Its getting cold out there, and in many parts of the United States the weather has been downright freakish. Heavy snows in some cities; especially places like St. Louis and Dallas where in the case of the Blues it meant postponing games, and in the case of the Stars playing before a crowd of no more than a 1,000 at American Airlines Center. As a Midwesterner who is used to snow they’re not going to get ANY sympathy from me. Its winter, its what I expect and if they’re not used to it that’s too bad. A snowflake falls in New York City its national news, a few flurries in Atlanta and you have schools canceling for days. Its remarkable how unadaptable people can be sometimes. Its also remarkable how allegedly “tough” people from the Northeast can complain and whine when they get hit with a foot of snow. Big deal, Buffalo deals with that a few times a year, EVERY year. It amazes me how just a slight change to their paradigm of what the weather should be like forces them to stay indoors or bundle up to a ridiculous degree as if a single flake of snow touching one’s body means instant hypothermia. I personally love the cold, I embrace it as a friend. Today when it was -5 outside I walked outside without a jacket and enjoyed every minute of it on my commute to work. In some ways, this inability to cope with changing paradigms is also in place in sports. When a team is seen to be less talented, less skilled if they manage to win games they must be doing so only through trickery, over generosity from league officials and you hear fans from the old paradigm complain the newcomer is ruining the game. The Minnesota Wild heard that a lot when Jacques Lemaire was behind the bench, when more often than not the Wild simply were outworking their opponents. Lately, the Wild have been playing better and slowly climbing the Western Conference ladder and you know its only a matter of time before the complaints will start raining in. If the NHL, and the Eastern Conference-centric media can take their eyes off of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals long enough to notice they too will chime in as well.
The Wild travel to Colorado who will be looking to take back their 2nd place spot in the Northwest Division after Minnesota leapfrogged them on Tuesday with a shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings. There has been some indications that the rivalry between the two clubs is starting to heat up. More pushing and shoving after whistles, some big hits are being thrown around and lots and lots of talk between benches are starting to turn these match ups into bitter feuds normally reserved for Vancouver. That makes the games that much more unpredictable and exciting to watch, so who will come out on top tonight. Will the Wild earn a big road victory or will the Avalanche drown out the red-hot Wild tonight?
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1st Period Thoughts: You couldn’t ask for a much better start than the Wild had in this game, scoring 2 goals in the first 61 seconds of the game. Minnesota was hustling well early while the Avalanche looked a little flat-footed. The Wild scored its first goal on a pretty tic-tac-toe play that was started by some nice hustle by Cal Clutterbuck who won a battle along the boards and then threading a pass to Nick Schultz who was pinching down into the slot and he passed it over to Kyle Brodziak who didn’t get much on the shot but the important thing he was able to get it up into the air and it foun the back of the net to give the Wild the lead. Fox Sports Net‘s Mike Greenlay insisted the near-fanning of the shot made the difference was was pure garbage, he fans it and puts it along the ice and Colorado’s Craig Anderson makes the save but he gets it elevated and the result is a goal. With the Avalanche a little stunned by Brodziak’s tally the Wild went right back on the attack with its top line and nice little play by Andrew Brunette to recognize he only had one player shadowing him and he gathered the biscuit from behind the Colorado goal and he moved out to the front where he was able to wrap a shot around Anderson who didn’t put a lot of effort into stopping him, 2-0 Wild. At this point I was really surprised Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco didn’t pull him. Anderson can be partly forgiven for the first goal, but the 2nd one was just a lack of effort, if anything I thought he’d pull him to kick his team in the tail to get their heads back into the game but he kept Anderson out there. I wonder what Sacco then thought moments later when the Wild threaded a long outlet pass to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who raced in on a breakaway, and the diminutive Minnesota forward did not miss by much as his shot just was pushed wide by the leg pad of Anderson. As Colorado tried to pressure to cut into the Wild’s lead, Minnesota was being physical at the right times and making nice short little passes to elude the Avalanche’s puck pursuit. Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon were making poised simple plays with the puck and this allowed Minnesota to weather the storm. Jose Theodore did not see a lot of work, despite the increased intensity of the Avalanche. Colorado’s only real threatening players were Matt Duchene and Kevin Porter who both had their legs. I was a bit afraid the Wild made a crucial mistake when Brad Staubitz made a foolish decision to hit Avalanche tough guy Cody McLeod who rather conveniently fell to the ice as though he was shot near his bench and a fracas ensued. Staubitz ended up with the lone roughing minor. With the 7th best power play, I really feared the Avalanche were going to get the sparse Avalanche crowd into the game with a goal on the man advantage but Minnesota’s penalty kill was rock solid. Minnesota was again being physical at the right times to win the little races for the puck and penalty killers like Stoner and John Madden were making the little plays to tap the puck out of the zone which never allowed Colorado to really get set up and work their power play. The Wild continued to counter punch and Martin Havlat found some space behind the Avalanche defense and he came within an Anderson toe save from giving Minnesota a 3-goal lead. I thought there were a number of players who had excellent start to the game, effort-wise; especially Brodziak, Stoner, Bouchard, Schultz, Spurgeon and Chuck Kobasew who really was flying all over the ice.
