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Koivu lifts Wild to 3-2 victory on North Stars reunion night

Wild vs. Panthers

Minnesota North Stars hockey fans will remember the names like Bill Goldsworthy, Danny Grant, J.P. Parise, Bobby Smith, Bryan Bellows, Don Beaupre, Dino Ciccarelli, ‘Gump’ Worsley, Neal Broten, Willi Plett, Barry Gibbs, Basil McRae, Dennis Maruk, Brad Maxwell, Craig Hartsburg, Gilles Meloche, Steve Payne, Lou Nanne, Tom Reid, Mike Eaves, Scott Bjugstad, Jack Carlson, Curt Giles, Gordie Roberts, Jon Casey, Dave Gagner, Shane Churla, Al MacAdam, Dennis Hextall just to name a few.  I am sure the memories of watching these players who proudly wore the green and gold sweaters with one of the best logos in all of sports will be an event long remembered by those lucky to have attended it.  I think back to my first NHL game; back in 1981 when the North Stars played against the purple and gold clad Los Angeles Kings.  The sounds of the fans of old Met Center; where they were amongst the most intense fans in hockey.  Overall, the North Stars struggled throughout most of their tenure in Minnesota (1967-1993), and like the Minnesota Wild they were never really blessed with an overabundance of talent.  Yet they usually possessed lots of heart and energy which at times could make for a pretty feisty opponent.  The rivalries were far more intense during the North Stars’ days than they’ve ever been for the Minnesota Wild.  Wild fans hate Vancouver, but even that hatred pales in comparison to the complete full on hostility North Stars fans had for the Chicago Blackhawks and their resident tough guy Al Secord.  Chicago fans hated the North Stars with an equal amount of vitriol and would proudly burn ‘Dino’ the Dinosaurs prior to games as scorching effigies of their rival.  Before the NHLPA put the brakes on what looked like a sure-thing division re-alignment; an adjustment that was very well received by Wild fans many hoped having Chicago back in the division could rekindle some of that old hatred.  If you’re too young to remember the North Stars, perhaps this will show you why so many fans like myself will always love that team.  

Many of the former North Stars greats will be in Minnesota for tonight’s game as well as the Saturday night tilt against Los Angeles.  I have little doubt you will see a ton of North Stars sweaters in the building as the alumni of Minnesota’s former club gets together for what should be a fun and memorable weekend.  The Wild will hope to add to that positive mood by earning two points against a team that is fighting to stay atop the Southeast Division as the Washington Capitals make a late push as the hope to claw their way into the 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference.  Will the Wild let the Panthers have their way or will they showcase the tenacity that will be reminiscent of the North Stars that they honor that evening? 

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Cal Clutterbuck

1st Period Thoughts:  The Wild looked a little lethargic to start the game, as they were sitting back in a 1-2-2.  The Panthers looked cautious and careful, not wanting to take any big risks with the Wild playing so passively as they were.  Jason Zucker had his first shift where he looked a little lost, he never really turned on the jets and was looking to get rid of the puck quickly whenever it came close to him he just chopped at it and slowly followed it around.  Neither club was finding a lot of a time and space and both Jose Theodore and Niklas Backstrom had to be a little bored.  It was almost 6:30 in when the Wild had its first quality scoring chance as Kyle Brodziak found himself all alone in the slot but all he could get off was a weak backhander that was stopped by Jose Theodore and then Cal Clutterbuck shoveled the rebound wide of the mark.  Florida would then have its best chance to this point a few moments later as Kris Versteeg dangled a puck around a Wild defender and he tried to out wait Backstrom where he swung a shot into the crease towards Stephen Weiss who was wide open for what looked to be an empty net and as he tried to direct it on goal Marco Scandella came up with a goal-saving block that sent the puck up and over the net.  A few minutes later the Wild attempted to pressure again as Dany Heatley set up Devin Setoguchi who swung and fired a lazy shot that was partially blocked and then in the chase for the biscuit Mikko Koivu would hauled down Dmitri Kulikov for a penalty.  Minnesota had a good shorthanded chance right away as Darroll Powe stole a puck and he fired a snap shot that was fought off by Theodore.  The Panthers would answer back as they drove to the net and then tried to stuff a puck through Backstrom who held strong.  The game was pretty boring, with both clubs taking few risks and not able to create much of anything in the way of scoring chances or sustained offensive pressure.  The Panthers threatened late in the period as a quick play developed from behind the goal as Marcel Goc moved the puck out front where Shawn Matthias was nearly able to tap it in but was disrupted by a few alert Wild defenseman.  The period would end with both clubs knotted at 0-0; overall a pretty boring and uninspired period of hockey.  This seems ridiculous but scorekeepers say the Wild out shot the Panthers 13-9; for whatever reason I don’t remember nearly that many shots. 

