The Wild wrap up their last two games of this 4-game road trip with a few games in Florida against two teams who appear to be on markedly different trajectories. Tonight's opponent is against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who seem to have found their club's answer to its goaltending problem with 6'6" giant Ben Bishop. But for Lightning fans they've heard this story before when they acquired Mike Smith, Dan Ellis, Anders Lindback who were all goaltenders who were going to help lead Tampa Bay out of mediocrity. Other than a brief amount of recent success with former Wild goaltender Dwayne Roloson the Lightning have made their best with a porous defense and questionable play between the pipes. Even for Roloson, after his one remarkable season his next was the worst of his career and killed the Lightning's post-season hopes in a hurry. The Wild understand how important the performance is of their netminder as they learned in painful fashion on Tuesday night when youngster Darcy Kuemper gave up a few soft goals that put the Wild in a hole it never recovered from against Toronto despite outshooting the Maple Leafs 38 to 14.
With Niklas Backstrom still recovering from a knee injury he sustained on October 8th, the Wild are most likely going to keep leaning on Josh Harding to carry the mail in his absence. Afterall, Kuemper's shaky performance proves he might not be ready yet and while that could just be an abberation every point in the standings is precious and the Wild simply cannot afford to give away. Can the Wild shut down the Lightning's dynamic attack or will they feel a little thunderstruck when its all said and done?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota did not seem to have as much jump in its skates as they did in Toronto. The Wild still were able to attack the Lightning with some good forechecking pressure. Ben Bishop was strong between the pipes and Minnesota seemed to have to settle for shots taken from longer range as they tried to adjust to the height and reach of Tampa Bay's blueliners. Tampa Bay was not able to find a lot of time and space as Minnesota backchecked aggressively, getting sticks into shooting and passing lanes. Despite Minnesota's solid defensive play, they were still about 50-50 in terms of winning the races to the loose puck. I thought the Wild's top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Nino Niederreiter were the Wild's best line and certainly the one line that was able to sustain a little offensive zone time. Minnesota would get a little lucky as a long range shot by Victor Hedman was knocked down by Josh Harding and as Valterri Filppula pounced the official blew his whistle thinking the puck was underneath Harding when it was not. The Lightning would earn the first power play of the game as Jason Pominville got the blade of his stick underneath the skate of Radko Gudas and the former Everett Silvertips defenseman fell to the ice. This put the Wild on its penalty kill, which has been weak to put it kindly. The Lightning, and its 6th ranked power play moved the puck very well and got Minnesota's power play chasing around their own end. Minnesota was doing all it could to deny Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos with a lot of space on the ice, but it wouldn't matter as the Lightning would strike with their 2nd PP unit. A failed clearing attempt by Mikko Koivu would haunt Minnesota as former Detroit Red Wing Filppula saucered a cross-ice pass to Tyler Johnson who wasted no time ripping a shot by Josh Harding. 1-0 Lightning. The Spokane, Washington-native was a former tryout player at the Wild's prospect camp for two years and a player who I had lobbied for the team to sign as an undrafted free agent because he was a player who had great finishing ability. Minnesota would try to answer back, but at times was victimized by its own want to set up the perfect shot. Radko Gudas would send Kyle Brodziak head over heels on a nice hip check, but Marco Scandella felt compelled to answer back and he gave the agitating defenseman a shove and earning an interference call in the process. With the Wild's vulnerable penalty kill unit on the ice the Wild just hoped to get out of the period trailing just by one. Luckily for them the Wild was able to collapse down and keep the puck out of its net to only trail 1-0 going into the 1st intermission. I thought it was an ok period, but the 11-10 shot totals in favor of Minnesota was decieving as most of the Wild's shots came from the perimeter and the Wild had maybe 1-2 quality shots on goal.