2nd Period Thoughts: Sometimes its not about the quality of your goals as much as its about the timing of your goals. The Wild had just that as they did a fine job of weathering an all out assault by the Avalanche with some excellent goaltending by Jose Theodore who was seeing the puck well, but Minnesota’s defense deserves credit for keeping Colorado shooters to the perimeter. One player who I felt made a foolish decision was Cam Barker who goaded non-fighter Brandon Yip to drop his gloves. Neither player threw that many punches, other than a few week hooks in a fight that likely did not get either bench all that excited. Barker is extremely lucky he didn’t get rocked by Yip causing the Avalanche to get a boost. Minnesota’s hustle was starting to frustrate the Avalanche, as the Wild drew a tripping call on Milan Hejduk. On the power play, I really liked their puck movement as Koivu set up Brunette for a nice chance early that forced a desperation save by Anderson. I liked the puck movement, but late in the power play an ill-advised decision by Brent Burns to try to skate into the slot for a set up was intercepted and turned into a 2-on-1 for Colorado that they capitalized on as Porter dished it over to Hejduk off the rush and he shoveled a shot just out of the reach of Theodore to cut the lead in half. Minnesota would earn another chance on the man advantage as Kevin Shattenkirk would be tagged with a high sticking penalty. Minnesota struggled to get set up on the power play initially but they would stay patient and the top line started to cycle the puck a bit along the half wall, it would lead to Mikko Koivu passing the puck down to Brunette who spun and put a shot on goal that was stopped by Anderson but he could not control the rebound and Brunette poked a shot by him just as the penalty expired to give the Wild a 3-1 lead. The goal was huge as it deflated a potential surge by the Avalanche as well as gave Minnesota that cushion it so badly needed. Not the best period but the timing of the goal killed much of the momentum the Hejduk goal had given them.
3rd Period Thoughts: Early on it wasn’t pretty as the Avalanche were swarming early, and when Nick Schultz couldn’t sweep away a puck that hit his skates and instead made its way over to Hejduk who shoveled home a near empty net goal to cut the Wild’s lead to one 3-2. At this point I was a bit worried as Colorado was really pouring it on and the Wild was on its heels. My confidence was not helped when Martin Havlat was tagged with a 4-minute minor for high sticking. Early on the man advantage the Avalanche operated in the Wild zone with near impunity as the Minnesota’s penalty kill looked real tired (as a good portion of it had just left the ice just before Havlat’s penalty) and Colorado was really peppering Theodore with shots. When Theodore wasn’t making the save the Wild were lucky as John-Michael Liles rang a blast from the point off the pipe. After that first frantic minute the Wild penalty kill stabilized and Minnesota’s penalty kill just started to take over. With some good aggressive forechecking by Matt Cullen and Cal Clutterbuck the Wild frustrated the Avalanche power play with some excellent pressure through the neutral zone that created some cheap turnovers. Clayton Stoner botched a clearing attempt in the last minute of the 4-minute Colorado power play but he kept hustling and made amends by blocking a shot. The Wild got the huge penalty kill and this deflated some of that momentum the Avalanche had built up. In classic Wild fashion, Minnesota would go back on the attack a bit and bad clearing attempt by the Avalanche was intercepted by Havlat who rifled a shot on goal that was stopped by Anderson but he gave up a big rebound to Bouchard who patiently stepped around the Colorado goalie for the easy backhand goal to give the Wild a 4-2 lead. Theodore would make an outstanding sprawling save from his back to deny Kevin Porter who was waiting near the top of the crease. The goal really crushed the Avalanche’s spirit. Late in the period the Avs would pour it on as they pulled Anderson for an extra attacker and Chris Stewart scored with 10 seconds left but Bouchard’s goal was the difference in Minnesota earning another crucial road win.
Jose Theodore was outstanding between the pipes, making 38 saves in the win. The goals Theodore gave up were all quality goals and he delivered numerous big saves to keep Colorado at bey throughout most of the game. That is pretty impressive for a guy who hasn’t had a start in nearly 2 1/2 weeks. Defensively I think all of Minnesota’s blueliners have been influenced by Clayton Stoner. I think after watching their fellow defenseman seal off opposing forwards from the puck and escorting it out of danger we’re seeing the rest of the defense follow in kind as Nick Schultz, Brent Burns, and even Jared Spurgeon was seen pulling off this maneuver this evening. The defense may see some reshuffling as Cam Barker did not play during the 3rd period for an undisclosed injury.