2nd Period Thoughts:  I have to admit, the way the Wild started the 2nd made me a little nervous as the Panthers kept Minnesota hemmed in its own zone and cycling with near impunity.  Fortunately, the Panthers puck possession was all it was; and it did not translate into a lot of shots on goal.  A friend of mine over at the Wild.com message boards has been increasingly critical of the play of Nick Johnson saying he isn’t working as hard and has been hesitant to go into the corners the way he did earlier in the season and I have to agree with him.  Johnson was shying away from contact on more than one occasion which was a big reason the Panthers had their way in the Wild zone.  At the end of this long shift for the Wild’s 3rd line of Erik Christensen, Jason Zucker and Nick Johnson; they would get a little lucky as Minnesota cleared a puck that occurred during the middle of a Panthers’ line change that gave Jason Zucker his first NHL scoring chance and the speedy winger sped into the Florida zone where he fired snap shot that just missed high and wide.  Minnesota would give Florida its 2nd power play of the game as Kyle Brodziak lifted the stick of Wojtek Wolski who actually high sticked himself.  As if the blown call was frustrating, just seconds after that Wolski would see Brodziak looking at him and he butted his head right into the mouth of Brodziak that set him off at the official.  No call on the head butt and Brodziak would sit in the box for high sticking.  It was a costly power play as the Panthers scored off the rush as Wild killer Scottie Upshall feinted at a pass before firing a wrist shot by Niklas Backstrom to make it 1-0.  The goal made an already catatonic crowd that much more quiet, and the Panthers would continue to apply pressure as Sean Bergenheim fired a shot on goal that was blocked aside by Backstrom and the puck was swept up by Tomas Kopecky who lifted a shot to the side of the net.  Minnesota tried to rally some offense by working the puck deep in the Florida zone, but despite causing a little havoc the Panthers circle the wagons and got in the way of shots reaching Jose Theodore.  The period would end uneventfully but you could hear a few boo’s from the crowd who was annoyed by the futility of the Wild effort.  Minnesota was out shot 8-4 and the Wild had another period with far too little offense and shots to really make a difference.  How many more times do we have to watch Devin Setoguchi lose the puck as he tries to work it from his forehand to his backhand for some kind of idea of his when it was obvious to everyone his linemates and everyone else just wanted him to shoot the damn puck? 

