“You load sixteen tons what do you get, Another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store, If you see me coming better step aside, A lot of men didn’t a lot of men died, One fist of iron the other of steel, If the right one don’t get you then the left one will” this song simply called 16 Tons by folk singer Ford Tennessee Ernie captures the struggle that miners faced working in the Coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I guess with the Wild’s 8-game losing skid I felt compelled to find something that sort of talked about the relentless grind of the regular season and how it can be grueling ordeal. Certainly not as fraught with danger as coal miners experience, but certainly its an ordeal that tests a person’s mental and physical endurance. Last night the Wild had one of their better efforts, but were not rewarded with a victory but a 2-1 shootout loss. Like coal miners, the Wild must find a way to persevere and dig deeper that will hopefully reward them with success. Mining will test a person’s fortitude, character and their resilience as set backs are a part of the job and the same can be said for the course of a hockey season. We are finding out what this team is made of and whether it can endure or whether it will shrivel and die.
Minnesota plays the Edmonton Oilers tonight, for the final time in regular season action for 2011-12 and likely the last time as divisional foes if league’s new re-allignment passes as expected. The Oilers are a team with a bright future; lots of great young talent to draw from and I have little doubt they will bring Edmonton back to prominence eventually. Yet that is the reward for being bad for so long; stockpiling those high draft picks that become franchise cornerstones for years to come. The Wild have never truly been that awful to be rewarded with a large collection of high draft picks, and unfortunately in its past it hasn’t always made the best choices (A.J. Thelen, James Sheppard) but there are distinct signs that indicate that is changing. So perhaps its time for both of these franchise to make their way out of the miserable struggle of the mines and to something a little less glum. Will Minnesota finish their final season series against the Oilers with a victory or will Edmonton give us more pain on this already arduous December?
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1st Period Thoughts: Starting off tonight, I have to admit my first thought was “will anyone get hurt tonight, as it is sure to be a very physical game.” Both teams came out with pep in their steps, which is always a good thing. Unfortunately, that thought quickly turned to “oh no, not again.” No, it was not a severe injury, but a quick goal by Taylor Hall just over a minute into the first period. That is not the best way to start a game, especially for a team like the Wild who have been out of the win column for too long, but also not good for a team that often struggles to win games. Marco Scandella at first was able to get the puck off of Jordan Eberle’s stick, but Eberle was able to easily get the puck back and get the puck to Hall. How a team responds after an early game is extremely important. Thankfully, Minnesota pressured Nikolai Khabibulin almost immediately after Hall’s goal. Their feet were moving and more importantly the puck was moving. We’ve all seen games where the Wild look extremely flat, but tonight was not one of those. However, you also have to worry about early goals motivating the scoring team to score more, and Edmonton was certainly trying to get more of their own. Near the middle of the period, Darroll Powe had some moments where he showed some strength, both physically and shotwise. First there was a powerful shoulder to shoulder hit near the boards on Sam Gagner followed almost immediately by a shot on goal. It would be great to see Powe continue to have more moments like that on a more regular basis. Minnesota would continue to pressure Edmonton, which is certainly something everyone is glad to see these days. Thanks to hard work by the still snake-bitten Marek Zidlicky none other than Mikko Koivu was able to even things up. Koivu strangely enough had plenty of time to get his shot off. You have to wonder what the Edmonton skaters were thinking by giving Koivu that much time and space. However, I don’t really care, as it helped Minnesota. With the score tied, Edmonton tried hard to take the game back, but then Minnesota tried to get the lead and came very, very close to doing so. With just over two minutes left in the period, the physical element of the period boiled over. First, Theo Peckham decided to leave his feet and aim for Brad Staubitz’s head. Now, he missed his target, however the intent was there, as no one leaps in the air to just hit another player’s shoulders, unless they’re really short and the target is say someone like Zdeno Chara or the late Derek Boogaard, two players that tower over everyone. Staubitz ended up dumping Peckham in the Oilers bench. Staubitz ended up going to the box as well for a few extra shots at Peckham when he was in the bench. Also heading to the box were Ben Eager and Matt Kassian, both for misconduct. The period would end with four on four play, which would be finished in the early parts of the second period.
