Knowing I wasn’t going to be able to sit down and watch it all did grind on my emotions a bit. As a hockey fan who loves the game at all levels, it really doesn’t get much better than Hockey Day in Minnesota which really celebrates the games from its grassroots to the pros. So to miss this annual celebration that has quickly become a tradition really makes me feel as though I missed out. I did get a few sneak peeks here and there; most notably having the chance to watch the first two periods of the Grand Rapids vs. White Bear Lake game which opened up the day’s festivities as well as the entire Wild vs. Stars game that evening. I of course missed out on the high school thriller between #1 Duluth East and event host #2 Minnetonka as well as the big WCHA clash between Minnesota and Colorado College. After a fun filled day spent with my family (which is why I missed Hockey Day in Minnesota for the most part) I was too tired to stay up and watch the taped delay girls game of Minnetonka vs. Hopkins. No excuses though. I pride myself on providing coverage of all things Minnesota-hockey with an admitted focus on the Wild, but this is a day where I feel honor bound to at least share my thoughts on the hockey action I did witness plus provide a few thoughts on some of the games I didn’t see. Not as much to analyze those games as talk about the greater effects of those outcomes that may put those wins into perspective. So without further adieu, let’s begin.
Grand Rapids 4, White Bear Lake 3
I saw 2/3rds of this game, and I must admit this was the first Minnesota High School game I had seen with the new rules regarding hits from behind as well as boarding. The new rules came into play right away as both clubs were tagged with 5-minute major plus 10-minute game misconducts for hits from behind. The hits were not overly nasty, but the officials did not hesitate to saddle both clubs with some early major penalties; including two majors for kneeing on White Bear Lake. The long power plays certainly opened up the game, but I didn’t feel they detracted from the contest. In my opinion, from a depth and skill perspective, Grand Rapids clearly was the superior team. They had more team speed, better size as well as more skill and I would’ve been shocked if White Bear Lake had managed to win this game. As it was, I thought it was interesting that White Bear Lake bench boss Tim Sager chose to split time between his two goaltenders Anthony Zappa and Jared Schletty. Zappa was playing just fine in my opinion, and while I understand you want to give all of your players that Hockey Day in Minnesota experience, I probably would’ve waited a bit longer before making the switch. Yet more power to him as Schletty and the Bears nearly came back for an upset victory. Junior Thunderhawks defenseman Jake Bischoff was clearly one of the best blueliners in the state combining great skating, good on-ice awareness that really stood out amongst his peers. His speed, and ability to move the puck quickly up the ice made me wonder if he was getting some time at forward but he’s such a great skater he seemed to be everywhere at once. Having the game in-doors and with somewhat spotty crowd did sort of ruin some of the ambiance that one comes to expect from Hockey Day in Minnesota, but is still was an exciting game where I think the Thunderhawks likely felt it got a little too close for comfort. Thunderhawks’ junior forward Cody Mann was very dangerous in just about every shift. His explosive speed put White Bear Lake on their heels on more than a few occasions and his two goals carried Grand Rapids to a victory. While I am sure junior league teams will press hard to convince Mann and Bischoff (who has already committed to play for the Gophers) to make the jump, if Grand Rapids head coach Bruce LaRoque can keep them in the orange and black next year he should have a very dangerous team on his hands.
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How much will Minnetonka’s win shake up the Class 2A standings?
Minnetonka 9, Duluth East 3
I didn’t see any of this game unfortunately, but by the sounds of it the Skippers were as focused as ever. Minnetonka’s Max Coatta banged home 4 goals in the rout of the previously undefeated Duluth East Greyhounds who were sporting their own Hockey Day in Minnesota special gray sweaters with old English-like script on them. During the December 28th match up in the Schwan’s Cup championship, the Skippers lack of discipline really came back to bite them as the Greyhounds counter-attacked effectively to bury Minnetonka 6-2 and they were determined not to let that happen again. This time, the Skippers were not gambling and making risky plays with the puck and they were the team that was pouncing on the mistakes made by Duluth East. Duluth East stud Jake Randolph still had a strong game with 2 goals and an assist in a losing effort. So what does this mean for the Class 2A standings? It certainly means at the very least a flip-flop from #1 and #2. Some other clubs that liked the outcome of this game is #3 Maple Grove and #4 Eagan. #3 Maple Grove beat a very tough and pesky #5 ranked Edina squad that beat the Skippers this last Thursday. If Maple Grove can continue to run the table in the Northwest Suburban Conference it will have a strong case to remain amongst the top 3. Also feeling good are the Eagan Wildcats who survived a bit of a scare of their own on Saturday as they outlasted Justin Kloos and Lakeville South in a 5-4 victory. I would be surprised if we saw either Maple Grove or Eagan leap frog the Greyhounds who up until this point have dominated just about everyone they’ve faced.
