Harding’s Injury A Blessing in Disguise

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t harbor any ill will towards Josh Harding. He’s been one of the most reliable players on the Wild since he came into the league and he’s a huge asset to the Wild when he’s healthy.

That being said, his injury might have been a blessing in disguise in a big way for the Wild this season.

Consider this. If Harding doesn’t go down with an injury, the Wild don’t sign Jose Theodore (who has been a revelation for the Wild this season), Niklas Backstrom may not go into the season as the clear cut number one (a huge hit for any starting goalie’s confidence) and the Wild might not have gotten the opportunity to see what they had in Anton Khudobin.

First, there’s the obvious. If Harding stays healthy, the Wild don’t even look Jose Theodore’s way. Now, that’s not to say that Harding wouldn’t have been equally as good in net for Minnesota, but Theodore has given the Wild a veteran presence in their crease that can spell Niklas Backstrom.

Not only that, but it’s very apparent that the Wild are just as confident in front of Theodore as they are in front of Backstrom – something that couldn’t always be said for Harding, despite his talent. But these are all more intangible reasons why it’s a good thing that Theodore is on the team.

The tangible is quite simple. The way Theodore is performing, it gives the Wild a very impressive trade chip.

Yes, I know that Chuck Fletcher said that he wants to keep both goaltenders (meaning he wants to keep Theodore around) but the fact of the matter is that the Wild still have some glaring needs that moving Theodore could help solve – namely, someone who can bury the puck on a regular basis. Not only that, but throw in the fact that Backstrom is a notoriously strong second-half goaltender and that Anton Khudobin has started looking like he’s ready for the NHL – well, that could make Theodore expendable, which could greatly help a Wild team that could be in the thick of a playoff race by the trade deadline.

Second, as weird as it sounds, Backstrom could be benefitting from not having to constantly look over his shoulder this season.

Confidence is a fickle thing, especially for goaltenders, and the fact that Backstrom has regained his is a large part of why he is playing as strong as he is. He looks confident on his angles and, what’s more, is he’s confident in his movements across the crease which has led to some absolutely brilliant saves that he might not have made last season, or even two seasons ago. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has a team playing defense in front of him too.)

As calm as Backstrom always is, there’s something oddly calming about knowing that you’re the man. Sure, there’s pressure that goes along with it, but knowing that you’re not in danger of losing your job helps stabilize you a heck of a lot too.

Finally, there’s Khudobin. My goodness, there is most certainly Khudobin.

In his brief call up last season, he made an impression, but probably not a large enough one to stick. This season? What an impression indeed.

In four games this season, he’s given up just five goals and tallied his first NHL shutout. If that’s not an endorsement about how good this kid could be, then I don’t know what is. Khudobin may have won himself a job next season in the NHL and may be giving Harding some pressure for the back-up role next season.

Whichever way the Wild decides to go, there is one thing for certain. Harding’s injury was a horrible hit to the promising young goalie’s career – one we can only hope is not a permanent hit. It was also, temporarily, a hit to the team. But, through the adversity of his injury has come a couple unexpected surprises that might actually serve to help the Wild in the long run this season.

Gameday Thread – Game 51 – Wild @ Avs

Minnesota rolls into Denver today to face the Colorado Avalanche in what will be the fourth meeting between these two teams and, boy, is it a big one.

Just one point separates these two teams in the standings and these are two teams that, in Twitter terms, are “trending” much differently. Minnesota has been making a surge up the standings lately, sitting just four points back from the fourth spot after winning five of their last six during which they’ve given up more than two goals just once (in their lone loss to San Jose during that span).

Meanwhile, Colorado has won just four of their last ten games and has cooled off quite a bit of late after a very hot December.

* * * * *

NHL.com Game Preview

That’s the only preview you get right now. I’ll add more down the line if I’m able to.

* * * * *

So, what’s going to be the key to this game?

Well, first of all, this is going to be a game where players such as Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz play just as big of a role as Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat. The first three games of this season series have been intensely physical games (just ask Chris Stewart’s hand) and I’d expect no different from tonight’s tilt.

Now, whether or not that benefits the Wild is highly debatable.

Minnesota has both struggled and excelled in physical games this year (kind of a microcosm for their season, wouldn’t you say?). There are times when the physical nature of the game really spurs this team to another level, but there are also times when a physical hockey game gives them fits.