2nd Period Thoughts: The physical play continued into the second. While not as chippy initially as moments in the first, it did pick up. First there was the high stick of Mikko Koivu on Shawn Horcoff that gave the Oilers a four minute powerplay. However, let me say this. If you’re “injured” enough for it to be a double minor, you shouldn’t be on the ice for the first puck drop of the power play like Horcoff was. I remember games where Wes Walz or Jim Dowd would be bleeding after taking a high stick to the face, and the officials wouldn’t let them be on the ice until they were patched up. The penalties on both teams were staring to pile, neither team really getting the full benefit of the extra man. The Edmonton bench was upset on a non-call on a follow-through high stick on Taylor Hall. It was so upsetting that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins received an unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty, most likely for chirping at the officials. However, the momentum went in the Wild’s favor. Just past the ten minute mark of the period, Wild rookie Jared Palmer found the back of Khabibulin’s net with first career NHL goal. It would be the first time of the night that Minnesota had the lead. They would continue that trend by a fantastic goal by Pierre-Marc Bouchard, rolling puck and all. With that goal, the Oilers took their time out. Bouchard’s goal was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Edmonton decided to use their fists in an attempt to get some energy. Darcy Hordichuk chose Matt Kassian as his sparring partner, and unfortunately for the Oilers, the fight also went in the Wild’s favor. Unfortunately, the Oilers weren’t completely down and out. Ben Eager was being his normal pest self, and between his physical play, his teammates being able to hold the zone, Ladislav Smid was able to get one past Backstrom. I have to admit, I was afraid that would be the sign of an Edmonton comeback, but thankfully Dany Heatley was able to score one of his own about forty second later. The last four minutes of so of the period were a showcase of hard work and great shots by both teams. It was a fantastic way to end the period, and should say to the league “the Wild are not boring.”
3rd Period Thoughts: The third started with a goaltender change for the Edmonton Oilers, with Devan Dubnyk taking over for Khabibulin. The fisticuffs started early in this period, in face just three seconds in to the period. Hordichuk decided he wanted a rematch with Kassian. And like the first time, it didn’t go his way the second time either. One has to wonder if there will be a third meeting later in this games, of course if there is, the two of them will be sent to their respective locker rooms. While you hate for players to be ejected from the games, this is one of those cases where I’d like to see it happen, because I would prefer to have Hordichuk out action. What became evident in tonight’s game, was a return to basics, such as keeping one’s stick on the ice. When you do that, and you support your goaltender, you’re going to keep the puck away from your net. Unfortunately, the penalties were continuing to pile up, although most of them being of the even-up variety. First Colten Teubert and Cal Clutterbuck go to the box, Clutterbuck going for diving. Then there were the coincidental penalties by Ryan Jones for goaltender interference and Backstrom for roughing. Unfortunately, during that period of four on four time, Horcoff pulled the Oilers within one goal. The last five minutes of the game saw both teams vying more goals, but the Oilers appeared to be especially trying to apply more pressure. The end of the game saw the Wild once again battling another penalty kill, due to some sort of mysterious interference call on Justin Falk. Of course there is one small benefit having to kill penalties with under two minutes left in regulation, and that is you get to ice the puck without penalty. And that is exactly what the Wild were able to do. In the end, Minnesota was able to finally end the eight-game losing streak, and in regulation as well. The feisty nature of the game didn’t end with the final horn either. Backstrom, who has had to deal with Ryan Smyth all night long (and series long), finally said enough was enough. After the final buzzer, Backstrom gave Smyth a push in the back, which Smyth paid back with a punch at Backstrom. Tonight, this game felt a bit more like the games when we were in the middle of our seven-game winning streak. Hopefully this win, starts a new winning streak as we embark on the new year.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Matt Cullen, Mikko Koivu, Darroll Powe, Dany Heatley, Brad Staubitz, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Nick Johnson, Matt Kassian, Warren Peters, Jared Palmer, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, Justin Falk, Nick Schultz. Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st star, Matt Kassian; 2nd star, Nate Prosser; 3rd star, Jared Palmer.
~ Attendance was 19,194 at Xcel Energy Center.
Wild Prospect Update:
C – Tyler Graovac (Ottawa, OHL) ~ Graovac made his return to the 67’s lineup after missing nearly 3 weeks with a concussion. Staying healthy has been a struggle for the 6’4″ 190lbs centerman. The Brampton, Ontario-native had a tripping minor and no points in his first game back last night, which was a 4-1 win for Ottawa over the Kingston Frontenacs.
C – Zack Phillips (Saint John, QMJHL) ~ Like the situation with Brett Bulmer, I’m sure its been tough for Phillips to hear how well Team Canada is doing, especially when you consider teammates Jonathan Huberdeau and Nathan Beaulieu are playing so effectively. Phillips was held scoreless last night, a 4-3 loss to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. On the bright side Phillips was very strong on his faceoffs, going 8-for-12 on his draws (66.6%).
