Gameday Thread – Game 8 – Kings @ Wild

Well, there’s not going to be any preview today, but never fret…It’s because, we’re live blogging it tonight!

Join myself, JP Hoornstra and, for a little while anyway, Justin Bourne as we do a live blog of the Wild/Kings game on Versus.

Wild Falls to Vancouver in a Big Way

Man, if you didn’t see this one coming, you weren’t paying attention.

The Wild came out tonight, after a lackluster performance last night in Edmonton, and skated like they had lead in their breezers and played like they had lead between their ears.

That might have been a bit harsh, but it’s not too far off from the truth. For three periods of play tonight, the Wild looked like absolute garbage.

But it really should have been expected after the way that they played for the last two periods of last night’s game. In back-to-back games, there’s absolutely no way that you come out strong the very next night after an outing like that.

Plain and simple, the Wild came out flat and it showed in the results. In fact, it should have been a shutout were it not for the fact that Miettinen scored a fluke goal late in the third.

Vancouver controlled play all night long tonight and Manny Malhotra had a three-point night to down the Wild quite easily in this one.

I’d say more but, to be quite honest, I don’t really have much more to say. The Wild got dominated from buzzer to buzzer and that’s all there is to it.

Random Thoughts

  • One game into his Minnesota Wild career and color me VERY unimpressed with Jose Theodore. The man looked so casual in net tonight that, honestly, it bordered on lazy. For most of the evening, his movements in net simply looked listless and sluggish. He was out of position and he was, quite frankly, out of the game. Now, this could have been in large part due to the fact that he didn’t really have a training camp and it was his first game, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt but he has got to be better if the Wild are to be successful at all this season.
  • I can honestly say that I’ve never been as impressed with a young Wild defenseman as I have been with Justin Falk. The guy just keeps getting better and better with each and every game. His strength is absolutely fantastic (I’ve never seen a player that can manhandle a player in the corner with a single arm) and he has a great mind for the game. The scariest part is that he’s still young and still learning. Once he gets completely used to the speed and flow of the game, he’s going to be one hell of a defender.
  • If I had to take one positive away from tonight’s game, it would be that Guillaume Latendresse had another fantastic game for the Wild. Latendresse was physical, he drove to the net and, essentially, did everything that he is expected to do yet, for some reason, there were just five players on the Wild with less ice time than him. For whatever reason, he seems to be remaining in Richards’ doghouse, despite being tied for third on the team in points, not to mention having the best shooting percentage. At this point, it seems to be a mystery as to what he needs to do to get more ice time because, from my vantage point, he seems to be doing everything right.
  • Clayton Stoner had a relatively good game tonight – or, at least as good of a game that he could have with just 10 minutes of ice time. The most impressive part of his game, though, was his fight in the first period. He might not always be the best player on the ice, but he knows how to throw ‘em, that’s for sure.

Breaking News: Rypien Gets 6 Game Suspension; Canucks Fined $25K

Well, it’s official.

Rick Rypien has been suspended by the NHL for six games following his “assault” on James Engquist of Mendota Heights, Minnesota.

In addition to Rypien’s suspension, the Vancouver Canucks have also been fined $25,000 for the incident.

Now there’s no doubt that some people, including a lot of Wild fans, won’t be happy with this suspension; feeling that it should have been longer and, to be honest, I thought that it should have been about 10 games. But am I disappointed that it wasn’t longer?

Not really, and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, despite the fact that Engquist is “feeling litigious” regarding the incident (again, allow me to repeat my sentiment – man up, buddy), Rypien didn’t actually do any harm towards him. He didn’t throw any punches, he didn’t injure him in any way – he didn’t really do anything more than ruffle up the guy’s shirt. He didn’t “climb into the stands” like some have claimed. He didn’t “pull him over the railing.” He just grabbed him and was pulled away.

Was it stupid? Yes. Was it potentially dangerous? Yes. Did anything come of it? Not at all; unless you count someone threatening to lawyer up as something coming of it.

Second, I don’t know that the NHL really needed to “send a message” here – at least, not to the players.

This isn’t an epidemic. This isn’t something that is taking the league by storm. This isn’t even something that has happened more than a couple times in the last decade. This is an isolated incident of a player getting a little too riled up and taking exception to something that a fan said and he just happened to be able to reach him with his hands as opposed to a water bottle.

A lot of pundits have been placing some of the blame on Minnesota for not having something separating the visitor’s tunnel from the fans (which they do, incidentally, it’s just retracted during the period) and, to be honest, I don’t really think that’s fair. They shouldn’t need to “protect” their fans from violence from the players and this is the first time any sort of incident has been spurred on from not having this protection.

