|Minnesota Wild||(16-14-5)||37||3rd NW||2.46 (25th)||2.74 (13th)||22.0%(7th)||
|San Jose Sharks
||(19-12-5)||43||3rd Pacific||2.89 (12th)||2.75 (14th)||22.4% (6th)||82.4% (12th)|
|Top 5 Scorers:||G||A||Pts|
|1. #24 Martin Havlat||8||23||31|
|2. #9 Mikko Koivu||8||21||29|
|3. #7 Matt Cullen||8||14||22|
|4. #8 Brent Burns||10||11||21|
|5. #3 Marek Zidlicky||4||16||20|
|Top 3 Penalty Minutes:||PIM|
|1. #16 Brad Staubitz||57|
|2. #8 Brent Burns||41|
|3. #9 Mikko Koivu||28|
|1. #32 Niklas Backstrom (12-9-3)||2.58||.919|
|2. #60 Jose Theodore (4-5-2)||2.71||.911|
San Jose Sharks
|Top 5 Scorers:||G||A||Pts|
|1. #15 Dany Heatley||14||18||32|
|2. #19 Joe Thornton||8||24||32|
|3. #29 Ryane Clowe||9||22||31|
|4. #12 Patrick Marleau||13||15||28|
|5. #8 Joe Pavelski||9||18||27|
|Top 3 Penalty Minutes:||PIM|
|1. #10 Jamal Mayers||69|
|2. #29 Ryane Clowe||53|
|3. #21 Scott Nichol||40|
|1. #30 Antero Niitymaki (12-3-3)||2.31||.910|
|2. #31 Antti Niemi (7-9-2)||3.08||.900|
As a hockey fan, if you look around the area you can’t help but notice its tournament time. Normally if I were to say ‘tournament time’ you may think I was referring to March where high school and college tournaments play for championships, pride and prestige of their respective schools. Yet in the grand scheme of things, one can argue that true ‘tournament time’ is during the holidays where high schools and colleges participate in all sorts of invites, classics, and tourneys that give fans a huge plethora of choices. In the State of Hockey, the Holidays are filled with High School hockey tournaments all over the state with 134 schools competing over the 7 or so days after Christmas. Included in those 134 schools are those from 7 different states and one Canadian province making for a truely diverse showcase of high school hockey for both boys and girls. One such tournament is the annual Premier Hockey Tournament held at South St. Paul’s Wakota Arena, the home arena that had produced Minnesota hockey legends such as Phil Housely and Doug Woog skating for their hometown South St. Paul Packers. Last night I attended the semi-final matchups between the Eagan Wildcats versus the Woodbury Royals as well as tournament host South St. Paul Packers versus the Hopkins Royals. Eagan absolutely dominated Woodbury from start to finish, where the Royals struggled against Eagan’s aggressive and physical style as the Wildcats cruised to a 5-1 victory. In the other semi-final, the South St. Paul Packers overcame some early defensive lapses that had them down 1-0 to the Royals to answer right back with 4 quick goals to roll to a 6-2 rout of Hopkins. It has all the makings of a true barn burner as the 7-1 Packers play the 5-2-1 Wildcats tonight for the championship. However, the tournaments are hardly confined to the State of Hockey as the U-20 World Junior Championships are taking place in Buffalo, NY. Defending Champion, Team USA continues to play well after crushing Slovakia 6-1 last night in round-robin action, unfortunately the tournament has been scarred by a large number of hits to the head that has created some scary moments on the ice. For Wild fans, the sight of a very promising prospect in left winger Jason Zucker getting clocked by a nasty elbow by Slovakia’s Martin Marincin is an all too familiar sign that players do not seem to have the respect for one another as they did in year’s past. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Zucker who was clearly a bit dazed and confused after the hit left the game with a head injury (i.e. concussion) and there is no timetable for his return. In response, former NHL referee Dan Marouelli who is serving as the International Ice Hockey Federation rules czar for the WJC’s handed down a big 4-game suspension for Marincin and a 3-game suspension to Canada’s Zack Kassian for a similar hit he delivered in a game against Switzerland. Hopefully Zucker recovers quickly as he has played fairly well this season and in the tournament thus far. If the high school and junior tournament isn’t your cup of tea perhaps the college game is more your style and the Minnesota Golden Gophers are holding their annual Dodge Holiday Classic this weekend where they battle the Union Flying Dutchman on Friday at 6:07PM. So needless to say there is plenty of hockey to be had.
