Tense. Uncertain. Nervous.
Those are three words that could accurately describe the benches of both the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks. If there are players on either bench that don’t fully understand the ramifications of a loss tonight, I would be beyond shocked. Ideally, one would hope that both teams come out with fire tonight. However, it is more likely that they both come out with their collective poker faces tonight, cautiously feeling out the opposition. It is not unusual in situations such as these, that the first period if often slow, and quiet. It’s also not unusual for a team to try an tire out their opponent, whether through playing a physical game or simply forcing the other team to test their own endurance. It’s truly hard to say what will happen, as both teams have to weigh the risks. An error in judgement could easily spell doom. For the Wild, the stakes are huge. A win tonight, and they maintain their current presence in the playoff picture. A loss, and they’re back on the outside. If there’s one thing that the Wild have going for them, even if they lose, they know they can fight their way back in. It’s been their story since the All-Star Break. Adversity has brought them where they are today. So its just a matter of who will take a step forward and who will take a step back?
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1st Period Thoughts: Minnesota had a good first 10 minutes of the game, attacking well, forechecking well but as if on cue the team would back off and be content to play defense and wait to counter attack. I liked how they started, they were assertive and looked confident. Falling back and sitting in a passive 1-2-2 almost dared Chicago to go on the attack and to their credit they did. They started to use their collection of talented forwards to cause Minnesota some problems. Coinciding with Minnesota’s passive play was the fact they stopped their feet. When you stop your feet, you make a quick team seem even quicker. Despite having a mild amount of quality scoring chances to start the game there was no excuse for sitting back and just playing defense at this point in the game. I have a bad feeling about where this is going.
2nd Period Thoughts: It was a disastrous start, the Hawks drove the puck deep along the boards where Patrick Kane worked the puck from beneath the goal line out to Patrick Sharp who fired it by Backstrom to give Chicago a 1-0 lead. Minnesota just didn’t seem to have a lot of legs, and they were guilty of doing a lot of standing an floating around the ice and not getting a lot accomplished in the process. It almost looked like a prolonged Chicago power play as Minnesota was sitting back playing a very passive 1-2-2 but not skating well enough to actually trap the Blackhawks in the neutral zone. Minnesota wasn’t attacking, so Chicago did not hesitate to start pressing offensively and the laziness was bound to cost the Wild on the scoreboard. A quick little pass by former Vermont Catamount Viktor Stalberg, who fired a shot on goal which Backstrom stopped but he failed to control the rebound and Tomas Kopecky banged it by the Wild goalie to put Chicago up 2-0. The Wild tried to go on the attack, but it was clear they were way out of sync. Passes were consistently off target, or at the very least towards the back of the skates. Even when Minnesota managed to find some time in space in Chicago’s zone which was not easy to have with the Blackhawks backchecking so well, they missed their opportunities as a fanned one-timer by Chuck Kobasew drew a frustrated response from the sellout crowd. Minnesota would continue just play rope-a-dope and invite disaster as they did so. Late in the period, the Wild finally got a decent rush when Martin Havlat tried to dangle his way through the Blackhawks’ zone before it was taken off his stick by Patrick Kane who raced back towards the Minnesota end in a 2-on-1 with Jonathan Toews. Clayton Stoner did not play the 2-on-1 very well and over committed to trying to defend Kane who threaded a perfect cross-ice pass to Toews for the easy tap in goal to put Chicago up 3-0. On the play, Greg Zanon inexplicably pinched even though he was on the opposite side of the ice and that put his defensive partner Stoner out to dry. Just after the goal, Brad Staubitz tried to chase down a puck that was dumped into the Chicago zone which was touched up for icing by Brian Campbell as Staubitz crashed into the boards. The near hit, drew the ire of John Scott who went after Staubitz and the two would drop the gloves. Scott was dictating the fight with his superior size and reach, but Staubitz was throwing some punches his way. As the fight wore on, Staubitz was more or less holding on just hoping to avoid obliteration when the fight was broken up. The period would end a few minutes later, thankfully for the Wild with no more damage on the scoreboard than had already been done. It was a terrible period and Minnesota deserved the boo’s it received from the home crowd.