Was the Jack Jablonski fund the day’s biggest winner?
It was constant throughout the entire event, that not only was it a hockey showcase of the state’s love of the game, but also it was a sort of a Jack Jablonski-telethon as they tried to raise money for Jack’s medical costs. Viewers could not only call in and donate directly, but the Minnesota Wild also ran an auction to raise additional money from items donated by players which varied from game-worn jerseys to an ultimate fan party hosted in a Wild suite donated by Dany Heatley. In all the effort raised over $134,000! Not too shabby, and I have no doubt more will be raised as Jablonski’s story has transcended the sport. Perhaps the way the hockey community continues to come together around Jack Jablonski’s story is what makes it perhaps the biggest winner of Hockey Day in Minnesota.
Minnesota 2, Colorado College 1
Even though the Golden Gophers probably do not want to admit it, but they’re feeling the pressure. After a torrid start to the 2011-12 season, the Gophers have struggled since Thanksgiving to sweep its opponents. Minnesota have slipped to #13 in the Pairwise rankings after being #1 earlier in the season. On Friday night, Minnesota peppered Josh Thorimbert with all kinds of chances but he stonewalled the Golden Gophers until the final two minutes of the game when Nick Bjugstad was finally able to bury a shot by him. The Tigers would score just 42 seconds later to take a 2-1 victory. Being unable to finish has been a trait of more recent Golden Gophers teams, so I am sure on Hockey Day in Minnesota they were ‘feelin’ it’. In a game eerily similar, the Gophers again peppered Thorimbert with shots but the scrappy Colorado College goaltender continued to frustrate Minnesota’s shooters. As St. Louis Blues prospect Jaden Schwartz struck first I am sure the feeling of deja vu only increased. This time it would be different as Wausau, Wisconsin’s Nate Condon buried a shorthanded goal late in the 1st to tie the game. Then enter a redemption story of sorts as Nico Sacchetti scored his 1st of the season on what has been a frustrating senior year, but it would prove to be the game winner. The win kept the Golden Gophers atop the WCHA standings. Minnesota simplified their game and in my opinion they were deserving of a series sweep. At least for now, the Gophers will stay ahead of the surging University of Minnesota-Duluth squad who just finished a surprisingly hard fought sweep of lowly Alabama-Huntsville. The Golden Gophers have another tough series as they have a home-at-home against in-state rival St. Cloud State.
What can we learn from the Wild’s 5-2 victory?