If that isn’t enough there is always the local NHL team to follow, the Minnesota Wild is coming off of one of its most heart-wrenching defeats after a 4-3 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets Monday night. Minnesota sent down baby faced defenseman Jared Spurgeon back to its American Hockey League affiliate the Houston Aeros which means Clayton Stoner and Marco Scandella will have to battle for one of the last spots on the Wild blueline. Scandella has really impressed the last few games, showing excellent physical resiliency as well as some of his savvy offensive instincts that made him a top pairing defenseman for Team Canada’s WJC squad a season ago. He certainly seems to have the confidence of Wild Head Coach Todd Richards who did not hesitate to use the youngster in all key situations against Columbus proving that he is one of the organizations most promising prospects. Richards also noted he felt he had a solid game from Cam Barker who not only supported the play offensively but even showed a little sandpaper as he answered some of the physical challenges from the Blue Jackets. One area where the Wild must be better is between the pipes where both Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore had games they’d like to forget against Detroit and Columbus repsectively. They must be a source of strength for the Wild no matter who they are playing, let alone tonight’s opponent in the San Jose Sharks.
Offensively the Wild must find a way to make the power play effective by punishing their opponent for a lack of discipline. Against Columbus, Minnesota’s power play really dropped the ball despite having numerous chances to put the Blue Jackets away. It will not be easy to beat San Jose’s tough penalty kill, but offensively the Wild still rely rather heavily on production on the man advantage to win games and the team simply lacks the offensive firepower to games only with goals created at even strength. Power play goals not only establish a feeling of confidence but are demoralizing to your opponent who feels the pain from making mistakes. On Monday the Wild power play unit was a practice in futility and it emboldened a team that was lacking confidence that it could manage to win the game and it pulled off the victory. Good teams make their opponents pay for their lack of discipline and they finish off the weaker teams more often than not. Bad teams find ways to give their opponents opportunities to re-establish their confidence or provide them with chances to beat them and the Wild did precisely that with some lazy play in its own zone.
The San Jose Sharks in some ways are similar to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both teams are capable of some very impressive play but have lacked consistency throughout the season. The Sharks at times can resemble the team that won the President’s Trophy and at others look frazzled and indifferent. It has been feast or famine for them all season. They have the talent in veteran playmaker Joe Thornton, scoring ability in sniper Dany Heatley and and ‘Mr. Clutch’ Joe Pavelski as well as plenty of speed in Patrick Marleau and grit from the powerful Ryane Clowe but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to show up each night. The Sharks leading goal scorer is rookie Logan Couture who has 18 goals, and the former Ottawa 67’s star had a hot start but has cooled off the last 10 games. So far the Sharks have had some underwhelming seasons from Marleau and Devin Setoguchi who currently has just 5 goals and 10 points is a sore spot for San Jose who is rumored to be looking for a top six forward via trade according to TSN’s Daren Dreger. Dreger also stated the team is looking for another defenseman, and this no doubt has been a response to the disappointing play of youngsters Derek Joslin and Jason Demers who looked like inexperienced rookies in a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of division rival Los Angeles on Monday evening. Between the pipes it has been a bit of a soap opera as their Finnish-born tandem of Antero Niitymaki and Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi have been just as inconsistent as the team in front of them has. Niitymaki has been the better of the two goaltenders but no doubt the Sharks like Niemi’s recent playoff pedigree and hope he re-establishes hismelf as a force in the Sharks’ crease.
It should also be noted that Dreger told NHL Live’s Billy Jaffe that he did not think there really was any interest from any of the league’s 29 other teams in former Wild sniper Brian Rolston who was recently called up on re-entry waivers by the New Jersey Devils who were hoping someone would take the veteran at half price which would be around $2.5 million per season. Initially Dreger said there was a little interest from a few teams, noting the Wild was a possible destination but concerns over the health of Rolston has been the reason he has had no takers. Personally I think that is a wise choice to pass on bringing back Rolston even though Minnesota could use a shooter in its lineup as it sorely misses the services of Guillaume Latendresse who was never afraid to fire the biscuit.
Minnesota will certainly have its work cut out for it. It did deserve a better fate on Monday night, but it also learned some painful lessons about the need to finish off the vulnerable when the opportunities present themselves. The Wild have a 3-game homestand and the Sharks will be hungry so they can expect a fast, and physically intense contest. Minnesota will be able to show whether it has learned its lessons from a few nights ago or will they give hockey fans more reasons to search out the many other opportunities to watch the game elsewhere.
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