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Timely goals in the 1st period help lift Wild to 3-2 road victory over the Coyotes

“Here comes Santa Claus, right sown Santa Claus lane, Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer, Pullin’ on the reins, Bells are ringin’, children are singin’, all is merry and bright, hang your stockings and say your prayers Santa Claus is coming tonight” might be something the Wild should consider.  While Wild defenseman Brent Burns may be singing “All I want for christmas is my two front teeth” after colliding with teammate Greg Zanon resulting in the loss of a few chicklets in last week Friday’s game against Calgary which ended in a 3-2 shootout loss.  Either way its that time of year, whether its the snow shoveling or the endless and unavoidable amounts of holiday music that is tagged to virtually every commercial on TV the reminder is constant.  Its nearing the holidays, and whether you celebrate Kwanza, Hanukah, Christmas or my personal favorite, Festivus (“Festivus for the rest of us” of Seinfeld fame) its a time to show those that we care about that we appreciate them.  While some decry that the holidays have become too commercialized, I would ask them to show me a major holiday that hasn’t been exploited by big business.  Anyways, I guess this is the perfect opportunity to wish all of my readers out there a happy and safe holidays and that I hope all of your holiday wishes come true!  Now that you’ve given me that Full House-worthy “awww” I think its also the right time to talk about gifts.  Afterall, as kids, many judge the holidays almost solely on what they received as presents as to whether it was a good holidays or not.  So what would you, Wild fans wish to receive from the Wild?  Is it a goal scoring sniper for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft?  Is it salary cap relief?  Is it that one or more of the team’s prospects really takes off to become a superstar?  Is it that Andrew Brunette get rocket skates so he can skate faster than slow motion for a change?  Is it the rather un-cheery sight of a pink slip of termination for Wild Head Coach Todd Richards?  Is it the Wild qualifying for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs?  The choices and possibility of requests are endless but I can assure you that whatever you are wanting from the Wild, Santa Claus (i.e. General Manager Chuck Fletcher) will be “makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s been naughty or nice” and perhaps those players who have been naughty (cough haven’t gave a full effort ) will be sent out of town. 

So the Holidays are a time for giving, and the Wild have already given opposing teams plenty already by losing its last 5 straight games.  Its time for the Wild to get some gifts of its own.  Its time for some of its players to step up and repay the gratitude (heavy salaries) they’ve been given (cough Mikko Koivu cough), and its time holiday colored team that the Wild are finally bring some cheer to the Xcel Energy Center in the form of wins which have been a 50/50 proposition so far this season.  The Phoenix Coyotes would also enjoy some giving, from its fans for whom the team has provided winning hockey but they have shown precious little loyalty as they dress up as empty seats most nights.  So what will the Wild find in its stocking tonight, a nice gift of a victory or just a sad lump of coal as they feel the misery of losing their 6th straight? 