There is cause for hope, however, as Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Kings was a pretty physical affair that saw the Wild hunker down, play tighter and ultimately not get intimidated as they have been known to do under Todd Richards. Plainly put, that could be a fairly good indication that this team has found its identity – or at least knows where to find it when the going gets tough.

Regardless of how physical this game is, however, this is going to be a big test for the Wild. One of my biggest criticisms of the Richards’ regime is that the team is just not consistent. In fact, they’ve been consistently inconsistent ever since Richards took over as head coach. What they’ve found of late, however, is that consistency. They’ve been able to string wins together. The important part now is maintaining that and making sure that when losses come, and they will come, they don’t allow a single loss to snowball into a three or four game losing streak.

They’ve got a two-game winning streak going and, heading on a two-game road swing against teams close to them in the standings, need to keep it going. No overtimes, no three-point games – they need to come out strong and confident and put these teams away.

But that’s more of a macro view of this road trip. The micro view of tonight’s game is simply this – they need their best players to be their best players. Against the Colorado Avalanche this season, their three best players (Havlat, Koivu, Burns) have combined for four assists and a minus-four rating in three games. Minnesota needs these three to step it up and take over the game like they’re capable of doing. At any given time, they can be the three best players on the ice against any team, and Minnesota needs a big game from them tonight to keep this streak going and to keep making up ground.

Now, in nets tonight for the Wild will be Jose Theodore, which I’m not sure I agree with as Niklas Backstrom is typically very good against the Avs, but the rationale behind this is to get Theodore going again, and it’s hard to argue that. Both goalies have been great at different times and I understand the desire to get Theo playing again and having both goalies ready to go. But come on – Backs has been hot lately. I’m not talking about just solid – he’s been on fire, and he’s a second-half goalie. Let him play. Give Theo a couple spot starts here and there, but Backstrom is a goalie that plays better the more he plays and the more action he sees. Let him play!

The only reason I can see behind not starting Backs is that they want to drum up trade interest in Theodore which, as Fletcher has intimated to Russo, is apparently not the case. But, Theodore is arguably their best bargaining chip right now on the trade block, as he has had a spectacular season and as the Wild could afford to part with him because of the strong play of Anton Khudobin.

In any event, Theo is getting the start tonight and my agreement with that is going to do nothing to change that fact.

So, puck heads, what do you think? What are your thoughts on tonight’s game? Let’s hear them!

Finally, the puck drops tonight at 8 p.m. CST and will be televised on FS-North.

Some Off Season Wild Notes

Well, let’s face it. It’s the off season.

We’re on day ten of Kovie Watch 2010, with no signs of anything happening anytime soon and free agency news has slowed to a trickle. So what’s a hockey fan to do?

Make news out of nothing? We’re not in that business here.

So, let’s just take a look at some of the goings on around the Wild.

Modano Interested in Wild?

Well, it’s amazing how much difference a few weeks makes.

First, the Dallas Stars decided that they don’t want to let Mike Modano “Brett Farve” them until the season starts. Then, the rampant speculation starts in Minnesota.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. For whatever reason, Wild fans have some sort of sick obsession with Minnesota hockey players.

For whatever reason, anytime anyone with ties to Minnesota is available, fans start frothing at the mouth and when Modano became available the sharks began circling.

Immediately, however, all of the speculation was squashed.

It wasn’t the right fit. The Wild were in the running for a number-two center and Modano, at this stage in his career, isn’t that.

But, what do you know. The Wild suddenly want some insurance in case James Sheppard doesn’t step up his game or in case Casey Wellman isn’t ready to play in the NHL.

But, is this the right way for the Wild to go?

If Modano is willing to take a lesser roll with the team, then yes it is.

Modano still has a little bit of tread left on the tires, but he isn’t a top-six forward at this stage in his career—at least, he wasn’t with the Stars.

What signing Modano would do is give the Wild some insurance up the middle.

So, say Matt Cullen doesn’t fit with G-Lat and Havlat. Or Sheppard doesn’t step up to the challenge of making the team. Or they feel that Wellman would be best served to be in the AHL. Well, then they’ve got Modano, who is one heck of a contingency plan.

