Spring break, a time for many people to relax or go on a vacation to be away from the last vestiges of winter if you live in the Upper Midwest like I do. It used to seem so fun back when I was in college, more or less free time to go do as you wish as you try to re-energize before the final push of the Spring semester of final exams and projects. More often than not the good times were so good that they left you wishing you had another week to recover. Once you get older though, Spring Break doesn’t seem nearly as fun as it simply is an opportunity to sleep in and be lazy. For many, they’re probably saying “What Spring Break?!?!” For myself, Spring Break means the start of tennis practice. With most of my team attending a band trip, it means putting 3 players through their paces in what better resembles private lessons than a team practice. I wonder if the Wild are looking for a break, or a break from practices? Their coach Todd Richards certainly seems to be looking forward to the break giving the team a day off after getting beaten 8-1 by Montreal just a week and a half ago. Although after the extended post-game rant after another embarrassing one-sided home defeat at the hands of the Blues on Saturday may make both coaches and players wish they were someplace away from the arena. Yet its not all about guys wanting to leave; this time of year it can be about the team adding players.
Last year it was push to try to woo California-born phenom Casey Wellman to come to the Wild after being a stud at the University of Massachusetts. Minnesota was determined to win that race for Wellman’s services, as General Manager Chuck Fletcher met with the youngster to convince him of the great opportunities that would be involved in playing for the Wild. This year is no different as he voyages back to Massachusetts in an attempt to try to convince coveted skilled Merrimack sophomore forward Stephane DaCosta. The native of Paris, France is one of the top scorers in Hockey East with 14 goals, 45 points and 42 penalty minutes in 33 games. Not a big player at just 5’10”, 185lbs, DaCosta has great speed and excellent hands and is not afraid to handle the puck in high traffic areas. No doubt Fletcher will attempt to promote the Wild as an ideal opportunity since there are so few young skilled forwards in the team’s prospect system. Having seen DaCosta play in the NCAA regional against Notre Dame, he’s certainly a dangerous player who reminds me a lot of Andy McDonald who was another undrafted college player of similar stature and adding more skill is never a bad thing. Meanwhile the Wild have another game to play against St. Louis who has rebuilt itself rather well via the draft and why it won’t mean the playoffs this season they look like they have lots of good young talent in their system. So will the Wild give DaCosta a victory to consider or will they lose their 9th straight?
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1st Period Thoughts: I did not like the start to this period, I thought the Wild looked slow and uninterested. They just looked like they were gliding around their zone without a care in the world. Minnesota would get a lucky spark early in the game as Eric Nystrom raced into the zone and he flung a wrister that surprised Jaroslav Halak and beat him cleanly to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. It was a yogurt soft goal, one that Halak most certainly would want back. The goal gave Minnesota a bit more jump in its skates and they followed up Nystrom’s goal with a nice shift from its top line of Andrew Brunette, Mikko Koivu, and Antti Miettinen where they worked the puck down low that kept St. Louis bottled up in its own zone. Apart from Minnesota’s fast start, the other main story of the period were bad penalties. A lazy tripping call on Mikko Koivu put Minnesota a man down, and Minnesota’s penalty kill was remarkably relaxed. Relaxed is too kind of a word, I’d say lazy is more appropriate and John Madden would help make it a 2-man advantage for the Blues as he tripped up Patrik Berglund. With St. Louis having a 5-on-3 power play, actually simplified the penalty kill for Minnesota who sat back in a tight triangle and the Blues didn’t quite know what to do. They attempted a few quick bang-bang plays that failed to click and Minnesota got the big penalty kill. The most dangerous chance came off a rush where Jose Theodore attempted to play a puck near his crease and it glanced off a stick and nearly caromed back into his goal before he reached back to make the stop with his paddle. With the penalty killed off, you’d swear Mikko Koivu forgot he was just in the box because he promptly took a hooking penalty. Koivu’s lack of discipline would prove to be costly as Patrik Berglund moved the puck down low and fed nice little backhand pass to Chris Stewart who fired it by Theodore to tie the game at 1-1. Minnesota would get a power play of its own and they had a great chance in the first 30 seconds where Koivu worked a tic-tac-toe play to Miettinen who had to settle the puck and pass it to Brunette who had a chance on the doorstep that was stonewalled by Halak. If Koivu’s first pass wasn’t to Miettinen’s skates and it was simply a one-timed feed I really believe Brunette would’ve scored. The rest of the power play was marred by more poor passing that squandered the last 1 minute and 20 seconds of the man advantage. A few minutes later there would be some rough stuff as Mikko Koivu was ran by Berglund, and Brent Burns answered back by taking a run at Nikita Nikitin. Chris Stewart did not like Burns’ hit and he moved into confront the Wild defenseman and the two would exchange a few facewashes as well as some profanity and both would be given matching roughing penalties. With the ice a bit more wide open, the Wild looked poised to make something happen but poor passing often thwarted their attempts; a weak pass by Martin Havlat in the offensive zone was particularly egregious. The Wild can feel good about being tied but they really had some chances to be leading. We’ll see if their missed chances come back to haunt them.