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The Coyotes would win the initial draw and pull it back into its own end but the Wild were aggressive and little turnover by Phoenix down low to Antti Miettinen who drove to the crease for a quick shot that was directed aside by Ilya Bryzgalov.  The Wild were skating very well to start the period as Brent Burns took away an attempted drop pass by Taylor Pyatt and immediately go on the attack as he dished the puck up to Martin Havlat who raced back into the Phoenix zone where he slid the puck back to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who fired a wrist shot that was deflected up into the netting by Bryzgalov.  Minnesota was winning most of the races for the loose puck and was anticipating well early on.  The game had a great pace with both teams well rested flying all over the ice.  The Coyotes first quality chance, where a redirected shot nearly ended up on the stick of a wide open Lee Stempniak who was foiled by a diving poke check by Niklas Backstrom.  The Wild tried to counter and it was Patrick O’Sullivan showing some dangle as he attempted to work the puck near the crease but Minnesota wasn’t able to generate much other than a few long range shots as Chuck Kobasew fired a shot that was covered up by Bryzgalov.  Minnesota’s assertiveness was beginning to pay off and a nice play through the neutral zone turned into a 2-on-1 for Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette and the Wild captain was able to draw the defenders towards him before threading a backhand pass to Brunette who skated in and beat Bryzgalov with a pretty little backhander that he lifted over the Coyotes goalie to take a 1-0 lead.  The Wild continued to apply pressure and the KISS-principle offense; of just shooting the puck whenever they had the opportunity was being followed as Eric Nystrom would move into the Coyotes’ zone where he fired a slap shot that Bryzgalov covered as Nystrom stormed the crease.  The Coyotes was trying to weather the Wild assault by taking a few chances of their own and Wild “killer” Scottie Upshall attempted an against the grain wrist shot that was gloved by Backstrom.  The Coyotes then would try to work the cycle down low as Martin Hanzal used his big frame to shield the puck before moving it out to the point to Sami Lepisto who flung a quick diagonal pass to Ray Whitney who blasted a one timer that was snagged by Backstrom.  Minnesota would try to show some hard work along the boards of its own as the 2nd line of Kyle Brodziak, Bouchard and Havlat would simply out work and out skate the Coyotes for the biscuit culminating a scoring chance for Brodziak who got a snap shot off that was pounced upon by Bryzgalov.  The Wild’s hard work would pay off on the next shift, as Minnesota drew a hooking penalty on Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  On the power play the Wild would struggle to get set up against the Coyotes penalty kill which challenged the puck carrier very well through the neutral zone.  It would take almost a minute before the Wild were able to get set up, and they had a great potential chance as Havlat nearly was able to feed Cal Clutterbuck who was wide open on the backside but his cross-ice pass was deflected out of harm’s way by Keith Yandle.  Minnesota would come up empty on the power play, and as Ekman-Larsson exited the box he picked up the loose puck and drove deep into the Wild zone where he was being chased by Clutterbuck but before he took a big hit he fed it back into the slot for Pyatt who chipped a shot by Backstrom to tie the game at 1-1.  The game would sort of resume a furious pace for the next minute or so as both teams would trade rushes against one another, and it was Phoenix coming close to taking the lead where a long wrister by Eric Belanger was knocked down by Backstrom but he couldn’t pounce the rebound and Shane Doan swept in and lifted the puck over him but it would strike the crossbar and carom out.  Minnesota would try to strike back and it was O’Sullivan who tried to connect on a long diagonal pass with a crashing Matt Cullen but Bryzgalov would reach out his paddle and the puck would ramp up his his stick and into the netting behind the goal.  In the last minute of play, the Wild’s top line had another great scoring chance as Miettinen redirected a point shot just wide but Minnesota would gather the puck up where Miettinen flung a pass towards the crease where it was tapped in by Brent Burns who had worked his way right to the top of the crease to give the State of Hockey a 2-1 lead going into the 2nd period. 

The 2nd period would start out with a slower pace with both teams using a more cautious style as the Coyotes sat back in a 1-2-2 hoping for a mistake and they nearly got it as an outlet pass was stolen by Doan who fired a shot on goal that was steered away by Backstrom but right to Upshall who turned and flung a shot that hit the side of the goal.  Phoenix continued to pour it on early as they again found some space in the slot where Backstrom got some help from Cam Barker who made a save with his skate before it was swept out of danger by Kobasew.  The Coyotes were pinching in defensively trying to support the play offensively.  Minnesota would try to counter attack with speed but they were unable to generate much more than just one shot at a time and then they’d have to retreat back to their own zone.  Niklas Backstrom was challenging the shooter aggressively, moving way out of his crease as he denied Radim Vrbata on a slapper taken from the right faceoff dot.  You could also see Minnesota try to rally back with some great play along the boards down low in the Phoenix zone by Koivu and Brunette but they just weren’t able to get the puck away from the Coyotes defense.  The Wild were starting to tilt the ice back towards the Phoenix end, as Koivu and Brunette had another dominant shift a few minutes later where Koivu flung a quick wrist shot that was walled off by Bryzgalov.  Tempers would flare a few moments later when Barker seemed to get into it with the Coyotes Twitter phenom Paul Bissonette.  The Wild would try to take advantage of the Coyotes’ willingness to pinch with its defense as Burns tried to join the rush and his redirect play was stymied by the stop of the Phoenix goalie.  Minnesota was doing a nice job of disrupting the Phoenix attempts to mount a rush of its own with good actives ticks through the neutral zone.  Phoenix had some better success at sustaining offensive pressure by working its line of big-bodied forwards to cycle the puck but despite their puck possession they were unable to generate a quality shot on goal.  Both teams would be playing rather cautiously, retreating quickly to try to help out defensively and the result was shots were hard to come by.  The Wild tried to get back on the scoreboard as a Barker wrist shot would float down near the crease as Brodziak and Bouchard tried to jam a puck by Bryzgalov who hd sat down to make sure there was no way it was sneaking underneath his leg pads.  Moments later, the Wild continued to swarm near the Phoenix crease as Martin Havlat tried to wrap a shot by the Coyotes goaltender and as he jammed at the puck he would get a facewash by Yandle.  Minnesota continued to win the races for the loose puck in the Phoenix zone and the top line was able to threaten the Coyotes a bit more but they just weren’t able to put a real quality shot on goal.  The 2nd period would end with Minnesota still holding a one-goal lead, 2-1 Wild. 

