While I am unsure how to explain it, strange events seem to occur in bunches. A classic example was this Saturday as two separate incidents at different levels in hockey’s minors took place that each had their own level of strangeness. The first, and an instant viral sensation on YouTube was the sight of Abbotsford Heat Head Coach Jim Playfair losing it after seeing what he thought was a horrendous call. Playfair didn’t seem to initially realize how ‘bad’ the call was until he looked up at the scoreboard and then quickly called AHL referee Jamie Koharski over to the Heat bench. Koharski didn’t seem to be in the mood to really discuss the call and at that point Playfair went beserk, grabbing a stick of one of his players sitting on the bench and breaking it over the rail as he let loose with a flurry of profanity. After smashing one stick over the rail he threw off his jacket and continued to berate the official which started to draw the giggles of Riley Grantham and Shawn Weller and Playfair would grab another stick and smash it along the rail before finally calming down. A few thousand miles away, in a Southern Professional Hockey League game between the Fayetteville FireAntz and the Knoxville Ice Bears there was a complete bench clearing brawl that started when a member of the Fayetteville team, leading scorer Robert Sich was pulled onto the Knoxville bench where he was being pummeled, and this prompted the FireAntz to clear their bench to go rescue their teammate. In the end, the Ice Bears got what they wanted as it left Fayetteville with just two players left in its lineup out of the penalty box or not having been thrown out of the game and thus were forced to forfeit. While I still remember my father recalling with great fondness the infamous game between the Minnesota North Stars and the Boston Bruins which held the NHL’s penalty minute record for almost 25 years but even that slugfest did not lead to a forfeiture of the game.
So will there be any weirdness tonight between the Wild and the Los Angeles Kings? Not likely, but you never know as I doubt few expected the North Stars to come out swinging against the Big Bad Bruins, nor did Jamie Koharski expect Jim Playfair to go crazy like he did. I would welcome the opportunity to offer up my recollection of a Wild meltdown, afterall it would be something different to discuss. The Los Angeles Kings are going to be focused as they hope to slow their free fall in the standings while Minnesota is sort of in a standby pattern. Will the Wild give the Kings another painful loss or will Los Angeles regain its momentum by beating up on the banged up and injured Minnesota squad?
Minnesota started out with good energy and the officials were letting the boys play as there would be few whistles and great pace to the first period. Niklas Backstrom and the Wild’s defense was being physical and not allowing Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown to drive to the net without paying a price. Minnesota was also looking to attack as they had a terrific scoring chance in the first few minutes as Andrew Ebbett was buzzing early being a great pain on the forecheck ultimately leading to a great set up by Martin Havlat of Guillaume Latendresse who shot a puck right into the chest of Jonathan Quick. Both teams were playing strong, tight checking hockey and neither team was able much in the way of scoring chances. Casey Wellman came close to threatening a bit in the period as he changed speeds in an instant only to be thwarted by a diving play by Drew Doughty. The Wild had to feel pretty good being able to skate away tied at 0-0 as Minnesota was playing relaxed yet an intense brand of hockey.
In the 2nd period, the Wild would draw a penalty hooking penalty on Ryan Smyth just 33 seconds in and go on the man advantage. The Wild were making nice crisp passes from the half wall and back out to the point and then after a few nice blasts from the point, they would finally light the lamp when Martin Havlat turned and fired a shot on goal that Quick stopped but he’d give up a big rebound which was picked up by Owen Nolan who backhanded it over the sprawling goaltender to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. However as if on cue, the officiating seemed to take a dramatic turn as Kerry Fraser decided to “get involved” by levying a few questionable calls on plays where he swallowed the whistle in the first period. The Kings tried to battle for the equalizer and were not above of running Niklas Backstrom to do it as Jeff Halpern put his shoulder down and carried the puck to the crease running over Backstrom in the process. He would earn a goaltender interference penalty but the Wild power play would be short lived as Marek Zidlicky earned a terribly weak cross-checking call to even it up. Just seconds later Fredrik Modin would go to the box after holding up Cal Clutterbuck. With the ice more open at 4-on-4, Brent Burns would take full advantage as he made a pretty move to step around Brad Richardson and take the puck to the slot where he lifted a forehand up and over the shoulder of Jonathan Quick to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead. Los Angeles would step up their game towards the 2nd half of the period as they began to use their size and strength down low to create some havoc in the Wild zone, but Niklas Backstrom was outstanding, seeing the puck and staying strong near the post when the Kings were looking to stuff it in. However their relentless forecheck would eventually pay off and it was an excellent physical shift by the line of Wayne Simmonds, Scott Parse and Brad Richardson would win a few battles along the wall to push it out to Jack Johnson who hammered a shot that would deflect off the stick of Parse and lose speed and elude Backstrom to cut the Wild lead in half, 2-1. The Kings could sense a momentum shift and they really started to pour it on and the Wild would get a bit lucky as Jarrett Stoll found himself all alone near the slot with nothing but a fallen defenseman and sprawling Niklas Backstrom to challenge him and he lifted a shot up and over the goal. The Wild had to feel a bit relieved being able to take their one-goal lead into the 3rd.