Cap Situation

As of right now, the Wild find themselves in an interesting situation in net.

They have about $3.5 million in cap space with Josh Harding left to sign in order to fill out their roster.

So, that means that they’ll likely have about $1 to $1.5 million left over once that happens.

So what does this mean? Are we done?

Like Russo, I tend to think not. I can’t imagine that the Wild wouldn’t be looking for another defenseman.

It sounds like Fletcher might be thinking the same thing, as there are rumblings that the Wild have had talks with Willie Mitchell.

The problem with that is that Mitchell will likely command more than the Wild have left, so someone will have to go.

But who?

Right now, the obvious candidate is James Sheppard, but there are others that wouldn’t surprise me, especially at forward.

The most likely forward other than Sheppard, however, is Antti Miettinen. Mittens has performed admirably on the team’s first line, but he just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere on the team. In each situation, there seems to be a player who could potentially do the job better than he.

Combine that with his size, or lack thereof, and you can see that he could very well be shopped around this season.

What Does Endras Signing Mean?

Well, in the short run, nothing.

Dennis Endras will go ply his trade overseas again and likely will then come to the team next season.

What the signing of Endras does do, however, is create competition among the Wild’s goaltenders.

Next season, it’s going to be Matthew Hackett and Anton Khudobin in Houston, with Darcy Keumper likely heading back to Red Deer.

The season after, however? The Wild are going to have a four-way battle to see who will be taking over in the back up role for either Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom.

Now, I say Harding or Backstrom, because I don’t know that Fletcher and Richards have ruled out the possibility of moving Nik if it comes to that.

Harding is younger and has shown some significant signs of improvement over the last couple seasons.

Backstrom, though he has gotten a bit of a bad rap for his performance last season, is still Backstrom. He’s nowhere near as bad as he looked at times last season and, in my opinion, is still a top-ten goalie in this league.

So, the signing of Endras is both a depth move as well as one to spark something in the goaltenders and make them work for their jobs—both of which are good things to be sure.

For more of Blake’s work, you can follow him at the Bleacher Report and Hockey Primetime, as well as on his Twitter feed.

Gameday Thread – Game 59 – ‘Yotes @ Wild

It seems like forever since I’ve written one of these, so I may be a bit rusty, but bear with me — this could be a game that you’re going to want to watch if you’re a Wild fan. 

Over the last couple years the Wild have, to use a Mike Milbury-ism, been the Coyotes’ daddy.  Prior to this season, the Wild were a stunning 9-1-0 against the Glendale Canines, and were firmly in control of the match up. 

Funny how an off season can change things. 

With new coaches, the two teams began to take on different styles of play and the Coyotes were no longer the doormat that the Wild were used to. 

Long story short, this season has been a largely different story in the series, with the Coyotes taking the first three games of the season series by a combined score of 11-6. 

Soooooooo, what does this mean exactly? 

Well, this means one of two things.  Either the Coyotes will continue their dominance of the boys in Iron Range Red tonight or, gosh darnit, the Wild are due. 

The Wild come into this game five points out of playoff contention with 24 games to play.  Not insurmountable odds, but a harrowing task indeed. They also come into this game having gotten 42 of their 62 points at the Xcel Energy Center—where tonight’s game is being played. 

A look in the infirmary shows that the Wild are slowly but surely starting to get healthy again.  Niklas Backstrom could return to action tonight and Andrew Brunette, who has sat out the team’s last two practices for maintenance issues, will be a go tonight.  “Sherriff” Shane Hnidy is going to be a game time decision tonight, as he missed practice yesterday with an illness, and Anton Khudobin will likely be the second goaltender in place of Josh Harding. 

Lineup(s) 

With the M*A*S*H unit that has been the Wild’s lineup this season, it’s hard to tell who might be in, but after last game’s physical tone I would expect Richards to counter with a physical lineup tonight. 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Latendresse-Brodziak-Havlat
Nolan-Belanger-Clutterbuck
Boogaard-Ebbett-Earl 

The physical lineup means that James Sheppard will again be sitting up in the press box, observing.  

Now I don’t like to speculate too often, but one has got to wonder if Sheppard will be shopped around much like Benoit Pouliot was.  Contrary to his stats, Sheppard is a talented player—he just seems to need a fresh start.  I doubt that the return for Shep would be all that great right now, but he could be a useful piece to add on to a deal. 