Wild 5, Stars 2
As I watched this game, I started to feel as if I was watching many of the previous games from the week where the Wild had a decent 1st period of play. The team hustled well enough, taking their opportunities to direct shots on Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen but few were of high quality. The same deja vu feeling the Minnesota Gophers had against Colorado College also had to be felt through the sellout crowd at the Xcel Energy Center as a point shot by Stephane Robidas was redirected by Eric Nystrom by Josh Harding to put the Stars up 1-0. I am sure there was a little sarcasm directed at the former Wild winger as they thought, “where in the heck was that (goal scoring) last year?” Minnesota had been carrying much of the play throughout the period but you wondered if they were going to again be a victim of having no offense to speak of. The Wild would battle well in the 2nd period, using hustle and their speed to win races to the loose pucks and this would draw their first power play of the game as Radek Dvorak earned a hooking call. On the man advantage the Wild moved the puck well from the point to down low where Dany Heatley set up Devin Setoguchi for a quick shot that he snapped off that Lehtonen just got a piece of but not enough as it trickled in to tie the game at 1-1. A strange blood feud would erupt between the normally calm Darroll Powe and Dallas’ chief agitator Steve Ott. Ott was in fine form, challenging just about every Wild player he could find. On the ensuing faceoff after Setoguchi’s goal, Ott would jump Powe in a one-sided affair where the Wild winger couldn’t manage to do much beyond avoiding being tagged by a few big haymakers by Ott. It was over so quickly, both combatants were just given matching roughing minors. The good feelings from Setoguchi’s goal would evaporate quickly as a point shot by Philip Larsen beat Harding cleanly as he had a lot of traffic near his crease. After Larsen’s goal, Darroll Powe decided to give Ott a rematch and they’d square off almost at center ice. Powe was again over matched by Ott, but his willingness to scrap and stand up for himself after what happened earlier earned him some kudos from his teammates. Minnesota would bring back the good feelings as Matt Cullen threaded a cross-ice pass to Cal Clutterbuck who fought off a defender and just managed to control the puck enough to tap a shot by a sprawling Lehtonen to tie the game at 2-2 just two minutes after Larsen’s goal. With the crowd still cheering from Clutterbuck’s goal, the Wild struck again as its ‘Houston line’ of Chad Rau, Jed Ortmeyer and Carson McMillan worked hard down low with the puck before Rau managed to wrap a shot around Lehtonen to give Minnesota the go-head goal. The goal really had the crowd roaring, but Minnesota wasn’t done yet. The modified top line moved in for the kill and in perhaps the prettiest passing play the Wild have had all season, a very patient Dany Heatley called for a pass from Jared Spurgeon before threading a pretty cross-ice pass of his own to Kyle Brodziak for an easy back door goal that Lehtonen had no chance on to give Minnesota a 4-2 lead. Minnesota would strike early in the 3rd as a turnover in the neutral zone turned into a 2-on-1 between Warren Peters and Dany Heatley who was just able to direct a shot on goal that former Colorado College star Richard Bachman had no chance on to give the Wild a 5-2 lead. The Wild would salt away the rest of the game with more hustle and hard work that never really allowed the Stars to get enough momentum to tie the game. Harding would have 23 saves in the victory.
It was a great win for the Wild which had exercised some demons after a disastrous road trip which saw Minnesota fall out of the Western Conference playoff picture. The Wild got 3 points from Heatley who is on pace for perhaps his worst statistical season of his career, as well as goals from other key secondary contributors in Clutterbuck and Brodziak who also have been pretty quiet. The goal from Rau was also something that had been missing over this miserable stretch of their last 12 games; a player who finished in the blue paint. It was the close-range goal that had until then had gone into complete hibernation since mid-December.
Defensively, in my opinion it was all about who was out of the lineup. That being defensive disasters Mike Lundin and Marek Zidlicky. The Wild’s defense seemed more calm and stable which had been missing as the gaffe prone aforementioned blueliners were absent. Zidlicky is the Wild’s most expensive defenseman, making $4 million per season but what has he done to earn his pay this year? 0 goals, just 11 assists in 34 games as a -6 which is 3rd worst on the team. When the Wild were winning games they were not getting a lot of offensive production from its blueline; but even as injuries piled up where they looked more like the defense of the Houston Aeros rather than an NHL team it was their ability to not make mistakes that at the very least made them serviceable. Since Mike Lundin returned from a shoulder injury and Zidlicky’s return the performance of the defense has been inconsistent. Lundin was subject to being a frequent scratch but Zidlicky seemed to be immune to such treatment until last night. And the team wins, coincidence? I doubt it. If the team can trade him for just about anything I’d recommend they do it. Sure his pricetag doesn’t help make him an easy move, but there are clubs out there with lots of cap space who may hope they can re-invigorate his offensive ability. To lose Zidlicky would be a case of addition by subtraction. C’mon Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher, make the deal.
~ The Wild roster was as follows: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Warren Peters, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson, Darroll Powe, Matt Kassian, Chad Rau, Jed Ortmeyer, Carson McMillan, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Brad Staubitz, Mike Lundin and Marek Zidlicky were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Chad Rau, 2nd Star Dany Heatley, 3rd Star Matt Cullen
~ Attendance was 19,213 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ Chad Rau wore #36 for the Wild.