Deadline day, a day of phone calls and internet rumors and updates that NHL fans do their best to stay on top of. For some fans it means their team will be sending players away for picks or prospects as their team attempts to sell off what it can for the future. While for teams that feel they are close to something great, they will be mortgaging picks and prospects for players they feel will give them the edge in the post season. Most of the players moved are those who will become unrestricted free agents this summer. Traditionally for Minnesota, the deadline has been a day of inaction and was a major reason that Wild majority owner Craig Leipold decided to fire then General Manager Doug Risebrough. Wild fans still cringe at the deadline deal of Chris Simon a few seasons ago, or deals for mundane role players like center Dominic Moore.
The big question looming for the Wild was whether they were going to be a “buyer” or a “seller” in this environment. The answer? A seller. While not a big seller the team did make one noteable deadline day deal by sending center Eric Belanger to the Washington Capitals for a 2nd round pick. Not a bad deal for what many would consider to be a role player for the Wild, although they will miss his ability to win faceoffs. Belanger always acquitted himself with tremendous class, and was the consumate team player. The 2nd round pick will help make up for the one the team lost when it traded for Chuck Kobasew earlier in the season. Belanger was the team’s 5th leading scorer so there will be a few less goals in the lineup as well. The Wild made their most notable ‘deadline’ deal in the ‘soft deadline’ before the Olympic break when it traded Kim Johnsson and 2009 1st round pick (16th Overall) Nick Leddy to Chicago for defenseman Cam Barker. What direction will the Wild go tonight when they travel to the Saddledome, a place they have struggled at throughout the franchise’s history? Will they feel a bit more focused with the deadline behind them and for the most part being well-rested or will they look defeated and demoralized as they endure a loss against the Flames?
The game started with a cautious pace as both teams were trying to dump the puck deep and chase but the defense was able to track the pucks down and outlet the biscuit out of danger. Minnesota had the first great scoring chance on a fine play by Martin Havlat to steal a puck along the boards and then skate towards the crease where he tried to backhand a shot sort of behind his back that was stopped by Miikka Kiprusoff. The Wild followed up the scoring chance with an excellent, very physical shift by a line of Derek Boogaard, Owen Nolan and Cal Clutterbuck as Nolan and Boogaard were forechecking well and it was Nolan feeding a puck towards the crease that the Minnesota enforcer just couldn’t get a stick on. The Flames would attempt to answer back as rookie Mikael Backlund made a nice no look pass from down low to Curtis Glencross who chipped a shot on goal that Niklas Backstrom stopped before it was swept aside by James Sheppard. Minnesota’s forecheck was really causing some confusion for the Flames and a bad pass somewhat forced by Antti Miettinen nearly turned into a goal as Andrew Brunette fed a puck towards the crease as Kiprusoff was sprawling, but Mikko Koivu wasn’t able to reach it to take advantage of the nice pass. The Wild continued to attack and Sheppard would dish a pass towards Owen Nolan who could only manage a weak shot that was easily steered away by Kiprusoff. The Flames again tried to rally but Minnesota was taking away time and space well, in addition to being physical and separating puck from player and then carrying it out of their own zone. Both teams would trade rushes with one another for a few minutes but all they could manage is a few weak shots taken from long range that were easy stops for Backstrom and Kiprusoff respectively. Minnesota continued to show good hustle and energy as Brent Burns would pinch along the boards, win a battle for the puck and then thread a diagonal pass out to the point to Cam Barker who unloaded a slapper that was knocked down and covered up by Kiprusoff. The Wild appeared to have more jump in its skates and it looked as though it was only a matter of time before that edge in speed would turn into a prime scoring chance for Minnesota. Yet, it was Calgary having a golden opportunity as a strange carom would pop back out into the Wild crease that was behind Backstrom who was going to play the puck but luckily for the Wild only Mikko Koivu was there to sweep the puck away before any member of the Flames could pounce on it. A few minutes later, the Flames had a great opportunity off a great individual effort by Eric Nystrom who dangled around one Wild defender and then flung a backhander that went wide of the Minnesota goal. The Flames would have another great scoring chance as Niklas Hagman flung a wrist shot from the point that was blocked aside by the leg pad of Backstrom. Calgary continued to press the attack as Robyn Regehr fed a pass near the crease but Nystrom was unable to tap it by Backstrom who got some timely help by Greg Zanon who drove the puck to the corner. A few moments later the Wild would strike late in the game off a neutral zone turnover by Marek Zidlicky who pushed the puck up to Nolan who skated into the zone and he dished a cross-ice pass to Kyle Brodziak who wasted little time before firing a shot that found the back of the net behind Kiprusoff giving Minnesota a 1-0 lead. The Flames would try to answer right back as a wrist shot from the point by Mark Giordano reached Niklas Backstrom and as David Moss couldn’t manage to lift a shot over a sprawling Wild goaltender and Minnesota was able swat away his saucer type shot and the Wild would carry their one-goal lead into the 2nd period.