And finally, if the league did need to “send a message,” it will be done through the teams.

Why?

Because Rypien just cost his team $25,000.

Do you really think that the Canucks organization is just going to sit back and not say anything to their players, or impose any fines on their players, whether publically or privately for this?

Do you think that other organizations won’t sit up and take notice and make sure that players know that this sort of thing will not be tolerated?

What the NHL did here is actually something that is quite ingenious. The put the impetus on the teams now to respond.

A suspension of a player like Rypien isn’t going to make a drop in the bucket for the Canucks. While he has his role on the team, and he performs it well, his absence isn’t going to lose them any games. But to fine the team? That is something that sends a message. Not to the players, but to the franchises.

Because the bottom line is that this league is a business. At the end of the day, from an organizational stand point, it’s as much about the profit as it is about winning and losing, and when you hit an organization where it hurts, in their pocket book, that is when you will see significant changes to the league’s culture.

Was I disappointed to see that it was just six games?

A little.

I wouldn’t have thought that ten games was egregious, but I thought that the proper suspension should have been between five and ten games and it was between that – a bit on the light side, but between that nonetheless.

But at the end of the day, this sends a message to the organizations that this won’t be tolerated, not just to the players. And that is what is going to prevent this from happening again.

Wild Set Franchise Record; Down Edmonton

Don’t fret. If you didn’t catch last night’s game, it wasn’t any franchise record you’d like to see. The team took ten minor penalties last night, tying a record set back in the early years of the organization.

To take five penalties in a single game is considered to be a fairly bad game, but to take ten? Absolutely ridiculous.

Yet that’s exactly what the Wild did last night, facing off against the Edmonton Oilers.

Time and time and time again was the team’s parade to the penalty box; a lot of which were for penalties of the lazy kind.

Thank God for a strong first period, otherwise this game could have been looking much different by the end of the night.

Kyle Brodziak had two early goals and Guillaume Latendresse capped off the scoring to give the Wild a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission and it was a lead that they would be glad to have by the time it was all said and done.

What was heartening, though, was the play of Niklas Backstrom in nets. Of the 36 shots that he saw, Backstrom had to face 27 of them in the final two periods as the Wild was drastically out played and out hustled by the hungry Oilers.

Backs stood on his head, though, and provided not only exactly what the Wild needed, but exactly what he needed as well – a win in Edmonton.

Random Thoughts

  • I’ll be honest, I was surprised that the Wild held on to win last night. It was a very poor performance by the team, yet still they came out on top. These are the types of games that the Wild are going to need to gut out a win during on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. If they want to continue to have success on the road, though, they need to have a better effort than last night.
  • The ice time in last night’s game tells the story of it all. 11 minutes for Andrew Brunette? 13 for Guillaume Latendresse? Both are players who don’t play on the penalty kill. The Wild took lazy and stupid penalties and, despite the disparity (yes, there could have been one or two more called on Edmonton) the Wild deserved every penalty they got. The worst part was that most of the penalties were due to the fact that the Wild just simply weren’t moving their feet. They were playing lazy and getting caught using their sticks more often than they should have.
  • How good has Latendresse been in these last few games? Since being re-united with Martin Havlat and playing on the team’s second line, Latendresse has been one of the Wild’s best players, getting a goal and an assist in both last night’s game and Tuesday’s tilt against Vancouver. This is good news, indeed, for a Wild team that desperately needs him to be the same player that he was last season. So far, he seems to be returning to form quite nicely.
  • Theo Peckham is quickly working his way up my sport-hate list. I’m sure that’s his role on the team, but I continue to be unimpressed with the way he plays the game. It’s much too close to Matt Cooke for me. He plays with a reckless edge that doesn’t show any respect for the players he plays against and, oftentimes, this leads to dangerous hits and situations on the ice. I’ll say this – at some point this season, we’ll be talking about Peckham in the same vain as Matt Cooke.
  • Man, did Taylor Hall look good or what last night? I don’t know if it was hi demotion to the third line that lit a fire under him or what, but he came out like gangbusters. He only had two shots on goal last night, but he fired a total of 11 Backstrom’s way. Six that missed the net and three that were blocked.
  • I’m guessing there was a reason why Ryan Jones, Zack Stortini and Colin Fraser didn’t see a whole lot of ice time last night. Fraser? Minus-two in 3:40 of ice time. Jones? Minus-two in 1:03. Stortini? Minus-two in 58 seconds. Something tells me that there’s going to be a special place in practice for these there today.
  • Burnsie continues his resurgence this season with another two-point night. He now has five points in six games and three of these are goals. Granted, last night’s was an empty-netter, but it proved one thing to me – I wouldn’t dare play pool against the guy.

