Minnesota Wild’s radio host and Wild.com message board hero Kevin Falness said it best after last night’s 5-0 throttling at the hands of the Nashville Predators describing the game as a “3-hour root canal.” Hard to argue with that, it was painful to watch an apathetic Wild squad go through the motions as Nashville clearly wanted it more than Minnesota did. As a fan and a coach the effort was as disgusting as it was unforgiveable. With the standings so tight the Wild needed to earn every point possible if it was to have even a glimmer of a chance and instead of battling hard and coming up short the team simply rolled over onto its back and fell asleep. The Wild put up a pittence of shots on goal, just 17 of them and even Wild Head Coach Todd Richards stated that only a few Wild players really brought any effort at all last night. In Richards’ words “we had a few guys going and when these games mean so much it wasn’t what I expected.” Well Todd, it sure as heck wasn’t what we (as fans) were expecting either. Why does it keep happening then? Have some players just given up; and are looking forward to their summer off? Either way, those are some uncomfortable questions that I doubt Richards or any of his assistant coaches or the team’s upper management wishes to answer. It is always an anxious and disconcerting to know that part of your team has perhaps decided to call it a season already.
The loss also gave the St. Louis Blues to leapfrog the Wild in the standings and here is the present playoff picture in the Western Conference. Sorry if its getting repetitive but it certainly is relevant.
7. Nashville Predators – 85pts
8. Detroit Red Wings – 80pts
9. Calgary Flames – 79pts
10. St. Louis Blues -75pts
11. Minnesota Wild – 74pts
12. Dallas Stars – 73pts
13. Anaheim Ducks – 72pts
The Wild trail the 8th place Red Wings by just 6 points but it seems about as large as the Grand Canyon right now. The Wild are now facing a bitter Columbus Blue Jackets squad that feels as though it let its fanbase down by failing to qualify for the post-season after their first, albeit short trip after being swept by division rival Detroit in 4 games. Columbus has always played with a bit more vitriol against the Wild at home as their franchise is always inevitably compared to one another since they both entered the league in 2000. Blue Jackets Head Coach Claude Noel once had Todd Richards as his assistant (with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL) and Richards’ himself gives Noel much of the credit for the coach who he is today. Without question Richards will want his team to perform well against his former mentor in a game that is crucially important to the Wild. Will it be a case of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Noel) defeating Darth Vader (Richards) or will the sly mentor out duel his former apprentice?
The well rested Blue Jackets had some great jump to start the 1st period as they were moving well, but perhaps they were a bit too excited as Marc Methot was tagged with an early elbowing penalty to put the Wild on the power play. Minnesota would move the puck well on the power play, carrying the puck a bit more than just the half wall back to “D” passes you normally see from the Wild and they set up a few quick shots from long range that Mathieu Garon had little trouble stopping. The Wild’s best chance came on some nice passing by Martin Havlat to set up Antti Miettinen who pulled the trigger from the point that was snared by the glove of Garon. Shortly after the failed Wild power play, Chuck Kobasew would be trip up Antoine Vermette giving the Blue Jackets a power play. Columbus’ puck movement was excellent but the Wild were dropping to block shots and they were showing a far greater sense of urgency than they did last night in Nashville. The Blue Jackets’ best chance was a point-blank range chance from the top of the crease by R.J. Umberger but Harding was able to stonewall him twice before covering it up for a whistle. The Wild managed to earn the big kill, but Columbus was still attacking and Jakub Voracek found some room and he’d wind up and uncork a slapper that was gloved by Harding who was seeing the puck well early on. A terrible turnover near the Wild blueline turned into a 3-on-2 that culminated in a quick shot by Kristian Huselius that was just steered wide by Harding. Columbus was working the forecheck well but Minnesota was making good quick passes in its own zone and would go on the counter attack as Mikko Koivu dangled his way into the Blue Jackets zone before finding Wild newcomer Casey Wellman for a quick snap shot taken from the left circle that he lifted just high over the goal. Moments later a long outlet pass found Antti Miettinen behind the defense and he’d rip a shot that missed just wide and he’d swoop around pick off a fanned Columbus pass and hammer another shot on goal that was stopped by Garon who gave up another big rebound and Mikko Koivu pounced and blasted a shot by the Blue Jackets goaltender to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. Minnesota continued to apply pressure as James Sheppard showed some good initiative as he stepped around the Blue Jackets’ defense and he let loose with a backhand that missed just wide. Marek Zidlicky would attempt a ill-advised cross ice pass through his zone that had no zip on it that was easily intercepted by Kristian Huselius who stepped into a shot that was blocked. The Wild would try to add to its lead as the 2nd line would set up Guillaume Latendresse all alone in the slot and he rifled a snap shot that was stopped by Garon and on the tail end of the play he would end up getting bumped by Martin Havlat who ended up earning a goaltender interference penalty. Columbus would struggle to get set up in the Wild zone as they were challenging well in addition to collapsing quickly near the crease to help their goaltender. Just as the Columbus power play expired, Rick Nash unloaded a slapper from the point that was blocked aside by Harding. The Wild’s top line would go back to work and Koivu would dangle around a few Blue Jackets defenders as he pushed it back out to the point where Cam Barker flung a wrist shot that was gloved by Garon. Sheppard was again showing good strength as he sped around the Blue Jackets defense, using his body to shield the puck as he carried it towards the crease forcing Nathan Paetsch to take a penalty to prevent him from having a great scoring chance. Minnesota was a bit too fancy on the man advantage, overhandling the puck and not moving their feet well enough and about midway through the power play it was Marek Zidlicky taking a lazy holding penalty to even things up with just about 30 seconds left in the period. The final seconds would evaporate without incident and the Wild still held onto a 1-0 lead going into the 2nd.