3rd Period Thoughts:  There was a little tenacity to start the 2nd period as Stephane Veilleux tried to spark his team with a little cheap play as he hacked at Scottie Upshall who fell to the ice as if he was shot.  There was lots of chirping back and forth but no penalties were called.  Minnesota would go on the attack and as the puck bounced around about 20 feet from the crease it was gathered up by Kyle Brodziak who moved around to his backhand where he slipped shot through 5-hole to tie the game at 1-1.  On the next shift, Veilleux would get buried by Erik Gudbranson, and the Panthers continued to battle with the Wild for the puck and it was Veilleux holding the stick of Gudbranson that got him sent to the box for holding the stick.  An irate Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo let NHL referee Mike Leggo have it but it was a legit call.  Minnesota would struggle to clear the zone but they were able to keep the Panthers (who were fairly passive on the power play) at bey and the Wild tried to go back on the attack.  The 3rd line would storm follow up a wrist shot by Nick Johnson that gave Theodore some problems as they hacked and poked at the puck to no avail.  Minnesota would get its first power play of the game as Kulikov was tagged with a hooking call.   The Wild did very little with the power play apart from one close in chance that was foiled as the Panthers’ defense got physical near their crease and kept Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak from jamming in another goal.  When the Wild tried to work the point, Tom Gilbert couldn’t hold the zone and the man advantage fizzled.  A few minutes later Kyle Brodziak would slash the leg of Stephen Weiss for an obvious call.  Just a few seconds into the man advantage the Wild ‘helped’ their cause when Mikko Koivu batted a puck out of the air out of play for a delay of game call giving the Panthers a 5-on-3.  The 5-on-3 would be short-lived as Kris Versteeg lifted his stick right into the ear hole and underneath the visor of Tom Gilbert.  Gilbert sat on all fours on the ice with a stick blade right in his face as the officials had to help him pry it loose for one of the most obvious high sticks ever.  Now with the ice very open in a rare 4-on-3 power play, the Panthers would start moving the puck with relative ease as Jason Garrison hammered a slapper that was blocked away by the shoulder of Backstrom but it simply was a matter of time.  Florida continued to take advantage of the open ice and Tomas Fleischmann moved in and lifted a forehand over Backstrom to put the Panthers up 2-1.  The Panthers tried to add to their lead and a point shot by Kulikov struck the post and out to Bergenheim but he was knocked down by Gilbert before he could convert on the tap in goal.  Even as the Wild pulled Niklas Backstrom with about a minute left you could hear the frustrated yells from the crowd who I think wanted to see the game end.  However the Wild would instead light the lamp as Tom Gilbert fired a shot from near the top of the right faceoff circle that was redirected by Koivu that struck the left post and Erik Christensen was there to pounce on the puck to tie the game at 2-2. 

Overtime Thoughts:  The Wild would waste very little time in overtime to add a little excitement to a dead arena; as Mikko Koivu dangled through the Panthers’ defense to beat Theodore on a backhander to win the game just 15 seconds into overtime.  Where the heck has that been all year long? 

Niklas Backstrom was decent, making 25 saves in the victory.  His rebound control was reasonable and he kept Minnesota in the game when it was accomplishing very little in the offensive end.  Defensively I thought the Wild again looked pretty suspect at times; especially on the power play where they were guilty of losing their men.  Tom Gilbert may have chipped in two assists but I thought his inability to hold the offensive zone and some of his passes in the defensive zone left a lot to be desired for the guy who is supposed to be the leader on the blueline.  Justin Falk looked very rusty and suspect out there. 

Offensively, I was pretty disappointed with the effort from the top line; especially Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley who both look pretty uninspired.  I know both guys are used to being in the playoffs but there is no excuse for not being assertive and taking their opportunities to shoot the puck.  That is why this team went out to get both of you; it wanted you to shoot the puck.  Minnesota got most of its shots from its 2nd and 3rd lines which is good to see the other parts of the team delivering the top line should be more of a force throughout the game than it was.  Mikko Koivu’s move was impressive but I think it had a lot of us wondering where the heck was that kind of assertiveness was when this team was still in playoff contention?  I thought it was an ok debut for Jason Zucker but he didn’t really stand out as anyone extra special.  He certainly didn’t look ridiculously fast out there as he does at the college ranks.

The two points really do little to help the Wild; in fact it could be argued points only hurt the club in the long term.  I feel pretty conflicted during these last few games as Minnesota is in prime position for a lottery pick in this year’s draft.  Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo, “We were ok defensively, but overall we were playing pretty easy out there,” as far as the officiating when asked if this team was getting a raw deal Yeo nodded and said, “it certainly seems like it, but we weren’t really doing enough to get those kind of breaks our way either.”  The 2nd day of the North Stars reunion is Saturday, who knows…maybe the Wild will give those alumni a win too. 

Wild Notes:

~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Erik Christensen, Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters, Stephane Veilleux, Jason Zucker, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson, Cal Clutterbuck, Justin Falk, Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert, Steven Kampfer, Marco Scandella, and Nate Prosser.  Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom.  Matt Kassian, Jared Spurgeon, Kurtis Foster and Matt Cullen

~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Brian Campbell, 2nd Star Darroll Powe, 3rd Star Tomas Fleischmann (who in the hell picked these stars?  Was it a drunk Neal Broten?  No star for Mikko Koivu??)