The 2nd period would again start out with a cautious pace of play, with some sloppy passing from both teams. Minnesota’s 1st line would try to establish some offensive pressure down low only to be thwarted by a strange bounce off what were surprisingly lively boards at the Saddledome. The Flames would try to ratchet up their forecheck, and they’d be marginally successful off a dump in and they would work the puck around the perimeter which would culmiante in a point shot by Giodano that would be held onto by Backstrom. Calgary continued to bottle the Wild up in their zone and Minnesota started to look a little tired as they repeated failed to clear the zone and this would lead to another long point shot that forced Backstrom to make another save. The Wild would have surprisingly good opportunity on the rush as Andrew Ebbett ripped a shot on goal that Kiprusoff stopped as Boogaard moved for the rebound but Nick Schultz was only able to push a weak shot that nearly slid behind Kipper but he would make the stop. The Flames went right back on the attack as Calgary cycled the puck well down low, and they would create a bunch of chances with the Wild’s defense scrambling about its own zone. Minnesota would get the break it needed from the first line on an outstanding tic-tac-toe play off the rush as Koivu took a pass from Brunette and he moved up the ice and dished it to Miettinen who drove down low drawing the defense towards him and he passed it back to Brunette who had an easy long tap in goal to put the Wild up 2-0. The Flames tried to renew their forecheck and were moving their feet well but all they were able to manage were long range shots which were reaching Backstrom but he was stopping without too much struggle. The top line would again help the Wild relieve pressure with some great forechecking of their own. Just moments later and still on the same shift, Minnesota would strike again as Andrew Brunette passed the puck to Koivu who raced in the Flames’ zone where he’d wind up and blister a slap shot that beat him high glove side to lift the Wild to a 3-0 lead virtually silencing the Saddledome crowd. Minnesota would have another great opportunity a few moments later as Ebbett found a little space to fire a shot on Kiprusoff that he managed to steer aside. The Flames tried to answer right back and it was Rene Bourque hammering a slapper that was gloved and held onto by Backstrom as a cluster of Flames crashed his crease. The live boards would again play a factor in creating another great scoring chance for the Flames as a point blast caromed out front where Nystrom was denied by a sprawling Niklas Backstrom. Minnesota’s 2nd line would create some pressure as Martin Havlat, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrew Ebbett would make some nice passes but unfortunately the best shot they were able to create was a sharp angle shot by Latendresse and the Wild had to feel good now leading by three going into the 3rd period.
The Wild had an outstanding chance early in the period as the 2nd line again put on a showcase of nice passing as the puck eventually ended up on the stick of Guillaume Latendresse who slid a backhand shot just wide of a gaping Calgary goal. Minnesota had another tremendous chance just moments later as the top line had another pretty tic-tac-toe cross-ice play where Koivu fed a diagonal pass to a wide open Nick Schultz who seemed surprised by the great feed and pushed a shot way wide of the net when he should’ve had an easy goal. The Flames seemed to not have the heart to really counter attack with that much vigor and it was Mikael Backlund taking a puck and racing into the Wild zone before he uncorked a slapper that was gloved by Backstrom. Calgary would try to use its top line to battle along the boards but Minnesota was taking the body and again all the Flames could manage was a long range shot that was stopped by the Wild goaltender. Minnesota’s Greg Zanon would earn a penalty for playing a puck with a broken stick and the Flames had a good chance early on the man advantage but as Backstrom dropped to make the save the Wild would benefit from a quick whistle which drew the ire of the home crowd. The Wild would manage to kill off the penalty by challenging the puck carrier well. Minnesota would have some more good luck as a long range shot yielded a nice rebound but on the 2nd chance Chris Higgins would break his stick pushing the puck wide of the mark instead of driving it into the back of the goal. The Wild were content to just drive the puck deep and keep their shifts short and wait for transition chances. One of those came on a fine long pass to Kyle Brodziak who got behind the Flames’ defense but his forehand bid would find the left post. As the Wild attempted to crash the net Mark Giordano would get into a shoving match with Derek Boogaard and the officials would bust the Minnesota enforcer for cross checking much to the Boogeyman’s chagrin. Minnesota’s penalty kill was putting on a clinic as they won the races to the loose puck and clearing the zone with relative ease as the crowd serenaded their team with some boo’s as the Flames again languished on the man advantage. Even when the Flames were able to get set up in the Wild’s zone, Minnesota’s penalty killers were pressing the puck carrier well and as they distributed the puck the Wild were able to get their sticks on the shots to keep them from reaching Backstrom and they would again earn another big kill. The Wild could sense a chance to move in for the kill and the 2nd line just kept moving towards the Calgary goal as Latendresse’s chance was swept off his stick and Havlat would just chip a shot on goal as it eluded Kiprusoff to put Minnesota up 4-0. Rene Bourque would try to take out some of his team’s frustrations by giving Cal Clutterbuck a big hit that got a cheer from the home crowd, but Clutterbuck would soon return the favor. The Flames tried to work for a pride goal, but Minnesota was playing rope-a-dope hoping to preserve its shutout by just flipping the puck into the air whenever they got the chance. Minnesota could sense its sloppy play may deny them their shutout, so they began to increase their effort and move their feet but Calgary was really trying to press to take something positive away from this game. You could sense the Saddledome crowd wanted nothing more than for the game to end as they cheered the announcer as he announced just one minute left in the game. Minnesota would prevail, with a rare 4-0 shutout in Calgary!