On defense, I’m guessing that Hnidy will be ready to go, as he’s what is commonly referred to as a warrior, so our defense shouldn’t change. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Johnsson-Schultz
Burns-Hnidy 

And finally, the six-million dollar question.  Who starts in net? 

I’m gonna go with my gut on this one and say that Khudobin starts with Backstrom backing up.  I say this for two reasons.  One, Backstrom has sit out the last six games and should get a little more than just a few practices before he is tossed to the wolves and two, why not ride the hot hand?  Khudobin has two wins (one in relief) in his NHL career and has given up just one goal.  That could earn him another shot. 

What to Watch For 

The last meeting between these two teams ended with some fairly heated exchanges and what looked to be some bad blood. 

Now, with Minnesota on the outside looking in and Phoenix playing extremely good hockey right now, I’d look for this to carry over.  The Wild will need a spark at the start of this game and will look to come out with energy and with physical play and, let’s be honest, in terms of this stuff a lot of hockey player have long memories. 

As far as Phoenix is concerned, keep an eye on Matthew Lombardi. 

Lombardi had his first career five-point game on Monday night and is riding high after being moved from center to wing.  Playing with Robert Lang and Shane Doan, look for him to continue to be an integral part of their offense. 

For Minnesota, they need to find a way to get to Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bryz has historically not had a whole lot of success against Minnesota, but this season has played lights out against the Wild. 

Minnesota needs to figure out how to recapture their success against Bryz and against the Coyotes to gain any sort of momentum.  These last three games of their homestand are incredibly crucial to the direction of the team after the Olympic break, as they will have exactly two days to decide which direction they will take in regards to the trade deadline. 

Minnesota has not seriously flirted with the playoffs yet this season, but a strong last three games could put them in the position to do so and influence general manager Chuck Fletcher’s moves going forward. 

Key(s) to the Game 

Honestly?  Open the scoring before the second period.  If Minnesota can do that, they’re already part-way towards success against Phoenix. 

Getting on the board early and getting their confidence will be key against a Phoenix team that has not given them much to be confident about this season. 

Past that, just coming out and playing a solid, physical game. 

Minnesota is proving this season that they have a team that is capable of throwing their bodies around and are starting to turn into a very difficult team to play against. 

They’re playing against a Coyotes team that is riding high, and they need to be that difficult team to play against.  Play physical, send a message to Phoenix that they won’t be pushed around. 

It’s that simple.  If they can dictate the tempo by playing physical, they can come away with a victory in this one. 

The puck drops at 7pm CST and is broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Wild Quick Hit: Harding out 1-2 weeks

According to both Russo’s Rants and View from the Lighthouse, Josh Harding will be out for 1-2 weeks with a hip injury sustained in last night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

Per the Lighthouse:

Todd Richards said Harding will likely miss 1-2 weeks with the hip injury he sustained last night. That likely means Anton Khudobin will be on his way up tonight or tomorrow.

Could we possibly see Khudobin’s NHL debut at some point too?  The Wild have two more home games before a three-game swing, including back-to-back games on the 27th and 28th.  It’s very concievable that, if Harding isn’t ready to go by then, we’ll see Khudobin.

As always, I’ll keep you updated, but that’s all for now!

Game Recap: Wild Fall to St. Louis 3-1

Despite outshooting the St. Louis Blues by a margin of 34-21 the Minnesota Wild were unable to skate away with a victory on Tuesday night, falling by a score of 3-1.

The Wild, skating just nine skaters with any significant NHL experience, were outmatched by the Blues for most of the night despite the shots margin.

Anton Khudobin stopped 15 of 17 shots for the Wild.

Anton Khudobin stopped 15 of 17 shots for the Wild.

The Blues made the most of their scoring opportunities, however, with Paul Kariya and Chris Porter notching goals 29 seconds apart to lead them to victory.

“We didn’t have the players that they had, the experience that they had in certain positions, but we competed,” Coach Todd Richards told reporters after the game.  “I’m real proud of that.”

Richards also admitted that it was an exhibition game for the coaches as well, needing to work off a little rust behind the bench.  He had high praise for veteran defensemen Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy, as well as the game of Wild holdover John Scott.

