as they are supposed to and the farm team has been able to provide a little help when the Wild have needed it. The Aeros don’t have another game until Friday when Lake Erie makes its way to Toyota Center.