Offensively the Wild got a great initial jump to put the Avalanche behind the 8-ball right away, and then it was the ability of Minnesota to answer Colorado’s goals to earn the huge victory. Minnesota did have two missed opportunities with two failed breakaways by Bouchard and Havlat and sometimes those missed chances comeback to haunt you but it didn’t tonight. The Wild are continuing to find offense with a scoring by committee approach. I don’t mind it because it is keeping all of the lines working hard taking their opportunities to shoot the puck.
Wild Head Coach Todd Richards wasn’t overjoyed in his post-game interview broadcast on Fox Sports Net North, “I was hoping we’d show more poise,” but admitted the team stepped up when it had to. This was especially true on the 4-minute power play that Richards agreed was “huge” in the overall outcome of the game. Minnesota now will travel to Phoenix, a team also fighting and scrapping to stay in the playoff picture so the Wild can expect a real battle in the desert.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Brad Staubitz, Eric Nystrom, Chuck Kobasew, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Clayton Stoner, Nick Schultz, Jared Spurgeon, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker and Brent Burns. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Marco Scandella was the lone healthy scratch. Marek Zidlicky (shoulder), James Sheppard (knee) and Guillaume Latendresse (groin and sports hernia) are still on injured reserve.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Andrew Brunette, 2nd Star Milan Hejduk, 3rd Star Pierre-Marc Bouchard
~ Attendance tonight was 13,818 at Pepsi Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
G – Matthew Hackett ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 26GP (11-11-2) 2.47GAA .913%SP
Matthew Hackett has shrugged off a tough start to having a solid first professional season for the Houston Aeros. The big bodied goaltender with good athleticism is splitting starts with AHL veteran Anton Khudobin and both goalies are playing great and Houston has enjoyed a steady climb in the West Division standings. Hackett has made great progress in terms of his rebound control and that has led to his drop in his goals against average which at one point during the season was over 3 goals per game to now a shade under 2.5 goals per game. It will be interesting to see if he continues to split the duties with Khudobin as the games get that much tighter down the home stretch of the regular season.
LW – Kris Foucault ~ Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
2010-11 Stats: 47GP 16G 18A = 34pts 46 PIM’s -8
Kris Foucault is a player who reminds me a lot of Benoit Pouliot, a player who would entice you with a few flashes of brilliance and then underwhelm you with long periods of indifferent play. The main difference of course is that Pouliot was perhaps given a little a bit more forgiveness for his enigmatic style because the team drafted him 4th Overall. Foucault doesn’t have that luxury, he was a long shot to begin with. The Hitmen fans I have talked to have been telling me the same things the last 3 years about Foucault’s game. Pouliot eventually figured it out, but only after he was traded to Montreal. Will it take a trade for Foucault to realize the importance of consistency?
High School Boys Hockey Report:
Brainerd Warriors (Central Lakes Conference) ~ 14-6-0 record
Most recent game: Brainerd 8, St. Cloud Apollo 0
The Brainerd Warriors are off to a solid season, but life has been tough in the Central Lakes Conference where the Warriors have struggled against some conference foes like St. Cloud Tech and Alexandria which are certainly not amongst the state’s elite teams. However the Warriors have had shown they can compete against a solid Moorhead Spuds squad in two one-goal losses. The Warriors are led by scoring phenom, senior Josh Archibald (23 goals, 65 points in just 20 games) who just recently committed to play with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Their top line of Archibald, juniors Matthew Pohlkamp (23 goals, 48 points) and Mitch McLain (25 goals, 47 points) are one of the most potent trios in the state. Yet if a team can keep this line in check the firepower drops off considerably is likely a reason they have not been able to beat some of the state’s better teams. Between the pipes the Warriors look to junior Jared Stearns to carry the load with a 12-5-0 record, a mundane 3.25 goals against average and a .883 save percentage. The Warriors next game against Willmar on Thursday. (UPDATE: Brainerd narrowly defeated Willmar 2-1 on goals from Josh Archibald and Mitch McLain.)
Maple Grove Crimson (Northwest Suburban Conference) ~ 15-3-1 record
Most recent game: Maple Grove 3, Duluth East 2
The Northwest Suburban Conference has a new leader and it has been a steady climb to the top after years of hard work through its youth programs. Maple Grove has scratched and clawed its way to a #5 ranking in Class 2A according to Hockey Hub.com, and they confirmed their place amongst the elite after defeating Duluth East 3-2 in Duluth on Saturday which is no small feat. They’ve also earned quality victories over Blaine, Wayzata and Osseo. Unlike many of the other elite programs, the Crimson are not led by one superstar but have a balanced attack that causes their opponents match up problems that Maple Grove Head Coach Gary Stefano takes full advantage of. The Crimson’s leading scorer is junior Dylan Steman with a modest 10 goals and 28 points. In the crease, senior Ryan Coyne carries the mail where he has put impressive totals of a 14-3-1 record, 1.74 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. The Crimson’s next game is Champlin Park this evening. (UPDATE: #5 Maple Grove struggled to defeat unranked Champlin Park 2-1 on goals from Tony Paulson and Spencer Bell.)