~ Attendance was 16,952 at Xcel Energy Center.

~ Jason Zucker wore #16 for the Wild; which had been worn previously by Bill Muckalt, Steve Kelly, Andrew Ebbett, Brad Staubitz, Roman Simicek and Steve McKenna

Houston Aeros Report:

Chay Genoway  Houston Aeros’ Chay Genoway

Houston 2, Milwaukee 3  OT

Houston was hustling well, as they had confidence that Matt Hackett had returned between the Aeros’ crease.  The Aeros’ hard work was drawing penalties at a fair rate and Houston was peppering the Admirals’ Jeremy Smith with shots.  Even though Houston had two power plays in the 1st period they wouldn’t manage to get anything by Smith; not until an Admirals’ power play at least.  A turnover in the neutral zone by Kris Fredheim was pushed up the ice to Chad Rau who worked a 2-on-1 with David McIntyre and it was Rau setting up McIntyre for a goal to give the Aeros a lead on the shorthanded tally.  Unfortunately, the Aeros couldn’t hold the lead as Milwaukee struck with less than a minute left in the 1st, as Chris Mueller ripped his 28th goal of the season by Hackett who felt he was interfered with by Brodie Dupont who was camped out in the blue paint.  Hackett protested but to no avail.  The Aeros would light the lamp early in the 2nd period as McIntyre fired a shot that struck the jaw of Jonathan Blum (ouch) and the puck skidded over to Chay Genoway who fired a bullet of a shot that beat Smith to give Houston a 2-1 lead.  In the 3rd period, the Admirals would tie the game a second time as Dupont fired a shot that beat a well-screened Hackett.  Houston tried to rally back but they were unable to get the go ahead goal before regulation ended sending the game to overtime.  In overtime the Admirals were attacking well and they would draw a hooking call on Aeros’ captain Jon DiSalvatore.  It would prove costly as former Wild draft pick Kyle Wilson buried the game winner with just 3 seconds left in overtime and deny the Aeros of a crucial point in the Western Conference standings.  Hackett made 17 saves in the loss.  UPDATE:  The Aeros lost another tough one tonight, as they fell 4-3 in a shootout to the Lake Erie Monsters.  Nick Palmieri, Jon DiSalvatore, and Kris Fredheim on the goals, while Hackett had 25 saves in the loss. 

Wild Prospect Report:

Johan Larsson  Brynas’ Johan Larsson

C / RW – Charlie Coyle (Saint John, QMJHL) ~ Charlie Coyle continues to lead the way for the Saint John Sea Dogs as they rolled to an 8-2 win over Cape Breton on Tuesday, giving them a commanding 3-0 series lead.  Coyle kept piling up the points, scoring 2 goals in the rout.  The former Boston University stud has 8 goals, 4 assists and has been a remarkable +12 in just 3 playoff games.  The Weymouth, Massachusetts-native went 6-for-11 (54.5%) on his faceoffs as well.  The next night, Coyle added another goal giving him a grand total of 9 for the series as the Sea Dogs swept the Screaming Eagles. 

C – Zack Phillips (Saint John, QMJHL) ~ The post-season has been almost as impressive as Coyle’s as he contributed two helpers in the 8-2 steamrolling of Cape Breton.  Phillips has 2 goals, 8 assists and is a +11 in 3 games.  Like Coyle, Phillips was also very strong on his draws; going 5-for-7 (71.4%) on the evening.  On Wednesday, Phillips again worked as a set up man as he had two assists in the 5-1 series clinching victory as well as going 4-for-8 (50%) on his faceoffs. 

D – Jonas Brodin (Farjestads BK, Eliteserien) ~ Brodin and Farjestads BK advanced to the semi-finals of the Eliteserien playoffs by eliminating Brynas.  The Karlstad, Sweden-native has a goal and no assists and is +1 in 7 playoff games. 

C – Johan Larsson (Brynas, Eliteserien) ~ Unfortunately for this Wild prospect his season comes to an end, as his club was eliminated by Farjestad.  Larsson continued to find his way onto the score sheet, registering 2 assists and was a -1 in 6 playoff games. 

Jack Jablonski & Jenna Privette