The Coyotes tried to dominate right at the drop of the puck to start the 3rd while they were able to set up a blast from the point by Yandle.  Minnesota counter attacked with its 2nd line who had a nice shift, as Havlat was really attempting to dangle and take the puck to the crease but the Coyotes blueliners were bale to sweep away the dangerous pucks before Bouchard or Brodziak could take advantage of the bouncing pucks near the crease.  The Wild had another great scoring chance a few minutes later when Kobasew feed a puck to Patrick O’Sullivan who found himself in the slot, and after fanning on his first attempt he got off a quick shot that was stopped by the quick legs of Bryzgalov before getting a stick to the face by Ed Jovanovski to no penalty called.  He would have to receive a little attention from Wild trainer Don Fuller as his mouth was a little bloody after the incident.  Minnesota would earn a penalty just moments later as Ekman-Larsson tried to throw the puck out of the zone where he got a delay of game penalty for closing his hand on the puck.  On the power play Minnesota was making crisp passes but not quite enough puck movement to get the Coyotes penalty killers out of position to open up a few shooting lanes.  The Coyotes would get the big kill and then go on the attack as Doan and their big bodied line cycled the puck effectively forcing Backstrom to make a few quality saves.  Phoenix would then try to work the cycle with its smaller line and they came close to tying the game when they set up Whitney for a one-timer from the high slot who blistered a slapper just over the goal.  The Wild would again challenge well through the neutral zone and Andrew Brunette would intercept a pass in the neutral zone and he’d help start a rush into the Coyotes zone where Koivu attempted a drop pass that was just a little behind and out of reach of Brunette but the line kept working and nearly set up Brunette near the top of the crease as Minnesota was again able to create a little offensive pressure.  Minnesota’s forwards were also backchecking well as Havlat made a nice play in the defensive zone to support the Wild blueliners as the State of Hockey would continue to hustle and move its feet and it would be rewarded for its hard work.  That reward would come in the form of a power play, when Adrian Aucoin would hold up Mikko Koivu who was on the forecheck.  This time the Wild would make the Coyotes for their lack of discipline with the man advantage as Pierre-Marc Bouchard would create a little movement by going down near the halfwall before passing it back to Marek Zidlicky who unleashed a wrist shot that was redirected perfectly by Brunette to beat Bryzgalov to give Minnesota a 3-1 lead.  The Coyotes tried to answer back as Wojtek Wolski skated towards the crease and his wrister was steered wide by Backstrom.  Minnesota was paying the price physically to help their goaltender as Greg Zanon was blocking shots, as you could tell he was laboring after making the play but he had the presence of mind to bail out the Wild by clearing away a loose puck that sat in the crease.  Rather predictably it was at this point that the Coyotes would be given a power play as Scottie Upshall did a nice acting job to draw a roughing call on Cal Clutterbuck.  Minnesota was challenging the Coyotes through the neutral zone forcing Phoenix to settle for a dump in as the Wild defense quickly retreated and attempted to blast the puck off the glass but to no avail.  When the clearing attempt didn’t work Minnesota’s forwards were still hustling well and Madden made a nice diving play to clear the zone.  The Wild would get the big penalty kill but Minnesota would get another bogus call as Barker was tagged for tripping after giving a nice check.  Phoenix had a great chance early on this new power play as Whitney moved in and slid a pass to the crease where Vrbata looked to be perfectly set up by somehow Backstrom kept it out of his goal and after a flurry near his crease he’d cover up the biscuit to get the whistle.  With 1:40 left to play, Phoenix would pull Bryzgalov for an extra attacker to make it a 6-on-4 power play.  Minnesota was playing well positionally and keeping their sticks active to try to challenge those passes, but it was only a matter of time before Phoenix was able to overwhelm the Wild’s defense and it was Shane Doan wiring a shot that beat Backstrom who was scrambling all over his crease to cut the Wild lead to one.  A few  moments later, the Coyotes would pully Bryzgalov with about 30 seconds left.  The Wild would scramble some more, but Havlat was able to carry the puck out of danger and Minnesota would hold on for a 3-2 victory. 

Niklas Backstrom was fairly solid, making 33 saves in the win.  He was having to deal with traffic near his crease throughout most of the game and doing a fair job of finding the puck to make the key saves to keep the Coyotes from having much momentum in this game.  Backstrom was poised and no doubt it was a huge relief for him to earn a win this evening.  Defensively the Wild were fairly solid and its hard to fault them for some of the calls late in the game when it was painfully obvious the officials were giving some early holiday gifts to Phoenix just because Minnesota had earned 3 power plays up until that point in the game.  Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky got involved offensively but they would not have been able to do their jobs if it hadn’t been for the Wild’s forwards showing good dedication to helping out in the team’s own end with some great backchecking.  Havlat and Koivu were doing an excellent job defensively to make some crucial plays down the stretch. 