He had some pointed words for Benoit Pouliot, however.

“Pouliot has flashes that really excite you as a coach and there’s still some things that we need to fix to make him better.”

The difference, however, seems to be that Richards is willing to work with Pouliot to fix those deficiencies in his game, while former coach Jacques Lemaire was not.

In all, the game went much as it was expected to go, with the Wild only having a handful of players with any experience at the NHL level at all.  The players that are expected to be regulars did show some flashes, however, as Kyle Brodziak won 13 of 16 draws (an area in which the Wild desperately need help) and had six shots.

The Wild’s next game is this Friday, at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

Depth Chart
Earlier today, Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune posted what will be the Wild’s depth chart if it starts the season with the way the roster is now:

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

LD-RD
Kim Johnsson-Brent Burns
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Greg Zanon-Shane Hnidy
John Scott-Jaime Sifers
Tyler Cuma-Justin Falk
Clayton Stoner-Jamie Fraser
Marco Scandella-Maxim Noreau

LW-C-RW
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan-James Sheppard-Pierre-Marc Bouchard (RW until training camp)
Antti Miettinen-Eric Belanger-Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies-Kyle Brodziak-Derek Boogaard
Petr Kalus-Benoit Pouliot-Craig Weller
Robbie Earl-Morten Madsen-Danny Irmen
Matt Kassian-Cody Almond-Carson McMillan

First of all, if you haven’t checked out Mike Russo’s blog and you’re a Wild fan, shame on you.  It’s one of the best resources for all things Wild out there.  Click here to go there.  Bookmark it, scour it daily and above all thank him for his amazing coverage of the Wild!

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

Looking at this depth chart, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is not the center position.  A lot has been made of our depth (or lack thereof) down the middle.  In looking at the team, however, we’ve got five potential pivots on our roster, and that’s not including Colton Gillies, Owen Nolan or Benoit Pouliot.  Throw those two into the mix and we could have as many as eight players on the opening day that could be capable of anchoring a line in the middle.

The thing that really jumps out at me is our lack of depth at left wing.  After Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the talent level really drops off.  This isn’t a knock on Gillies; however, we have a serious lack of skill and depth on the left side and, honestly, on the wing in general.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is our talent on defense and in nets.  Our top-six defensemen could be the best top-six that the team has had.  The additions of Zanon and Hnidy give the team two reliable, physical anchors on the blueline and will force opposing teams to keep their heads up.  Meanwhile, expect Scott and Sifers to compete for the seventh spot in camp, most likely with Scott winning the battle.  That’s not to say, however, that our youth could not come in and surprise.  With Cuma, Falk, Stoner and Scandella in the wings, there is a good chance that Scott and Sifers may not be foregone conclusions at the 7 and 8 slot.  It will take a lot for any of these four to make the squad, however.  Of the four, Stoner probably has the best shot as this could be his make it or break it year, but make no mistake — the Wild’s top 7 are pretty much set.

Olvecky Signs in Nashville
Joel Ward, Ryan Jones and now Olvecky?  Those Tennessee boys sure do like Wild prospects.

In all honesty, I think that Olvecky has a fantastic chance to make the Nashville squad next season right out of camp.  Olvecky is a big body with a lot of untapped talent to boot, and he performed admirably for the Wild in a limited role with the team in the handful of games he played for us last season.

He really started to come into his own last season and seems like he could be the type of player that Barry Trotz will really love.  For $600K and a two-way contract, I’d take Olvecky any day of the week.  A good depth pick up by the Preds.

Qualifying Offers Signed
The Wild had a few players of their own signed as well.

Restricted free agents Benoit Pouliot, Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen and Robbie Earl all signed their qualifying offers and it seems as if the lot of them (with the exception of Pouliot) could see another year playing in the minors.  Earl and Irmen both have too many players in front of them to have a shot at making the squad (that is, barring a spectacular camp from either) and Stoner will have to do some serious damage in camp to work his way up the depth chart.

Injuries do happen, though, and we could very easily see one of them get a cup of coffee in the NHL and do what Cal Clutterbuck did last season and not let go.

In addition, Russo reports that the Wild could be close to signing Duncan Milroy and Joe DiSalvatore to plug some holes in their minor league system.