2nd Period Thoughts: It was a whole lot of ugly in the 2nd period. The bad passing that plagued the second half of the 1st period got even worse in the 2nd as both teams struggled to pass the puck as the puck bounced around the ice. It was kind of hard to watch actually as both teams mucked up the play in the neutral zone as they waited for the other to make a mistake. Both clubs were being physical and finishing their checks. Minnesota had an early power play due to a tripping call on Adam Cracknell. It was a great opportunity but again it would be foiled by poor passing. Marek Zidlicky and Matt Cullen had some lazy passes near the blueline that nearly turned into disaster and it was another power play with little to no pressure on Jaroslav Halak. For the next 12 minutes of the period, it was mostly ineffective rushes foiled in the neutral zone and the game lacked flow. The doldrums was finally interrupted by a bone crunching hit by Brad Staubitz on Alex Pietrangelo, which earned him a charging penalty. Minnesota’s penalty killers challenged the Blues’ puck carriers well and the Wild got a huge kill. The Blues were also finishing their checks as well as David Backes rubbed Clayton Stoner out pretty well along the boards. Cal Clutterbuck tried to get things going with a few hits of his own although he’d get bounced pretty good on his attempts by the solid frame of Roman Polak. The period looked destined to end without incident until the last 4 minutes where both clubs did everything they could to try to give the lead to their opponent. It started with a horrible turnover by Andy McDonald to Mikko Koivu who intercepted it in the slot where he threaded a pass to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who fired a shot on goal that was stopped by Halak. Minnesota then started to turn the puck over as Brent Burns made a foolish pass that was intercepted by Vladimir Sobotka and he stepped into a slapper that caromed rather slightly off the skate of Burns and then tipped partially by Backes and through the pads of Theodore only to have the puck hit the left post and then sit in the crease before it was swept to the corner by Nick Schultz. Theodore thought he had been scored on and more or less stopped and as the Blues got the puck back they flung another shot on goal that skittered through the crease before the Wild goaltender was ready and luckily it just harmlessly made its way about 2 feet in front of the goal. It was a crazy end to the 2nd and the Wild should feel lucky to still be tied, very sloppy hockey reminiscent of a pre-season game.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period started out rather miserably as the Blues took the lead just 1:19 in as Chris Stewart made a power move around Greg Zanon before flinging a backhander on goal that made its way through the pads of Theodore to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead. At this point I thought the Wild were toast, and the sad thing is the Blues were giving Minnesota lessons to learn from. Halak had not been too solid in this game but for whatever reason the Wild were not pulling the trigger when the opportunities presented themselves. Minnesota would answer back a few minutes later on a nice individual play by Pierre-Marc Bouchard who looked a lot like shades of Jim Dowd as he circled around the Blues’ zone where he pulled the trigger on a wrister that beat a partially screened Halak to tie the game at two apiece. The goal sparked Minnesota a bit and they started to skate a little harder and you could sense a level of frustration for the Blues who seemed to be coasting a bit this evening. Cal Clutterbuck really started to get fired up after watching a few of his teammates get lit up by David Backes and he started to really crash and bang along the wall as he sent Ian Cole onto his back with a big hit and then followed it up with a solid check on Pietrangelo. The Wild are starting to press the attack late as they could sense an opportunity to end their losing streak and the pressure drew a penalty as Matt D’Agostini cleared a puck into the crowd for a delay of game penalty in the last minute of regulation. At this point I felt the Wild were far too relaxed and nonchalant with the puck on the power play as they very calmly skated up the ice and didn’t even attempt a shot until the final 5 seconds of the period. Its unforgivable to waste nearly a power play time like that, especially when you have an 8-game losing streak going for you.