In the 3rd period, the Kings continued to build momentum off their strong 2nd half of the second as they drew a quick 5-on-3 when Nick Schultz (cross-checking) and Marek Zidlicky (hooking) were tagged with minors giving Los Angeles 2 full minutes with the man advantage. At this point it was all about heart and it was Greg Zanon who would personify effort, struggle and persistence as he blocked 4 shots in painful fashion including one instance where he dropped to block a shot by Jarret Stoll making the block then the puck went back out to Stoll who hammered another and he tried flopping off the ice to try to get a piece of it. Brent Burns also was doing his best to help Niklas Backstrom from being hurt on the back door play and the Wild just willed the puck out of its crease and fittingly at the successful completion of the giant penalty kill Zanon slid towards his goaltender and then laid down on his back in exhaustion and no doubt a little pain as Minnesota kept the game tied. Minnesota would go on the attack after the penalty kill, and there was a noticeable shift in assertiveness as the Wild were really forechecking hard and denying time and space for the Kings. The Wild’s pressure finally yielded another power play and Minnesota looked about as loose as can be as they made quick passes to eventually set up a blast from the point by Martin Havlat that utilized a nice screen by Andrew Brunette to beat Quick to give the State of Hockey a 3-2 lead. The Wild continued to be aggressive down the stretch and nearly were able to add another on a fluke turnover in the defensive zone that left Cal Clutterbuck all alone as he tried to dangle around Quick who made his way across his crease to make a big save. Nick Schultz would end up recieving another weak penalty, but this time the Wild penalty kill was challenging well and the Kings were never really able to get set up in the Minnesota zone. With the Wild not allowing Los Angeles to get anything on the power play they would try one last rally the last minute of the game as they pulled Quick for the extra attacker but Minnesota was again aggressive and not allowing the Kings to get set up. They’re best chance came off a blast from the point by Drew Doughty that was blocked to the corner by the Wild and Minnesota was able to hold onto a 3-2 victory.
Niklas Backstrom was excellent, making 29 saves in the win. His puck control was solid, even with tremendous traffic near his crease most of the game. Defensively the Wild were excellent and very responsible of preventing the Kings key offensive workhorses from having too much freedom. On the penalty kill the Wild played with a sense of urgency and it was good to see the tremendous hustle all around. Minnesota’s forecheck did a fine job of forcing the Kings to burn up valuable seconds down the stretch.
Offensively, credit has to be given to the power play which was 2-for-3 on the evening and it provided a nice variety of chances. Minnesota was consistent in its forecheck, and that also helped create some quality scoring chacnes to keep from playing rope-a-dope against the Kings. It was an impressive effort that almost makes you wonder where that sense of urgency was when the team still had a shot at the playoffs. A win to help spoil the Kings’ season is nice, but its effect is bittersweet considering the Wild have no post-season dreams to look forward to.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Martin Havlat, Antti Miettinen, Owen Nolan, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Derek Boogaard, James Sheppard, Andrew Ebbett, Casey Wellman, Guillaume Latendresse, Nick Schultz, John Scott, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky, Justin Falk and Brent Burns. Anton Khudobin backed up Niklas Backstrom. Nate Prosser was the lone healthy scratch. Josh Harding, Shane Hnidy, Chuck Kobasew and Clayton Stoner were all out with lower body injuries. Pierre-Marc Bouchard still is not skating, as he battles with post-concussion syndrome.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Brent Burns, 2nd Star Greg Zanon, 3rd Star Martin Havlat
~ Why are the Minnesota Wild playing this game an hour later than normal? I am going to take a wild (no pun intended) guess and postulate it has something to do with making this easier for Los Angeles fans to see this game by making it not such an early start. Funny how Minnesota will accomodate Kings fans by starting the game an hour later, but Los Angeles will start their games an extra half hour later for 9:30PM starts. They don’t seem to care if we lose our sleep but (gasp) if the Kings fans have to rush home any sooner that would be a debacle?!?!