Gameday Thread – Game 6 – Minnesota @ Edmonton

This is potentially a dangerous game for the Wild.

The Wild roll into Edmonton with much of a different attitude than they had the last time they played the Oilers.

Coming into the home opener, there was a sense of trepidation surrounding the team. The sense that, at any moment, this season could turn and the Wild could set the record for least points in an NHL season.

But now, following their 6-2 trouncing of the Canucks, this is a team that has a sense of optimism surrounding them. For 59 minutes, against the hated Canucks, they dominated play. They controlled the tempo of the game and they attacked, attacked, attacked. And even when they didn’t attack, they were able to keep the Canucks to the perimeter and not allow them to get to the net and create havoc.

For the Wild, this was the best and most complete game I’ve seen them play under the Richards regime.

So, this is a dangerous game.

Why?

Because of the letdown.

First of all, this is a Wild team that has become notorious for its inconsistency. They’ll come out one period and look like the best team in the world and the next they’ll look like they couldn’t find the net with a GPS tracker.

But the second reason why this game is such a big game for this team is the fact that, if they can keep their performance from Tuesday going, they’re going to have a load of momentum on their side heading back into Vancouver, and momentum can be a dangerous thing both ways. This could be both a momentum builder or a momentum killer.

Either way, it’s a pivotal game for the Wild.

The Skinny

Minnesota Wild

@

Edmonton Oilers

2-2-1 (5 pts)

W-L-T

2-2-0 (4 pts)

3.2

GF/G

3.0

2.4

GA/G

2.75

45.8%

PP%

15.8%

85.2%

PK%

73.7%

55.6%

FO%

40.2%

There’s no question that this is a pivotal match up. The Wild are going into a building where both Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore struggle and they need a big performance out of their goalie.

Their powerplay is clicking, their defense is working well – now they just need to start scoring more at even strength and they’ll be in business.

Either way, they’re going to have to deal with the Oilers’ young trio again, which they did quite well in their last meeting. If the Wild can limit their chances like they did against Vancouver, it’s going to be a good game for the man in nets.

If they can’t, it could be a long, long night in Edmonton.

Line-Up(s)
The biggest news coming out of this is that it sounds like Taylor Hall will be moved to the third line, playing with Gilbert Brule and Dustin Penner to try to relieve some of the pressure from him. Replacing him on the team’s first line will be fellow rookie Magnus Paajarvi.

For the Wild, I’d expect the same line up tonight as against Vancouver unless there’s someone that absolutely can’t play.

It has been confirmed that it will be Nicklas Backstrom in nets for the Wild, so it will be Jose Theodore tomorrow in Vancouver.

Key(s) to the Game
Limiting Edmonton’s chances in this one, especially early, is going to be key.

Backstrom struggles in Edmonton and they’re going to need to give him confidence in both himself and his defense. If they can limit the Oilers’ chances, especially second and third chances, it will go a long way towards giving Backs that confidence and keep him on his game.

But defense isn’t going to be the only key to this one.

In Minnesota, the Wild got on the board early and they’ll need to do it again. The more action that Khabibulin gets before the Wild get on the board, the more difficult it will be.

Khabibulin thrives on momentum and once he gets going, he’s even more difficult to beat. If the Wild can drive to the net, get some powerplays early and keep driving towards him, it will be a long game for him.

If not, it’s going to be a difficult one for the Wild.

The Bottom Line
The Wild put it together on Tuesday and, if they can keep it up they’re going to be one difficult team to beat.

It’s still early in the season, but stringing wins together is one of the things that the great teams do. Not just one or two, but strings of three and four. That’s what’s going to get this team into the playoffs and that’s what’s going to make this team successful.

This might not necessarily be a must-win for the Wild, but it’s as close as an early-season game gets.

Rick Rypien Is An Idiot, Not A Felon; How Long Should His Suspension Be?

Update: Per Mike Russo, apparently the fan in question is contemplating legal action towards Rypien, stating “I was assaulted, that’s just the bottom line.” I’m going to go ahead and call “shenanigans” on this one. Legal action? He was assaulted? I’ve seen more violence in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants than in this alleged “assault.”