Overtime thoughts: Minnesota was only marginally more assertive with the minute-long 4-on-3 in overtime. The Wild would get a little more help as Bouchard was tripped up by Sobotka giving Minnesota a rare 5-on-3 overtime power play for about 12 seconds. The Wild would move the puck around the points but no one wanted to shoot it; even as the power play became a 5-on-4 no one seemed to really wish to pull the trigger. Halak was able to make the stops look easy as he had little in the way of traffic near his crease except a roving Andrew Brunette. The Wild would come up empty on the long power play and both teams seemed content to play for a shootout.
Shootout Thoughts: In the shootout, the Blues elected to have the Wild shoot first. Minnesota’s first shooter was Pierre-Marc Bouchard and he raced up the ice with lots of speed and he ripped a wrister 5-hole on Halak to give the Wild a 1-0 shootout lead. St. Louis’ first shooter was Chris Stewart, who would move in a lazy zig zag where he attempted to beat Theodore with a wrister which was directed aside by his leg pads. Minnesota’s next triggerman was Mikko Koivu, and the Wild captain moved up the ice with speed where he looked like he was going to go forehand to backhand but instead of making the deke as Halak expected he instead fired a forehand right by him to put the State of Hockey up 2-0. St. Louis now needed a goal from Andy McDonald to stay alive and he’d move very slowly up the middle of the ice but his wrist shot would slide through 5-hole to keep the Blues in it, 2-1. Minnesota’s 3rd shooter was Antti Miettinen and the Finn would move right up the middle where he made a quick little deke before attempting to lift a backhand over Halak who got a piece of it to keep it out allowing the Blues a chance to tie it up. The Blues 3rd shooter was Matt D’Agostini, and he skated in rather slowly where he fired a wrist shot that was directed wide by Theodore to give the Wild a 3-2 shootout victory.
Jose Theodore was rather solid, making 27 saves in the victory. For a guy who starts once in a great while was very sharp, seeing the puck well and anticipating puck movement very well. Defensively the Wild did a decent job of supporting their goaltender, sweeping away rebounds and loose pucks near the crease. The defenseman did a nice job of weathering the aggressive Blues’ forecheck, and moving the puck quickly.
Offensively the Wild may have ended the night almost tied in shots, but they victimized themselves at being a little too picky in taking their chances to shoot the puck. Halak was a goaltender who did not have his best night and I think if the team took its opportunities to shoot the puck with greater frequency it may not have had to have won the game in a shootout.
It was good to end the losing streak but it was by far a great game by the Wild. In fact, both teams will not be too happy when they look at the film of this game. Sloppy passes, some ugly penalties but losing streaks have to end at some point and if it ends this way I guess we can live with that.
~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Brad Staubitz, Casey Wellman, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Greg Zanon, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz and Brent Burns. Niklas Backstrom backed up Jose Theodore. Chuck Kobasew, Cam Barker, Marco Scandella and Guillaume Latendresse were the ‘healthy’ scratches. Josh Harding (knee) and James Sheppard (knee) are on injured reserve.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Mikko Koivu, 2nd Star Chris Stewart, 3rd Star Pierre-Marc Bouchard
~ Attendance tonight was 19,150 at Scottrade Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
LW – Colton Gillies ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 61GP 11G 15A = 26pts 75 PIM’s +2
The Wild may start to be seeing a functional NHL’er emerge with the development of Colton Gillies. Providing a lot of points certainly will not be in the cards for the lanky 6’4″ winger, but consistency from shift to shift has shown some noticeable improvements this season. A gifted skater, Gillies is using his size and speed to punish the opposition on the forecheck. While he may not seem to have the upside initially projected when the team selected him 16th Overall in 2007, he seems to be very close to being the fast forechecking force that should fit well in the up-tempo system the organization has pledged to deliver to the fans. At this point, its about getting a serviceable player rather than hoping he’ll develop into something he’s not.