NCAA Frozen Four Report:
This weekend wrapped up NCAA regional action, giving us the four teams that will be apart of the Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit on starting on Thursday on ESPN2. There have already been some thrilling games and without question the 3 games remaining will provide plenty of memories.
RIT Tigers (28-11-1) Vs. Wisconsin Badgers (27-10-4)
The Cinderella story of the Frozen Four tournament is without a doubt the story of the RIT Tigers out of the Atlantic Hockey Association. The Tigers surprised just about everyone by winning the East Regional with victories over top seeded Denver and 3rd seeded University of New Hampshire 6-2 in the final. RIT boasts a surprisingly fast team who combine good grit and ability to create offense in transition. Led by sophomore Cameron Burt (16 goals, 47 points) and junior Andrew Favot (13 goals, 45 points) but for the most part you could say the Tigers score by committee and that is what makes them such a tough team to matchup against. Wisconsin, one of the perennial powers in the WCHA has another very solid squad with perhaps the most talented blueline in the nation as they carried the #1 seed in the West regional with victories over Vermont and conference rival St. Cloud State 5-3 in the final. The Badgers boast a physically punishing squad that grind their opponents down with a strong forecheck and good two way play as seniors Michael Davies (19 goals, 51 points) and captain Blake Geoffrion (27 goals, 48 points) make a potent thunder and lightning like combination. While one may argue Denver had a very active blueline, the Tigers will have to contend with a dynamic and potent offensive threat of the Badgers defense led by junior Brendan Smith (15 goals, 47 points). So far, RIT goaltender Jarod DeMichiel (27-9-1 record, 1.98 goals against average, .924% save percentage) has been brilliant and will again need to be if they expect to get a shot in the NCAA championship game. Wisconsin can not simply hope to overrun the Tigers defense, they too will have to have solid goaltending and anything less than stellar play from junior Scott Gudmanson could mean Cinderella will get that chance. Prediction: I think Wisconsin will manage to hold onto a 3-2 victory against a fearless Tigers’ squad which will throw everything they have at the Badgers.
Boston College (27-10-3) Vs. Miami (OH) Redhawks (29-7-7)
Last season, Miami came within seconds of winning a national title only to see it slip away in dramatic fashion as Boston University stormed back from being two goals down to win overtime. Miami is a team on a mission, with some tough off the ice issues for its coach Enrico Blasi or the death of team manager Brendan Burke the Redhawks feel as though they have a lot to prove. The Redhawks advanced thanks to victories over Alabama-Huntsville and a somewhat controversial victory over conference rival Michigan, 3-2. It was somewhat controversial due to an inadvertent whistle in the 3rd period that took away a Wolverines goal, and Miami would eventually tally the game winner in double overtime. No matter what, Miami is a well-rounded team with great team speed from its offensive workhorses Jarod Palmer (Fridley, Minnesota-native, 18 goals, 45 points) and junior Tommy Wingels (17 goals, 42 points) and two strong defenseman in freshman Scott Hartman (from St. Cloud, Minnesota-native) and Will Weber who were excellent in the final. On the other hand Boston College has clearly demonstrated an ability to score goals in bunches after earning victories over Alaska-Fairbanks and Yale where they won in a crazy run and gun 9-7 final. The Eagles have lots of explosive speed from its small wingers like Cam Atkinson (27 goals, 50 points), juniors Brian Gibbons (16 goals, 46 points) and Joe Whitney (16 goals, 39 points) where Boston College can make you pay for the slightest mistake. Boston College defenseman Carl Sneep (Nisswa, Minnesota-native) has really come into his own his senior year and he will have his hands full taking on a strong and fast Miami attack. Boston college will hope John Muse is better than he was against Yale, and for Enrico Blasi he has the wonderful dilemma of having to choose between two outstanding goaltenders in Hobey Baker finalist Cody Reichard or Connor Knapp who was victorious in the regional final. Boston College’s Head Coach Jerry York is as experienced as it gets and no doubt will he have his team focused to play which should make for an outstanding battle. Prediction: I think Boston College’s goaltending will be its achilles heel as Miami prevails 4-2 over the Eagles.