D – Nick Seeler (Muskegon, USHL) ~ The Eden Prairie standout had an assist and was a -1 in the Lumberjacks 3-2 loss to the Indiana Ice Wednesday night. Seeler currently has 2 goals and 10 points in 22 games for Muskegon this season.
Boys High School Hockey Report:
St. Paul Premier Tournament Championship ~ Eagan 3, Woodbury 2 – #5 ranked Eagan had a bit of a scare Wednesday night as they rallied back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Royals 3-2. Right from the drop of the puck, Eagan dominated much of the play where they peppered Woodbury’s Josh Erickson with shots but he was up to the task and despite being heavily out shot the Royals had managed to keep the powerful Wildcats attack scoreless through the 1st period. In the 2nd, the Royals would begin to sew a seed of doubt as the big bodied junior forward Ryan Winter stole a puck and raced down the ice on a shorthanded rush where he lifted a shot over Eagan’s freshman goaltender Andrew Lindgren to put Woodbury up 1-0. The goal got Woodbury going and Eagan would show some frustration as they’d take a costly penalty. Right off the opening faceoff of the man advantage, freshman Royals’ defenseman Hayden Shaw wound up and blasted a shot from the point that beat Lindgren to make it 2-0. At this point you could see a little desperation in the Wildcats game, and they immediately started to pour it on offensively. Woodbury found itself under siege on a variety of chances but at times Eagan was guilty of making one too many passes and being their own worst enemy. After a blown 4-on-2 rush, Eagan Head Coach Mike Taylor called for simplicity from his players and the shots on goal really started to pile up. Senior defenseman Derick Kuchera skated into the high slot before rifling a laser of a wrist shot that clanked off the right post and in to cut Woodbury’s lead to one, and you could sense a huge shift in momentum at this point. The Wildcats continued to blast away at Woodbury who just did not have the speed to elude Eagan’s stifling forecheck. Eagan would tie the game with just over a minute left in the period when Nick Kuchera banged home a rebound and the Wildcats had all of the momentum going into the 3rd period. In the 3rd period, you could sense where things were headed after Woodbury failed to register a single shot despite having 1:26 power play time to start the final stanza. Eagan’s superior team speed was paying dividends as they aggressively forechecked their way through a series of Woodbury power plays throughout the 3rd. The Wildcats would eventually take the lead, on a shot by Will Merchant taken from just above the right faceoff circle which was re-directed by Michael Zajac that beat Erickson on what would be the game winner about mid-way through the period. Eagan continued to pepper Erickson with shots as they looked for an insurance goal but the Woodbury goaltender was very solid. The game was more or less tilted in Woodbury’s end until the final two minutes of play when Derick Kuchera was tagged with a cross checking call as well as a game misconduct. Shortly into the Woodbury power play, Eagan would be given an a ‘contact to the head’ penalty on their top pairing defenseman Sam Wolfe. With a two man advantage the Royals were able to keep the puck in the Eagan zone a little bit as they worked a few backdoor plays but Lindgren came up with some big saves to give the Wildcats its 3rd straight Premier Tournament Championship. On a side note, Anoka took home 3rd place honors after routing North St. Paul 7-0.
Schwan’s Cup Gold Division Championship ~ Duluth East 6, Minnetonka 2 – If college football has its BCS Championship, then the winter tournament season has the Schwan’s Cup Gold Division championship that fittingly saw #1 ranked Duluth East face #2 ranked Minnetonka. Duluth East wasted little time, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the 1st period. Then struck twice in the first 48 seconds of the 2nd period on goals by Jack Forbort and Dom Toninato. At this point the Skippers realized the game was slipping away from them so they switched goalies with the hope of refocusing the team but it didn’t change much at all. Minnetonka’s Head Coach Brian Urick felt his team was taking too many reckless chances and the Greyhounds took full advantage of it. With the game clearly in Duluth East’s control they would relax a bit and the Skippers were able to score twice to make the score a bit more respectable. Urick estimated that his team gave up 10 odd-man rushes with their ill-advised pinching and felt the outcome would serve as a lesson for his team to learn from. On the other side of the bench, in sort of Mike Yeo-like fashion, Duluth East’s bench boss Mike Randolph felt the team played very well in the 1st two periods but was clearly annoyed with the way they played in the 3rd period. The Greyhounds are still undefeated at 11-0, and its safe to say they’re the favorite to win the State title this season in Class AA.