D – Justin Falk ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 53GP 3G 11A = 14pts 41 PIM’s +15
Justin Falk surprised many at the start the of the season by making the team out of training camp. After a strong start, his game would fall apart about 15 games into it and he was sent back to Houston. If he was unhappy about being sent down, you can’t tell by the way he’s performed. Falk has been rock solid in a pairing with Nate Prosser. The 6’5″ blueliner from Snowflake, Manitoba combines a big body with great mobility and who has developed into a stable stay-at-home defender. He has steadily learned to be a little meaner with his big frame, but his solid positioning makes him tough for opposing forwards to work around. His +15 is a testament to his responsible play, as he leads the team in this category.
NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament Preview:
Michigan Wolverines (28-10-4) vs. North Dakota Fighting Sioux (32-8-3) ~ The first match up pits two of the most fabled college hockey programs in the NCAA. The Michigan Wolverines may be wondering if they’ve joined the WCHA after earning a controversial overtime victory over Nebraska-Omaha and then another one-goal victory over Colorado College in the regional final only to now play WCHA champion North Dakota. Red Berenson‘s squad is led by shifty senior forwards Carl Hagelin (New York Rangers prospect) and Louie Caporusso (Ottawa Senators prospect). Freshman blueliner Jon Merrill (New Jersey Devils prospect) has played like a seasoned veteran and is the Wolverines’ best defender. Michigan is a solid team, but they do not possess nearly the same amount of firepower as their opponent. North Dakota rolled through their regional, crushing RPI 6-0, and then brushing aside Denver in the final. The Fighting Sioux are led by senior scoring sensation Matt Frattin (Toronto Maple Leafs prospect) who leads the nation with 36 goals and power forward Brad Malone (Colorado Avalanche prospect) who has been a force in the post-season. North Dakota also has a host of blueliners led by Plymouth, Minnesota-native Ben Blood that love to be physical which just adds more misery after facing an already rough and tumble team. Between the pipes, the Wolverines will lean on Shawn Hunwick who is the brother of Colorado’s Matt Hunwick and the Fighting Sioux will turn to Aaron Dell who has been fantastic. Both goaltenders will be tested a lot in this game. OUR PICK: I think North Dakota’s physicality, speed and scoring will simply overwhelm the Wolverines and it won’t hurt they wil have a huge contingent of fans at the Xcel Energy Center to make it feel like a home game at ‘the Ralph.’
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25-13-5) vs. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (24-10-6) ~ This could be a very interesting game as neither team has a lot of post-season experience. For Notre Dame, inexperience is certainly a factor when you consider the fact they have 8 freshman in their lineup. Yet that inexperience did not matter in their overtime victory over Merrimack and one-goal victory over New Hampshire. The Fighting Irish are led by a pair of freshman in the small and elusive T.J. Tynan and Edina, Minnesota power forward Anders Lee (New York Islanders prospect) who is the team’s top sniper with 24 goals. Secondary scoring trails off considerably behind Lee and Tynan, and senior forwards Ryan Guentzel and Calle Ridderwall are some of the few veterans on the team. Defensively the Irish blueline led by sophomore Sam Calabrese will be tasked with shutting down the Bulldogs high powered attack. The Bulldogs have plenty of firepower balanced throughout their lineup led by Mike Connolly with 27 goals, shifty Wild prospect camp tryout Justin Fontaine and Duluth, Minnesota-born set up man Jack Connolly. As formidable as the forwards are, the Bulldogs have one of the best young defenseman in the nation in freshman phenom Justin Faulk who has mobility and a lethal shot that can give opposing goaltenders nightmares. Between the pipes Notre Dame will be placing responsibility on Mike Johnson who was really tested in the two regional games, and the Bulldogs will go to its main man Kenny Reiter who was very solid in regional action against Union and Yale respectively. OUR PICK: I think Jeff Jackson‘s defensive style will keep the game close, but I think the Bulldogs’ superior offensive balance will be the x-factor that will make for an all-WCHA NCAA Championship game. A large UMD-friendly crowd will not hurt either.