2nd Period Thoughts: The Wild had to kill off the remainder of the Lightning power play, and they did a good job of moving their feet closing down the open spaces where Tampa Bay was trying to set up. Minnesota would then take another foolish penalty as Jared Spurgeon cross checked former Belleville Bull Richard Panik into the boards for an easy call. Minnesota's penalty kill again stepped up and made some big plays but Josh Harding shut the door with some fine saves and the Wild escaped another potential disaster. The Wild would try to go back on the attack and Radko Gudas, who seemed to be a lightning rod (no pun intended) for attention would cross check Jason Pominville in the back the same way Jared Spurgeon but to no call which drew the ire of head coach Mike Yeo. Minnesota's line of Koivu, Pominville and Parise kept working hard and the line generated some quality chances from in close but Bishop was up to the task and their pressure finally yielded a Lightning penalty as Brett Connelly high sticked Parise. On the power play the Wild again poured it on, skating with a sense of urgency and they created a plethora of quality scoring chances because of it. Marco Scandella, Mikael Granlund Heatley and Pominville would be stopped on a flurry of close in chances as it looked as though the Wild were going to bury the equalizer. Minnesota kept pressing but their aggressiveness almost backfired as Mathew Dumba would struggle with a Ryan Suter pass that was tapped away from him by Alex Killorn and the former Harvard star raced down the ice in a 2-on-0 with Filppula and Killorn dished it over to for what looked like as sure goal but Filppula was stonewalled by a great save by Harding. Huge save. Minnesota was really carrying the play now but still had nothing to show for it. We finally saw the dominating puck possession game that had served them so well and as the Wild would attempt to simplify its game as they were directing every puck they could on goal as Bishop was giving up a lot of rebounds. Mikael Granlund was really flying all over the ice and I felt bad that he and Pominville was having to work so far while their collective linemate Heatley just lacked the wheels to help track the puck down when they needed him to. Minnesota was outshooting Tampa Bay 24-17 at this point.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild would try to press in the 3rd period but Tampa Bay used its superior team speed to neutralize those attempts to mount an effective rush. Minnnesota fund itself without time and space on the ice and that meant opportunities to shoot the puck were fleeting at best. At a time when the Wild needed to be peppering Bishop with shots on goal the Wild just managed 2 shots on goal. Oddly enough the Wild would score midway thru the period on a great defensive play by Ryan Suter to disrupt the pass where Koivu pushed the puck up the ice as Suter raced down the ice on a breakaway. Radko Gudas would track him down to prevent Suter from getting off a shot but the puck would be gathered up by Nino Niedereitter who swung a pass to Koivu who got off a quick shot that found the twine to tie the game at 1-1. A whole new game right? Not really as penalties again became a problem, this time a somewhat careless play by Matt Cooke resulted in a 4-minute power play for the Lightning as he gashed Ryan Malone near the eyebrow. The Wild's penalty kill was very good initially, clearing the zone and challenging the Tampa Bay power play. Zach Parise would help negate the power play somewhat as he was tripped up by Alex Killorn. However with the ice a bit more open 4-on-4 the Lightning used its speed to its fullest advantage as Matt Carle's pass off the boards connected with a flying Steven Stamkos who blew past Ryan Suter who was caught flatfooted and he raced in all alone where he roofed a forehand shot by Harding and with just over 5 minutes left the Wild were now trailing 2-1. The Wild would kill off the remainder of Cooke's penalty but Minnesota just couldn't seem to get free of the Lightning to create a scoring chance to try to tie the game. Sami Salo would clear the puck and score an empty net goal to seal the deal. As the final horn went off, there was a little chippiness as Zenon Konopka took issue with a shot by 6'8" defenseman Ondrej Sustr that nearly hit him as the horn sounded. A small get together at center ice took place but nothing really happened that will lead to suspensions or any other additional league discipline.
Josh Harding certainly can't be blamed for tonight's loss, making 27 saves. In fact, he did just about all that he could to keep the Wild in the game. He had some huge saves; which included a point blank range robbery of Ryan Malone and the insane theft of Valterri Filppula on a 2-on-0. Defensively the Wild were a little more careless with the puck and I thought Marco Scandella and Mathew Dumba struggled a bit. Ryan Suter got caught on Stamkos' goal but beyond that he had a good game. Jared Spurgeon played surprisingly physical.
Offensively the Wild were pretty anemic for most of the game other than a 5-minute span in the 2nd period where the Wild really poured it on. Beyond that the Wild were settling for shots from long range that were easily dismissed by Bishop. I thought Mikael Granlund looked good and his improved speed is more apparent each game but like a few other forwards that are not on the top line they need to start burying the puck. The Wild desperately need some secondary scoring. Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley and Mikael Granlund and Kyle Brodziak are all guys that need to find a way to light the lamp once every 5 games or so to ease the burden on the top line to win games.
Penalties didn't help either as the Wild's porous penalty kill continues to hurt a team that struggles to score enough as it is. Minnesota must solve these issues soon or they could find themselves in a hole that they cannot climb out of. The Wild may have the best remedy for their problems as they play the woeful Florida Panthers on Sunday. Yet as good as the Wild's odds appear, games like this also often result in a terrible let down and then you end up even more frustrated than you were after a game like tonight.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Dany Heatley, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell, Stephane Veilleux, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, Clayton Stoner and Marco Scandella. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Mike Rupp (knee) and Charlie Coyle (knee) were out of the lineup with injuries while Nate Prosser was the lone healthy scratch.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Ben Bishop, 2nd Star Steven Stamkos, 3rd Star Josh Harding
~ Attendance was 16,454 at St. Pete Times' Forum.
Wild Prospect Report:
G – Alexandre Belanger (Rouyn-Noranda, QMJHL) – The Wild's young goaltender prospect had 30 saves in Rouyn-Noranda's 7-4 win over Cape Breton. Belanger's goals against average usually looks not all that impressive as he has a 4.18GAA through 7 games but he usually gives the Huskies a chance to win each night.