Fletcher Working Trade Market
There are a lot of people who are getting scared by the Wild’s seeming lack of movement this off season.

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

While there are some quality players out there, there really aren’t any players that would meet any immediate needs for us.  I mentioned Mats Sundin, Robert Lang and Mike Comrie previously, but Sundin likely doesn’t have much more tread on his tires, Lang is rumored (or already has) to jump ship to the KHL and Comrie, well, let’s just say I don’t want to sign a player for his girlfriend.  In addition to those players, there are players such as Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora left over.  Undoubtedly, these players could make an impact on the Wild roster, but would they really fit?

In the case of Tanguay, he’s a tremendous talent, but he’s also been pigeonholed as a playmaker — of which, the Wild have many.  Sykora would be a cheap, effective sniper, but do the Wild want to sink the money it would take to get him on an aging player?

Bottom line is that the best route for the team to improve, at this point, is the route that Fletcher is taking — trades.

There are many top flight forwards that have been presumed available via trade.  Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, even Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane have always been rumored to be available.

To be honest, the names remaining in free agency don’t even hold a candle to a lot of these names.  I’d much rather have a Kessel, Heatley, Sharp or Kane over any of those available — regardless of the assets we have to give up for them.

The bottom line is that the Wild are far from done, in my opinion.  But Fletcher has said all along that he’s not afraid to go late into the summer with a less than full roster to give himself the flexibility that he needs to get the players it takes to make this a winning team.

So…

Fear not Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  With a little patience, we could have a playoff team yet.

Backstrom For Vezina; Aeros Advance

First off, I’d like to thank you all for bearing with me over the last few days.  My seven month old daughter had come down with something which necessitated my being gone for a few days.  But never to fear…It’s the off season, so not a whole heck of a lot occurred over those last few days!

Niklas Backstrom
It’s been a big couple weeks for the Finnish netminder.  First, his surgery was a huge success, leading Dr. Philippon to conclude that Backstrom will be ready to go in full in about 12 weeks.  I don’t know all of the details, but apparently the cartilage damage was much less than the doctor had originally thought and the issues with Backstrom’s hip have been corrected by the surgery.  Keep in mind that this is the same surgery that Marian Gaborik underwent during the season.

In addition to a successful surgery, Niklas Backstrom also became the third member of the Wild’s organization to be named a finalist for a voted-upon NHL end of the year award.  The other two?  Jacques Lemaire and Wes Walz for the Jack Adams and Selke trophies respectively.  This is not the first hardware that Backstrom has won as a member of the Wild.  In the ’06-’07 season, his rookie season, he walked away with the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the league’s best save percentage and teamed with Manny Fernandez, winning the William M. Jennings Trophy, for the team with the least goals against.

Backstrom will have a tough time winning this award, however, as he will be going up against Boston’s Tim Thomas and Columbus’s Steve Mason. 

My personal thoughts on this is that Backstrom will come in second in the voting.  Backstrom was certainly the Wild’s best player, and Josh Harding’s 3-9-1 record on the season certainly helps Backstrom’s cause, but let’s not forget that Harding posted extremely impressive stats during those 13 games as well.  The way I look at it is like this:

  • Without Mason, the Jackets miss the playoffs AND are likely to have a lottery pick in the top six.
  • Without Backstrom, the Wild are likely to have a lottery pick in the top ten.
  • Without Thomas, the Bruins probably wouldn’t have won the conference, but still likely would have made the playoffs.

To me, what that equates to is that Mason will get the Calder-Vezina sweep this season (and, honestly, I think there’s a pretty good argument for him getting the Hart as well, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Backstrom had a phenomenal season and, let’s be honest…If the Wild make the playoffs, there’s no question that he’s up there for the frontrunner.  The bottom line is that, as important as he was this season to our team, Mason was just a touch more important in their run.

Aeros Advance to Round Two
Leave it to the farm team of a Minnesota team to take every opportunity to give their fans more hockey.  Houston won game seven against the Peoria Rivermen 5-2 on the strength of goals by Krys Kolanos, Marco Rosa and Maxim Noreau as well as empty netters by Corey Locke and Mitch Love.  Goaltender Anton Khudobin was credited with the win, saving 19 or 21 shots.