The Blue Jackets would kill off the remaining seconds of 4-on-4 time and go on the power play just under 30 seconds into the 2nd. Minnesota’s penalty kill again was very good as it challenged the puck carrier well and then won the races to the dump in’s for some easy clears for the zone. Another solid kill for the Wild and even when Columbus was swarming in their end the Wild didn’t panic and bided its time to leave their own zone. The patience of the Wild would pay off as Casey Wellman would give Minnesota fans a taste of what he can do as he made a terrific little play in the Blue Jackets zone as he dangled around a Columbus defender before backhanding a perfect pass to Chuck Kobasew who tapped a shot by Garon to give the State of Hockey a 2-0 lead. Columbus would try to answer back but Minnesota’s defense kept its feet moving and they were able to keep the puck from reaching Harding. The Blue Jackets’ top line kept pressing and Rick Nash started to dangle with Zidlicky shadowing and he swung a pass to Kris Russell for a blast from the point but he’d quickly dish the puck down to a wide open Derrick Brassard who didn’t get all of it and Harding was able to get across his crease to make the save. Moments later a bad turnover near the blueline turned into a breakaway for Derek Dorsett and he’d race in and was held onto by Jaime Sifers and after a no call that drew the ire of Nationwide Arena the officials would give Nick Schultz a high sticking call to make up for what probably should’ve been a penalty shot. Oddly enough, Casey Wellman would serve the penalty and Schultz would go out on the penalty kill. Minnesota’s penalty killers were again denying time and space from Columbus making it tough for the Blue Jackets to have time to put a shot on goal. As the Wild killed off the Columbus power play, the Blue Jackets kept swarming and Jakub Voracek had a good opportunity that was denied by Harding. Minnesota would counter attack with Martin Havlat and Casey Wellman and Havlat found Wellman sneaking behind the defense and he would backhand a shot on Garon that he stopped before crashing into the Blue Jackets netminder. The offiicials would give Nathan Paetsch a hooking call on the play and Minnesota went on the power play. The Wild had a great chance early as Mikko Koivu blazed a slap shot that reached Garon and Brunette tried to chip it by him but he was able to hold the post and Columbus was able to clear the zone. Moments later, a botched play near the blueline turned into a shorthanded rush for Rick Nash and Martin Havlat felt compelled to hold and slow down the speedy Columbus forward for an obvious power play. Columbus again found themselves struggling against a very aggressive Wild penalty kill as Cal Clutterbuck hounded Blue Jackets puck carrier and Minnesota killed off another power play. The Blue Jackets continued to work the puck down low and it was shot on goal from the boards by Jared Boll and in a melee in the crease, it was Kristian Huselius finally tapping home a goal before Harding could cover it up. A few moments later it was Brassard that rang a shot off the pipe, but Minnesota would answer back with a beauty of its own as the puck was carried to the crease by Cal Clutterbuck that Garon couldn’t quite control and an opportunistic Casey Wellman moved in and looked to have his first NHL goal as he fired it on an open net but was robbed by the skate of R.J. Umberger and the puck was covered up by Garon. Columbus would answer back with a nice play of their own as Rick Nash would put on a stickhandling exhibition as he walked right around Nick Schultz causing Harding to sprawl but he wasn’t able to work a wrap around and Minnesota was able to carry the puck out of danger. The Blue Jackets would try to add a late-period goal as they swarmed around the Wild zone as Anton Stralman flung a wrist shot that was knocked up into the air by Harding and Minnesota was able to keep the puck out as the period expired still holding onto a 2-1 lead.