This whole ordeal has been a stain on the NHL and the fact that this yahoo is contemplating legal action now only makes it worse. Is he well within his rights to do so? Absolutely. But now, instead of the focus being on Rypien and his lack of judgment, it is instead on Mr. James Engquist, who wishes to take an “assault” case to civil court.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, is my response. You got pushed, Mr. Engquist. There was no lasting injury, if any, and you, in fact, profited from this by getting moved up to seats on the glass. Just suck it up and deal.

The title says it all. That’s the big question today in the NHL.

What does Rick Rypien deserve?

Nathan, of Hockey Wilderness, offers up one view point:

By now you’ve seen and heard the commotion. Rick Rypien, after being pulled off of Brad Staubitz in a pathetic attempt to motivate the Vancouver Canucks, tussled with linesman Don Henderson, initiating contact, then jumping at a fan in the stands who was sarcastically clapping at him.

Well, as it turns out, looking at the video it certainly looks like it was a kid who drew the ire of the Canucks fighter.

So, what do you think? Does that look like a father protecting his child? Does it add to the already lengthy punishment that should be coming down from Colin Campbell?

Remember, Ron Artest got 73 games for attacking a fan. If it turns out that it is a child, Rypien needs to miss the rest of the season. No question about it.

While Greg Wyshynski, of Puck Daddy, offers a different perspective:

So what does Rypien deserve?

Five games is the minimum. We’d say 10 games are the maximum and would be a stout suspension that would get the casual fan’s attention. Anything over that, and we’re once again seeing the NHL overplay its hand because of the perception of an image problem that, honestly, it doesn’t have anymore but is hypersensitive about.

But knowing Bettman when confronted with an image problem … well, perhaps we’ll see you for Christmas, Rick Rypien.

I don’t think anyone, except for Manny Malhotra, thinks that Rypien doesn’t deserve the suspension that was handed down by the NHL (one of the indefinite variety, until a hearing is held today). He was, as he should have been, suspended for his violation of NHL Rule 23.7.

(We’ll overlook the ref’s definition of “Game Misconduct,” in this one, as well as their definition of interference as well, but that’s a different story.)

But Wild fans should back away from the edge of hyperbole a bit.

I get it – Rick Rypien, of the hated Vancouver Canucks, had the gall to accost one of our fans. The nerve!

And yes, you read it right – accost. Not assault, accost.

This is what assaulting a fan is like:

Not this:

Rick Rypien is guilty not of “assaulting a fan,” as it has been said, but of nothing more than being an idiot – than losing his cool at an inopportune moment.

So what does that mean, suspension wise?

Well, in our eyes, it means more than a bit and less than a lot, in very vague terms.

Basically, I would say a suspension of anywhere from 7-10 games would be warranted, up to 15 if the NHL REALLY wants to send a message but, in my eyes, 15 would be a tad excessive.

The fact is that the fan wasn’t injured in the altercation. Indeed, he actually got his seats upgraded to a pair of empty glass seats.

Did Rypien break a boundary? Yes. Should he have done what he did? Absolutely not. But it’s nowhere near as egregious as many pundits are making it out to be.

Our verdict?

Ten games and a personal and public apology to the fan the next time the Canucks come into town.

Wild Down Canucks in a Big Way

On Sunday, the message was sent. On Tuesday, it was apparent that it was received.

58 seconds into the game, the Vancouver Canucks awoke the sleeping beast that was the Minnesota Wild following the bag skate to end all bag skates and the Wild, for the remainder of the first and the entirety of the second were a dominant team – one that desperately needed to show up for this one.

The defense tightened up around Niklas Backstrom after a shaky start that saw Marek Zidlicky make a huge error, leaving Daniel Sedin wide open on the back door when Backstrom had to come out to challenge the shooter, and the offense responded well as it was all Wild from then on out.

Zidlicky made up for his early gaffe and tied the game then, just over one minute later Guillaume Latendresse responded to Todd Richards’ challenge scoring one and then, near the end of the period, assisting on Clutterbuck’s second of the season.

The Wild kept pouring it on in the second with three goals in six minutes with goals from John Madden, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen to put the Wild up big heading into the third.

In the third, the Canucks got one late goal off of a nice shot from Daniel Sedin, but it was a fast-paced period and one that was surprisingly subdued after the fireworks that were taking place as tensions boiled over in the second.

But everyone was on the same page in this one and the team did exactly what the buzzwords wanted them to – they competed. They were scrappy, they hit, they got to the net; the bottom line is they did everything they needed to do to win and, surprise, surprise, they won.