Houston advances now to play the first seeded Milwaukee Admirals in what should prove to be an intriguing match up; at least from a front office point of view.  Milwaukee is the farm team for Nashville, making it Craig Leipold’s current farm team vs. his former farm team.  In other words, two candidates for the Minnesota Wild GM position (Tom Lynn and Paul Fenton) fighting it out for GM supremacy, though I doubt this series would be the deciding factor in one or the other getting the job.

Houston has three of the top 20 scoring leaders thus far for the playoffs, with Corey Locke third in scoring (4-5-9), Matt Beaudoin sixth (2-6-8) and Krys Kolanos sixteenth (2-4-6).  Meanwhile, Khudobin is trucking along with a 4-3 record, a 2.45 GAA and a .906 Sv Pct, as well as one shutout.  The most interesting stat?  Corey Lock has 24 penalty minutes.  Anyone care to explain that one to me??

Wild Sign Carson McMillian
The Wild also have signed another of their 2007 draft picks to an entry level deal.  Carson McMillian of the Calgary Hitmen has been signed to a three-year, entry level deal.  McMillian was in his fourth season with the Hitmen this season and recorded career highs in goals (31), assists (41), points (72) and penalty minutes (93).  On top of that, he added seven game winners, five powerplay tallies and four shorties.  It will be interesting to see how McMillian fares in Houston next season, as he is certainly an intriguing player for this organization (one that has rarely seen success at drafting in the later rounds). 

Seventh Heaven
There are two game sevens on the docket tonight and, honestly, does it get ANY better than a Game Seven in the NHL Playoffs?  It’s win or go home for four teams and it’s going to be I-N-T-E-N-S-E!!!  Now I typically shy away from predictions (for those unable to pick up on sarcasm through text, I’ll note it here), but I feel inclined to share my views on these two games.

2) Washington v. 7) NY Rangers - I made the observation a few days ago that, if any team is equipped to come back from a 3-1 defecit, the Capitals were certainly one of them.  It took a few games for the Caps to realize that they can’t shoot at Lundqvist’s mattresses (and for Boudreau to realize that he can’t have Theodore in nets), but once the Caps got it figured out and started executing their gameplan, they started rolling.  Torts will be back on the bench for the Rangers after his Game 5 hissy fit and, if I were a Caps fan, I wouldn’t relish sitting behind him because he’ll likely be packing for this one.

The Rangers Win If: They score first.  If they can do that, they can tighten up around Lundqvist and clog up the neutral zone.  In their three wins, the Rangers have proven that they can give the Caps fits when they do this.  The Caps offensive stars need room to skate in order to be effective, and if the Rangers are protecting a lead, they can afford to tighten up and not give the Caps the space to skate

The Capitals Win If: They get to Lundqvist early and often.  Not necessarily score, but pepper him with shots.  He’s been pulled in two straight games and they can’t afford to let him gain any confidence.  Crash the net, get in his way, do anything and everything they can to disrupt his game.  If that means buzzing him and taking  a goalie interference penalty early on, that’s what they have to do.  Get in his head and this one’s over.

My Prediction: Washington 4 New York 2

(3) New Jersey Devils v. 6) Carolina Hurricanes – This series has been the epitome of even.  Neither team has won more than one game in a row and only two of the six games have been decided by more than one goal.  At the onset of the series, everyone expected this to come down to goaltending and, tonight, it will.  Both Ward and Brodeur will be at their best and this game will be very, very tightly played.

The Devils Win If: Their offense shows up early.  This team has an absolutely explosive offense.  The problem is that they have been extremely inconsistent this series.  One game, they’ll look like absolute world beaters; the next, they look like they couldn’t find the back of the net if it were the size of the broad side of a barn.  If they come out of the gates ready to skate hard and ready to play, they’ll gain the advantage over Carolina.  If they falter, though, Carolina will exploit this.

The ‘Canes Win If: Cam Ward plays like he did in Games 5 and 6.  Ward is the catalyst for this team.  If he’s playing well, this team gains confidence and can steamroll opponents.  This team does not have the defense to protect Ward if he’s playing poorly and that can lead to a collapse if he is.  A couple big saves early and Ward’s confidence will go through the roof.  If this happens, it gets exponentially harder for the Devils to take ahold of this game and get any sort of momentum.

My Prediction: Carolina 3 New Jersey 2 (OT)