Offensively the Wild had an outstanding game from its top two lines; but the line of Koivu, Mietinen and Brunette really was a factor nearly all game long.  Koivu was very assertive, moving his feet well and playing like a dominant player especially along the boards and his two assists are all do his great effort.  One line that didn’t really end up with points but played very well was Havlat, Brodziak and Bouchard line who continue to demonstrate excellent chemistry and were a threat to score all night.  Havlat continues to play with urgency and is really starting to show off his skills and talents providing energy and creativity in each of his shifts.  Minnesota wasn’t pretty on the power play but they finally used a little more player movement on their last goal and it was Bouchards’ move to the half wall that gave Zidlicky the space to use a wrist shot from the point that turned out to be a game winner.  Bouchard is still not going into the corners, but he is making good plays to his linemates and giving the Wild a legitimate 2nd line. 

Todd Richards said that he felt his team played extremely hard tonight, and felt he got a effort from all of his players.  Richards added in his post-game interview to the media, “It was a big game for us, you’ve got to look to your big dogs, you look at Mikko, Brunette and Miettinen, you’ve got to look to those guys.”  You could argue this was one of the team’s better efforts all season long and Phoenix is a team that can expose foolish mistakes rather well but overall Minnesota didn’t make many.  Sure the Wild got lucky a few times as the Coyotes missed on a few of its chances but it was far more disciplined than the last time the two teams played against one another on December 1st.  This was a quality win for the Wild, but they will have to ready themselves for another tough battle Saturday when they travel to take on the Los Angeles Kings who have struggled as of late.  Hopefully Minnesota takes what it learned tonight about just how valuable scoring first can be.  I wouldn’t say this was a gift from Santa, but it was a nice little holiday treat nonetheless. 

Wild Notes:

~ The Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Martin Havlat, Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Patrick O’Sullivan, John Madden, Cal Clutterbuck, Chuck Kobasew, Eric Nystrom, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Jared Spurgeon, Greg Zanon, Cam Barker, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns.  Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom.  Clayton Stoner and Brad Staubitz were the healthy scratches.  Guillaume Latendresse is still recovering from groin and sports hernia surgery he received nearly a month ago. 

~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Niklas Backstrom, 2nd Star Andrew Brunette, 3rd Star Taylor Pyatt

~ Attendance tonight at Jobing.com Arena was 7,749 at the game which I must admit I highly doubt to be true since most of the arena appeared to be empty. 

Wild Prospect Report:

Great news for the Wild as the team will be well represented at this year’s World Junior Under-20 tournament.  The Wild should have as many as 5 players playing for the United States, Finland and Sweden in the annual tourney, which pits some of the best young players in the world against each other.  The tournament is followed with incredible analysis and coverage north of the 49th parallel but seems to be ignored somewhat in the U.S.  Team USA has performed very well the last few years and will be the tournament’s defending champion after shocking Team Canada up in Saskatoon on a John Carlson overtime goal last year.  The U-20 tournament is also a crucial showcase for the few NHL hopefuls to boost their stock for the upcoming 2011 draft which will be held in St. Paul this summer.  A good or a bad tournament can really have the scouts be your best supporter or your worst enemy as the event serves as a solid baseline you can see how the Europeans stack up against their North American peers. 

One such WJC hopeful is Jason Zucker who won a gold medal with Team USA last year.  Zucker has been fantastic for the Denver Pioneers (where he is one of the top freshman in goal scoring) and will be looked to provide his speed, and offense for a possible repeat in what will likely be the somewhat friendly confines of HSBC Arena in Buffalo.  Other Wild prospects that will be there are Minnesota’s 1st round pick from last season in Mikael Granlund who has had a tough start to 2010-11 by suffering a concussion in mid-October.  Mikael should play a crucial role for team Finland, while his brother Markus Granlund who is also a small but skilled player, is hoping to make his draft stock rise. Another hopeful for the Finnish team is Wild prospect Erik Haula who is also having a terrific freshman season with the Golden Gophers.  Haula was a rather puzzling omission from last year’s squad from what some felt was an issue between the Finnish team execs and Haula’s dad who apparently is considered tough to deal with.  Either way, the fact Haula is playing so well and Finland has always struggled offensively should mean he’d give a spot on the roster.  He certainly has been deserving of that honor.  The Wild will have two members on team Sweden with hard working forward Johan Larsson and goaltender Johan Gustafsson

While that is all good for the Wild there are other Minnesota connections likely to have a good chance to play as blueliners as UMD’s Justin Faulk (South St. Paul), North Dakota’s Derek Forbort (North Dakota), former Wild 1st round pick Nick Leddy (Eden Prairie, MN), in addition to the Golden Gophers’ Nick Bjugstad (Blaine, MN), North Dakota’s Brock Nelson (Warroad, MN) giving the State of Hockey another chance to be well represented.