3rd Period Thoughts: In many ways this period was kind of bittersweet to watch. The Wild started the period like a team that was desperate and fighting for its playoff life. Minnesota would finally connect on the scoreboard when a long pass by Cal Clutterbuck reached Martin Havlat who moved in all alone on the breakaway where he would do a little shoulder shake before dusting off a backhand to forehand deke for a pretty goal that cut the Chicago lead to two, 3-1. Minnesota continued to press the attack and the scoring chances quickly began to pile up for the Wild. The Wild now suddenly had speed and Martin Havlat was initiating the attack every time he got the puck. Where was this Wild team during the first two periods? As nice as the sense of urgency was, it was not without its setbacks. Minnesota’s pressure began to create penalties by the Blackhawks, but the Wild were terribly ineffective. The first one was terribly disjointed, where the Wild seemed to have no plan or idea how they wanted to attack Corey Crawford. The Wild got better on the power play as the period wore on, but even as it moved the puck with more purpose and playing more effectively they were not taking their chances when the opportunity presented itself. Marek Zidlicky found himself uncontested along the left side of the Chicago goal, but instead of taking his chance to fire a shot off the back of Crawford he passed up on the opportunity altogether and a potential scoring chance was lost. Brent Burns began to turn up his game, and it was a rush that the skilled blueliner led that gave Minnesota a little more hope when he followed up his wrist shot that was stopped by Crawford and then shot the puck between his legs and by a few would be Chicago defenders and in, slicing the Blackhawks lead to one, 3-2. The Wild had another power play down the stretch which appeared to be just the chance the team needed to tally the equalizer. Minnesota moved the puck very well, peppering Crawford with chances. The sense of urgency was definitely there as Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Burns showed great skill holding the zone so Minnesota could continue to pressure Chicago. Yet it was the desperation that would come back to bite Minnesota as an errant pass was mishandled by Bouchard who dove to hold the puck into the zone but his attempt would give the Blackhawks a scoring chance shorthanded. Marek Zidlicky retreated to contest the 2-on-1 between Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, but he only made a token effor to stop the pass before Hossa buried the shorthanded goal which sealed the Wild’s fate 4-2.
Niklas Backstrom was just ok enough, making 30 saves in the win. Yet it was his defenseman who left him out to dry all too often. Some poorly played 2-on-1’s gave Backstrom no chance to stop the puck; and Clayton Stoner and Marek Zidlicky were guilty of that. Minnesota kept the Blackhawks’ power play off the score board but it wasn’t enough. Backstrom should’ve sued for a lack of support.
What was most disappointing was the team’s overall performance in a game it clearly KNEW it had to win. Was this team disappointed the organization didn’t make a flashy move during the trade deadline? Personally, I don’t care what they were thinking but they certainly were not focused nearly enough during the first two periods of this game. A 20-minute effort is not enough against a defending Stanley Cup champion. Shame on the Wild for missing a great opportunity and for their lack of energy they deserve the fate they got when they were booted out of the Western Conference Playoff picture!
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Chuck Kobasew, Kyle Brodziak, Warren Peters, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Cal Clutterbuck Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Martin Havlat, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Greg Zanon, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns. Jose Theodore backed up Niklas Backstrom. Cam Barker was the lone healthy scratch. James Sheppard (knee), Josh Harding (knee), Mikko Koivu (broken finger) and Guillaume Latendresse (groin and sports hernia).
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Jonathan Toews, 2nd Star Patrick Sharp, 3rd Star Martin Havlat
~ Attendance at tonight’s game was 19,115 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ The State of Hockey News would like to congratulate the Minnetonka Skippers (def. Edina) and the Warroad Warriors (def. South St. Paul) on being state champions of Class 2A and 1A respectively of Girls Hockey. In continued Class 2A action Coon Rapids (def. Hill-Murray) took home 3rd place while Elk River (def. Lakeville South) earned Consolation honors. Meanwhile in continued Class 1A action Red Wing (def. Hutchinson) earned 3rd place and Breck (def. Eveleth-Gilbert) took home Consolation. We would also like to congratulate Karley Sylvester of Warroad on being named 2011 Ms. Hockey and Julie Friend of Minnetonka as Goalie of the Year.
Wild Prospect Report:
C – Casey Wellman ~ Houston Aeros (AHL)
2010-11 Stats: 29GP 11G 11A = 22pts 12 PIM’s -1
Casey Wellman returned to the Aeros in a big way this weekend, scoring a goal in each of the last 3 games for the Aeros which included an overtime game-winner on Friday against the Texas Stars. Wellman is a key prospect for the Wild and injuries have not allowed him to really play as much as the Wild would’ve liked, but being slightly behind a point-per-game pace is encouraging. The speedy California-native is one of the few purely skilled forward prospects in its system. No doubt the Wild are hoping that the Aeros can make a long run in the AHL playoffs so he gets some ice time in big-game situations.
G – Darcy Kuemper ~ Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
2010-11 Stats: 54GP (39-11-4) 1.89GAA .932%SP 11 Shutouts
After enduring two very tough seasons with the Rebels, 2010-11 has to have been a ton of fun as he has vaulted himself to being the top goaltender in the WHL. The big bodied goaltender 6’4″, 195lbs has shown both confidence and poise that have made him a diamond in the rough considering Minnesota selected him in the 6th round (161st Overall) in 2009. Athletic, with good positioning he uses his big frame to maximum effect to take away windows for shooters to exploit. His 11 shutouts put him only 3 shutouts away from tying a WHL record for no-no’s in a single season.
High School Boys Hockey Report:
The Minnesota State Boys Hockey Tournament is almost upon us, here are the Class 2A section final match ups and a short preview of them all. As was the case in a previous gameday article, I am going to provide my prediction as we roll down the road to the State Tournament. Please share with me your predictions, and thoughts on these match ups.