Random Thoughts

- Once again, the Wild came through on the defensive end. Backstrom played great in net again and, once again, got help in front of him; which always helps. As I mentioned before, the part of the game that Backs really struggles with is the athletic and, when the defense is on, they clear the second and third chances away from the front of the net that are a thorn in Backstrom’s side – tonight, they did that in a big way and Backs reward them with another strong performance.

- Latendresse responded in a big way tonight. He still isn’t at the same level he was last season, but you could tell that he not only felt more comfortable but felt more confident as well. His play isn’t measured in the number of shots he gets, but in the plays he creates. His size and skill are all that he needs to create chances both for himself and for his linemates. He did just that today, using his speed and size to give him the space to get to the back door and get the puck through to Luongo and using his vision to set up Clutterbuck’s goal as well.

- How stupid does Rick Rypien have to be? Not only does he punch Brad Staubitz after he is being held down by a linesman, he gets physical with a linesman and then with a fan in the crowd. Now, there’s been speculation of a suspension of anywhere between 5 and 30 games. So, you be the judge:

My guess? The suspension will be closer to 10 games than 30 – this was no Ron Artest situation – but all of the speculation should be true. Rypien will be sitting for a long period of time.

- Part of me knows that the production won’t continue, but Matt Cullen had another multi-point night and continues to be the Wild’s best player. Cullen is not only their powerplay quarterback, he’s the pivot on the line that could make or break the team. Now, there’s no doubt that he’s not a 90+ point producer, or probably not even an 80+ point producer and that he’s going to have to come back down to earth eventually, but if he keeps getting this sort of time with the man advantage, there’s no doubt that he will rack up a career high in points by the time the season is over.

Gillies Call Up Is Good News

In the wake of a bout of illnesses that the Wild have been dealing with, Minnesota has called up Colton Gillies from the Houston Aeros as either insurance or, potentially, a replacement for an ailing player.

If you recall, last season Gillies failed to make the squad right out of camp and was assigned to the Aeros of the AHL. Gillies was disappointed about his re-assignment, but took it in stride and did everything he was asked, despite being told that there was no opportunity that he would be recalled and, indeed, despite all of the Wild’s injury troubles, Gillies was never once one of their call ups.

Gillies struggled with injuries last season and scored just 20 points in 72 games, but has a goal and an assist in two games this season and this call up seems to be as much of a reward to his dedication as to his strong play this season.

But this call up is more of a testament to the new developmental philosophy of the Minnesota Wild under Chuck Fletcher – one of the largest changes between this regime and the previous management.

Player development.

When Gillies and James Sheppard were brought in to the organization, they stuck with the squad for “developmental” purposes.

It was thought that the players would learn more from Head Coach Jacques Lemaire than they would from their junior coaches and they were too young to play in the AHL at that time.

But here’s the rub. When Sheppard and Gillies were called upon by the Wild, they weren’t getting the playing time they would have in juniors, or even in the AHL.

They were players used to playing top-line minutes that were now being asked to be checkers and, instead of playing 17-20 minutes per night were playing 7-10 minutes per night – believe me when I say that 10 minutes of ice time makes a big difference, especially when players are developing.

Players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – players that can enter the NHL and make an immediate impact and have the skill level necessary to play immediately on the top lines – are very rare. Even players like Steve Stamkos and John Tavares – players expected to be top, impact players in this league – experience some sort of learning curve.

If players like Crosby and Ovechkin are rare, players like Sheppard and Gillies are the norm.

These are players that need development to succeed, and that is one of the hardest calls to make for a general manager.

For every Crosby and Ovechkin, there is a Bobby Ryan or a Jonathan Toews that are elite talents, but might not be ready for the NHL the day that they’re drafted. The difference between the Ryan’s and the Toews’s and the Sheppard’s and the Gillies’s are not necessarily the ceiling of their talents (though, admittedly Ryan and Toews may have a higher ceiling than Sheppard and Gillies) but the fact that Ryan and Toews were not thrust into the NHL spotlight immediately.

Ryan and Toews were allowed to develop in situations where they were the man. They didn’t have to fight for ice time; they didn’t have to wonder whether or not they’d even be playing on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile, Sheppard and Gillies had to struggle for ice time. They didn’t get to develop their games in game situations – instead, they were forced to develop their games in practice, playing on lines with players like Derek Boogaard or Aaron Voros; players who are good at what they do, but not necessarily the players you want to use in order to help develop your young players.

The best example of this that the Wild has, right now, is Mikko Koivu.