Minnesota’s forwards were hustling early to start the 3rd period, trying to kill the will of the Blue Jackets to come back in this game. The Blue Jackets would take advantage of Minnesota’s aggressive posture or a 2-on-1 between Umberger and Voracek, and youngster’s saucer pass just hopped over the stick of Umberger before he could get a shot off. At times the Wild were getting a bit too excited as they suffered from a few mental mistakes as they would carelessly go offsides on the rush. Minnesota was trying to be physical as they attempted to stymie some good puck possession in their zone by Columbus as Guillaume Latendresse delivered a big shoulder hit to R.J. Umberger that left him a bit weak in the legs. The Wild were not really threatening all that much offensively, but they were moving their feet very well and keeping their sticks active to disrupt the passing lanes. Minnesota’s James Sheppard would get a bit overzealous as he hooked Kristian Huselius and with a delayed penalty he dished a puck back to Kris Russell who wound up and cannonaded a shot by Josh Harding who was bumped a bit by R.J. Umberger. Harding would protest but to no avail. Just 27 seconds after Russell’s goal, a poor decision to go for a line change by Cam Barker ended up leaving Rick Nash all alone for a breakaway and he’d race in and sneak a backhander through the pads of Harding to give Columbus a 3-2 lead. Minnesota would try to answer back as Cal Clutterbuck would level Nash with a huge hit, but the Blue Jackets’ captain would answer right back with a hit of his own that Clutterbuck managed to avoid. You could sense the desperation in the Wild’s play at this point as Casey Wellman found some space and he fired a laser of a slap shot that was blocked aside by Garon and he’d track down his rebound and dish it back out to the point where Cam Barker fired a point shot that the Columbus goaltender would knock down but unfortunately neither Kobasew or Wellman could make it to the biscuit before the Blue Jackets defense did. A few moments later, Cam Barker would give a butt end towards Antoine Vermette as he skated by knocking him to the ice and Vermette was not happy as he went after Barker who did not want to fight but nothing would come of it. The Wild tried to go on the attack but Columbus was quick to muck up the play along the boards and then just skate it across the red line and throw it deep into the Wild zone. It was all desperation as the Wild went to one forward and placing Martin Havlat on the point. Minnesota would pull Josh Harding with about a minute left to play. After coming very close to giving up an empty netter to the Blue Jackets they’d be saved by a timely offsides call. With 52.6 seconds left, Todd Richards would call a timeout to talk things over, but before they had to return Harding to his crease. Some poor passing made those ‘plans’ made during the timeout a moot point as Rick Nash swept in and fired home an empty netter to seal a 4-2 Blue Jackets victory.
Once again, Josh Harding feels the pain of a loss that really was not his fault. The Wild’s defense, a motly patchwork of seldom used and farm team players simply wore down in this game. The few veterans on the Wild blueline that are left finally just broke down and made the mistakes that gave Columbus the opportunities to earn the victory tonight. The penalty kill was outstanding, Minnesota was challenging very well and not giving Columbus much to look at. Yet it was turnovers near the blueline that again plagued Minnesota as it did against Nashville. Rookie Justin Falk making his NHL debut did not last long before suffering an lower body injury that already shortened an inexperienced bench forcing the Wild to give minutes to blueliners they probably rather would’ve tried to keep on the bench in John Scott and Jaime Sifers. Falk had his moments in this game but was hesitant and looked out of place at the NHL level. As of right now it looks like Nate Prosser might make his NHL debut.
Offensively the Wild had to feel disappointed that they eased up after taking a 2-0 lead managing to create just 20 shots on goal. 9 shots in the first, 6 and 5 in the 2nd and 3rd respectively say it all. The Wild sat back more and more and waited for Columbus to attack as the game went on. On the road that is a dangerous combination. One player looked very natural in the offensive zone and that was newest member of the Wild, Casey Wellman. Wellman exhibited great speed and good offensive awareness but his defensive play looked a bit lost. However his speed, anticipation, stickhandling, shot and vision was certainly there. I can’t wait to see how he does in his next game and I think he certainly deserves and opportunity. Martin Havlat was working hard all over the ice, but he needs to shoot the puck more. The Wild need to simplify their power play and while I understand why they want to set up Latendresse in the high slot they need to have a plan “B” and either crash the crease or work for the deflections on shots from the point.