Niklas Backstrom was solid, making 29 saves in the victory. It should be noted that Backstrom did benefit from some good support from both his defenseman and forwards who combined to block over 14 shots as well as sweeping away numerous pucks from his crease that could’ve turned this game around. Yet Backstrom seemed sharp, perhaps a bit more relaxed from not having to worry about the Olympics hanging over his head anymore and when he had a clear view of the pucks he was very sharp, absorbing the puck and not giving up rebounds. The Wild also did an excellent job at keeping the Flames to the perimeter and being physical against what was one of the meekest efforts I’ve seen out of a Calgary team in years.
Offensively, the Wild got good support from the defenseman to help press the attack and then Minnesota was opportunistic and taking full advantage of its scoring chances. The top line of Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen were passing the puck with increased crispness perhaps further refined from their Olympic experience and they really were the offensive workhorse for the Wild this evening. Cam Barker, Marek Zidlicky and Shane Hnidy all ended up with an assist in this game. The 2nd line started to bring it in the latter half of the 2nd and 3rd period. Minnesota had great energy and were quick to turn turnovers into transition chances and used their superior speed to its fullest effect.
In what was the first time in franchise history where the Wild have won their last two games in Calgary, and just the 2nd time they managed a shutout at the Saddledome. Wild Head Coach Todd Richards had this to say about tonight’s effort, “I think we deserved the win tonight, we still made some mistakes but I think it was due to our time off but we better work on those things before our games against Edmonton.” The Wild are still sitting in 13th, but it is still a relative log jam in the Western Conference but they must be looking for a similar effort and result in Edmonton on Friday.
~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Andrew Ebbett, Cal Clutterbuck, Chuck Kobasew, James Sheppard, Derek Boogaard, Kyle Brodziak, Guillaume Latendresse, Brent Burns, Shane Hnidy, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz and Cam Barker. Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom. John Scott was the lone healthy scratch. Clayton Stoner is still on injured reserve healing from groin surgery and Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still out with post-concussion syndrome.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Mikko Koivu, 3rd Star Andrew Brunette
~ The Houston Aeros have signed veteran forward and former University of North Dakota star Tony Hrkac for what they hope is another long playoff run. Hrkac, 43, has been the Head Coach at Concordia (WI) University. The ‘Hrkac Circus’ is back!
High School Boys Hockey Report:
Section Finals are approaching soon all across the state, where teams have that final game before they punch their ticket to the state tournament next week. It is hockey’s version of ‘March Madness’ in Minnesota where players do whatever it takes to earn a shot in the most-watched high school hockey tournament in the world. With little doubt, some of the players who will be taken in the 2010 draft will finish their high school careers on high school hockey’s largest stage. Here are some breakdowns over some of the high profile section final matchups.
Section 7A Final ~ Hibbing/Chisholm (14-10-2) 0 Vs. #8 Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl (17-7-3) 3
This battle for bragging rights in the Iron Range pits two teams familiar with one another. In the season series, it was split with Hibbing losing their first matchup 5-1 but the Blue Jackets would rally back to win 3-2 on Feb. 16th. Hibbing/Chisholm has been a solid program with a few state appearances under its belt but it may not have enough firepower against a quality Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl squad. Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl center Garrett Hendrickson (185th rated North American skater by Central Scouting) could be the x-factor in this game. No matter what I think this will be an very hard fought game that will give the crowd at Duluth’s DECC lots to be excited about. Prediction: Virginia/Mt.Iron-Buhl wins 4-2. (Virginia/Mt.Iron-Buhl won 3-0, which is a 3rd straight appearance for this Iron range team)
Section 2AA Final ~ #9 Bloomington-Jefferson (19-5-3) 1 Vs. #5 Edina (19-6-2) 4
This is your classic south suburban showdown between two of the state’s most competitive hockey programs and divided by I-494, and have traditionally had a heated rivalry. Both teams have numerous state titles to their credit and would be strong contenders in the tournament. The Jaguars have a number of players who could very well end up being selected in the 2010 draft including seniors Caleb Herbert (101st rated North American skater by Central Scouting) who leads the team in scoring with 30 goals, 31 assists in 25 games as well as Joe Faust (110th rated North American skater) who has 15 goals, 48 points as a defenseman. The Hornets have also had another solid season, and Head Coach Curt Giles (former Minnesota North Stars defenseman) has to feel ready after defeating #13 ranked Holy Angels 3-2 to make it to the section final. Hornets’ junior Steven Fogarty leads a modest Edina attack with 19 goals and 34 points in 20 games. The Hornets and Jaguars never faced one another this season. This game is being played at Target Center which is not your typical hockey venue unless you’re talking to ‘Grandpa Sports’ Sid Hartmann. Prediction: Bloomington-Jefferson wins 5-1. (Edina would win 4-1, the Hornets early lead was too much to overcome.)