#1 Lakeville South Cougars (14-8-2) Vs. #2 Lakeville North Panthers (10-14-1) ~ Lakeville South won both of the meetings these two had during the season in a 7-2 win on January 15th and most recently a 6-1 win on February 12th. The Cougars Justin Kloos (35 goals, 79 points) hopes to have his way with the Panthers again. Lakeville North will need to play solid defensively but also find the net more often as well, and will look to Blake Winiecki (23 goals, 48 points) to provide th offensive punch. Our Pick: Lakeville South will make its first trip to the State tournament as Kloos and the Cougars will be too much for Randy Schmitz‘s squad to handle.
#1 Edina Hornets (15-7-2) Vs. #2 Burnsville Blaze (17-4-4) ~ The Blaze and Hornets only met once this season, and Edina just managed to defeat Burnsville 5-4 back on December 2nd. So its pretty tough to say that will happen again. Especially when you consider how explosive the Blaze are offensively, led by senior Mike Dockry (29 goals, 67 points). The Hornets will lean heavily on senior goalie Connor Girard (9-6-2 record, 2.87 GAA and .889%) to hold off Burnsville. Burnsville believes this is their time to shine and Head Coach Janne Kivihalme will have his team focused to make an early statement by dispatching the perennial hockey powerhouse. Our Pick: I have never been a big fan of Edina, but they are team that seems to be at its best in big games. This time, I think the Blaze will make their statement in a close game.
#1 Eagan Wildcats (17-6-2) Vs. #2 Apple Valley Eagles (18-6-1) ~ This showdown has been brewing virtually all season long for this moment. I have no doubt this is a little personal for Eagan’s head coach Mike Taylor, the Apple Valley alum will have his team focused after being surprised by the Eagles last year in the section final. Both teams feature dynamic combinations of underclassman with the Wildcats featuring a trio of juniors in power forward Michael Zajac (23 goals, 51 points), speedy sniper Will Merchant (28 goals, 48 points) and set up man Nick Kuchera (10 goals, 38 points) while the Eagles have the duo of junior A.J. Michaelson (29 goals, 60 points) and super sophomore Hudson Fasching (16 goals, 45 points). Eagan won the team’s first meeting in a 4-2 victory on January 6th but tied 3-3 in their most recent match up on February 5th. Apple Valley is hoping senior goalie Aaron Gretz (17-6-1 record, 2.41 GAA and .896%) will be enough to make a 2nd consecutive trip to state. Our Pick: I think painful experiences can bring about focus, and since most of the Wildcats are back from last year’s squad they will be a little more primed which will give the Wildcats a trip to the “X”.
#1 Eden Prairie Eagles (18-5-2) Vs. #2 Wayzata Trojans (18-5-2) ~ They say familiarity breeds contempt and that is no doubt going to be a factor in this match up of two Lake Conference rivals. The two clubs tied in their first meeting 3-3 on January 22nd, but it was the Eagles who prevailed in their most recent meeting as they beat Wayzata 4-3 on February 10th. Both teams have some of the state’s best offensive talent in Wayzata’s tandem of junior Mario Lucia (29 goals, 53 points) and senior Tony Cameranesi (17 goals, 61 points) while the Eagles have one of the most dangerous pure scorers in the state in senior Kyle Rau (35 goals, 73 points). Some experts will no doubt opine that the winner will go onto win the state title but there is still plenty of hockey left to be played. Our Pick: I think Eden Prairie and Kyle Rau will shine in this game, and the Eagles will win by two goals.
#1 Duluth East Greyhounds (19-5-0) Vs. #2 Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (21-3-1) ~ The two Northern schools only played each other once this season with Duluth East edging the Thunderhawks 2-1 on January 13th. Head Coach Mike Randolph is one of the most successful high school coaches in the state and his experience will mean his team will be ready to play the biggest game of their season. Meanwhile, the Thunderhawks, led by senior Patrick Moore (19 goals, 62 points) have a balanced attack that could surprise the Greyhounds. The Greyhounds have had a tougher schedule to this point but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Our Pick: Just to shake things up I’d like to see Grand Rapids, who I watched surprise Edina at Brae Mar Arena earlier this season but I think Duluth East will close the deal and make another trip to state in a one-goal victory.
#1 Bemidji Lumberjacks (21-2-2) Vs. #2 Moorhead Spuds (15-7-2) ~ As exciting as some of the more high profile games are, this may be the one that is the closest to call. Why? In two in-season match ups both games ended in ties, a 1-1 draw in December 9th and a more recent 2-2 stalemate on February 8th. The Spuds do not have a potent offense but instead play a conservative defensive style of game, but will they be able to again hold off the balanced attack of the Lumberjacks? Junior Bryant Christian, the Spuds leading scorer (13 goals, 32 points) wouldn’t scare most teams, but undoubtedly Bemidji’s netminder Jeremiah Graves (19-2-2, 1.66GAA .929%) will do his best to shut the door on Moorhead. Our Pick: I think Bemidji will somehow outlast the Spuds in a low scoring affair that will go multiple overtimes.