It was another disappointing let down by the Wild, and even though the overall effort was considerably better than it was the night before the team lapsed again in a game where it could not afford it and Minnesota’s playoff dreams are effectively over. It does not get any easier for the Wild on Sunday when the Calgary Flames come to St. Paul for what will likely be a very hard fought game. The Flames will be desperate and hoping to gain ground in the West, but do the Wld have enough left in the tank and its personnel to play the role of spoiler? We’ll find out on Sunday.
~ The Wild’s roster tonight was: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Antti Miettinen, Chuck Kobasew, Andrew Ebbett, James Sheppard, Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Wellman, Guillaume Latendresse, John Scott, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky, Jaime Sifers, Cam Barker and Justin Falk. Wade Dubielewicz backed up Josh Harding. Robbie Earl, Derek Boogaard, and Nate Prosser were your healthy scratches. Clayton Stoner, Shane Hnidy, Greg Zanon, and Brent Burns are all out with ‘lower body’ injuries while Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still on the shelf with post-concussion symptoms.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Rick Nash, 2nd Star Kristian Huselius, 3rd Star Kris Russell
~ Casey Wellman wore #17 for the Wild while Justin Falk wore #41 in their NHL debut.
WCHA Frozen Five Report:
It is semifinal friday once again as the WCHA Frozen Five has pared itself down to four teams after last night’s . With the awarding of the McNaughton Cup just one more night away for some college teams not in the playoffs and no hopes of an NCAA tournament bid the demolition has already begun as the reality of graduation and players turning pro hits home. The Golden Gophers are feeling the pain of this as sophomore Jordan Schroeder turns pro to become a part of the Vancouver Canucks organization. That is the reality of having bluechip recruits on your team, as they usually leave early. Here is a run-down of tonight’s WCHA Semi-Final action.
St. Cloud State Huskies (22-12-5) 2 Vs. Wisconsin Badgers (24-9-4) 0
During the regular season the series between the Badgers and Huskies was split with both teams earning victories in the other’s arena. St. Cloud State was one of the few teams who seemed able to find the back of the net against a strong defensive team like the Badgers are. Wisconsin’s greatest strength is in its blueline where junior Brendan Smith has been absolutely outstanding at both ends of the ice, providing rock solid defense as well as an impressive amount of offense as he fired home 15 goals and 44 points. St. Cloud is blessed with some quality scoring forwards in junior Garrett Roe (19 goals, 45 points), and senior Ryan Lasch (18 goals, 44 points). The Huskies will definitely enjoy a ‘home-ice’ type advantage with a strong contingent of St. Cloud fans making the 40-mile trip to St. Paul but they will have to be careful of the Badgers senior Michael Davies who took an early season benching to heart and has been on a terror for most of the season leading Wisconsin with 17 goals and 48 points. Wisconsin will no doubt look to junior goaltender Scott Gudmanson (16-3-4 record, 2.33GAA, .914%) to shut down the Huskies while St. Cloud State Head Coach Bob Motzko has a tough decision to make between his two-headed monster tandem of Dan Dunn or Mike Lee. Prediction: I think the Badgers defense will be too much for St. Cloud State to deal with and I think Wisconsin wins this one 5-1. (I have to admit, this one really surprised me but it just goes to show just how important a hot goalie can be and Roseau, Minnesota’s Mike Lee made 37 saves to shutout the Badgers.)
North Dakota Fighting Sioux (23-12-5) Vs. Denver Pioneers (27-7-4)
The Fighting Sioux are coming off a hard-fought 2-0 victory over UMD, but they still have a daunting psychological barrier to get over as they face top ranked Denver. The Pioneers have simply owned the Fighting Sioux this season, sweeping them twice. Denver Head Coach George Gwozdecky has another talented squad playing for him, and the trio of seniors Rhett Rakhshani (20 goals, 49 points), Tyler Ruegsegger (16 goals, 40 points), and sophomore Joe Colborne (21 goals, 39 points) make for an explosive offensive combination. Colborne, the former Boston Bruins 1st round selection in 2008 (16th Overall) has shown a knack for scoring important goals in big games for the Pioneers. The Fighting Sioux will need Brad Eidsness to play a very solid game if North Dakota is going to have a chance, because they will be facing the best goaltender in the WCHA in junior Marc Cheverie who sported 24-4-3 record, a ridiculous 1.94 goals against average and a gawdy .937% save percentage. Expect North Dakota to be very physical, but they must be careful when they pinch defensively as Denver has more than enough speed in its lineup to burn the Fighting Sioux bad. Prediction: Cheverie shuts down the Fighting Sioux as Denver wins in methodical fashion 3-0.