Section 4AA (semi-finals)
~ 3rd seed Stillwater (15-9-2) 1 Vs. 2nd seed White Bear Lake (16-9-1) 3
Stillwater is a program that seems to be getting better with each season since former NHL star Phil Housley took over as the Ponies’ bench boss. The Ponies’ have lost both meetings against White Bear Lake by identical scores of 4-3 showing that they’re closely matched but it does give the Bears a distinct Psychological edge. The Bears have traditionally been strong but have struggled to find much success at state having never won a state title. The Ponies are led by senior forward Wilson Housely (Phil’s son) who has 15 goals and 31 points in just 16 games. White Bear Lake is led by junior Brandon Wahlin who has 21 goals and 44 points in 20 games. Prediction: White Bear Lake wins 4-2. (White Bear Lake took care of business, winning 3-1, I was right, but we’ll see if they can beat Hill-Murray. I doubt it.)
~ 5th seed Mounds View (12-12-2) 0 Vs. Top seed #3 Hill-Murray (23-2-1) 6
You have to pull for the underdog, and if there was a Cinderella story in this series of section finals / semi-finals it is the Mounds View Mustangs. The Mustangs have never been known as a real hockey powerhouse so it will seem like they’re David and perennial state tournament entry Hill-Murray will make for an awfully nasty Goliath. Led by Head Coach Bill Lechner, the Pioneers again look to be in good position to perhaps make a run for the state title and they do so with a very deep team. The Pioneers leading scorer senior Willie Faust has 21 goals and 41 points in just 21 games, and with Tim Shaughnessy in net it will be asking a lot for a fairly mundane Mustangs attack led by senior Jeff Anderson (15 goals, 25 points in 18 games) to pull off an upset. Expect a defensive battle where Mounds View just hopes to keep the game close enough so they don’t need many goals pull off a section 4AA shocker. Prediction: Hill-Murray wins 7-2. (Pioneers win 6-0, close enough)
Section 6AA Final ~ #4 Eden Prairie (22-4-1) 2 Vs. #1 Minnetonka (24-1-2) 7
For some Minnesota High School hockey fans they will be disappointed not to see this matchup in the state tournament. These two teams have been at or near the top of the state rankings all season long, and they have only played each other one time with the Skippers earning a 1-0 victory. Minnetonka has a team full of potential 2010 NHL draftees in senior forward Max Gardiner (36th rated North American Skater by Central Scouting), brother of Anaheim Ducks 1st round pick from 2008 Jake Gardiner with 18 goals, 49 points in 17 games as well as senior defenseman Justin Holl (54th rated North American skater by Central Scouting) who has 18 goals and 33 points in 19 games in addition to blueliner Andrew Prochno (155th rated skater by Central Scouting) who has 7 goals 32 points. Yet the Eagles are led by junior phenom Kyle Rau (brother of Wild farm hand Chad Rau) who is a dynamic forward who is a total gamebreaker with outstanding speed and fantastic hands as he’s racked up 39 goals and 75 points as seen by his strong performance on Hockey Day Minnesota. This game will also be played at Target Center. Expect a low scoring affair as both teams will be wary of the other’s potent attack. Prediction: Eden Prairie will win 3-1. (Minnetonka advances with 7-2 win, guess I was wrong. Wow, that is what you call a statement win.)
Section 8AA Final ~ Roseau 2 Vs. Moorhead (14-10-2) 1
This section has two more members of Class AA state tournament royalty in the Moorhead Spuds and Roseau Rams. Roseau always seems to be a team that beats the odds as a school that qualifies to play as a Class A team but chooses to battle the big schools and it is dangerous to overlook them. The season series is split with Roseau winning the first game 4-1, but the Spuds were convincing in the more recent game with a decisive 6-2 rout to their credit. Both Moorhead and Roseau play schedules where they battle against schools from the Twin Cities and both will not be intimidated or surprised by who they may face in the state tournament. Prediction: Roseau wins 4-1. (Roseau wins 2-1, and the Rams go back to the State Tournament so they can surprise more big schools.)