Koivu was drafted in 2001 when he was 17 years old. He made his NHL debut when he was 22, after playing three seasons with TPS Turku and one more with the Houston Aeros. Even in his first couple seasons he wasn’t the elite center that he has turned into, but his time spent being the go-to guy in other leagues helped mold him into the player that he is today.

Sheppard has never had that opportunity and, until last season, neither did Colton Gillies.

Gillies is 21 years old now and may not yet be the impact player that many hope he will become, but if you consider that Koivu wasn’t an NHL regular until he was 22, it’s certain that he’s not done developing yet.

But right now, he’s certainly closer to being a productive NHLer than he was at this time last season.

Gameday Thread – Game 3 – Oilers @ Wild

The Wild are finally are ready for their first game stateside this season, and it’s shaping up to be a doozy against the Edmonton Oilers.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Wild have a tough test against the Edmonton Oilers tonight if they want to keep their home opener unbeaten streak alive. The Oilers are much improved this season already, with a healthy Nikolai Khabibulin and Ales Hemsky, as well as their young trio of players in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi.

Last season, the Wild was 3-2-1 against a miserable Oilers team, so I’d look for this one to be a very close, interesting match up between these two teams.

The Wild return home from Finland with a lone point to their credit, and already fans are frothing at the mouth at the thought of a third straight loss – even so far as some fans to say that Richards needs to be replaced if the Wild lose this game.

Mike Russo put out a great blog yesterday giving some perspective to the Wild’s “slow” start, saying basically that it’s two games and that Richards should still have some semblance of job security.

Now, I agree with that to an extent. I really don’t like the way that this team plays under Richards, but I won’t go so far as to say that he should be fired if the team loses tonight.

In their second game in Finland, the Wild made some significant strides – strides that they simply could not make last season. If they continue to make these strides this team could turn into a solid competitor.

Now, eight of the Wild’s next ten games are at home. Last season, the Wild was 25-12-4 at home. The Wild is, essentially, coming home from a two-game road trip in which they got one out of four points – something that was pretty par for the course last season on the road.

Richards’ job shouldn’t be in danger yet. If ten games from now, this squad hasn’t won more than three games? Then yes, Richards probably should start preparing to see a pink slip hanging from his office door.

Until then, though, Wild fans need to back away from the ledge just a tad.

The Skinny

Edmonton Oilers

@

Minnesota Wild

2-0-0 (4 Pts)

W-L-OT

0-1-1 (1 Pt)

3.5

GF/G

2.0

1.0

GA/G

2.5

25%

PP%

30%

100%

PK%

80%

43.5%

FO%

63.8%

The bottom line with this match up is this.

The Wild are facing a team that they, typically, play very well against. Niklas Backstrom against the Oilers in Minnesota has been, for the most part, a solid bet. But, this team is also facing off against the new-look Edmonton Oilers – a team that is very fast and very skilled. If Minnesota can’t get their legs going early, this could be a very painful game to watch for Wild fans.

Khabibulin is playing great for the Oilers in net and their young players are doing exactly what they hoped their young players would do – excel. This is a team that is very exciting to watch and one that plays a highly skilled game.

Meanwhile, Minnesota is coming off of a performance that was better than most gave it credit for. Yes, they lacked intensity for two-thirds of the game but what they lacked in intensity, they made up for in a very cerebral game.

Backstrom was well protected; the team picked their spots and got lots of good scoring chances – overall, a solid game despite the outcome. Now, that may be of little solace to most, but the game was definitely one that the team could build on and, were it not for a spectacular game from Cam Ward, the outcome could have been much different.

Line-Up(s)
Both Andrew Brunette and Marek Zidlicky will be in the lineup tonight for the Wild, so the only healthy scratch for the team will be Clayton Stoner, which is really no surprise.

Jose Theodore will be the back up goaltender tonight for his first game in a Wild sweater. Barring an injury, he probably won’t see the ice tonight, but he’ll probably get his first look on the Wild’s brief road trip this month, as they play on back-to-back nights in Edmonton, then Vancouver.

Key(s) to the Game
First and foremost, the biggest key to this game is going to be to protect Backstrom.

If the Wild can do exactly what they did against Carolina in the second of the two games in Finland and clear free pucks from the front of the net and keep the front of the net and the slot locked down, they’re going to be in this game the entire way.

Once defensive breakdowns start, however, it’s typically a slippery slope for this team and this could go downhill in a hurry.

That being said, the team is coming off of a very solid performance and is going to be pushing hard to build off of that.

My second key to this game is that the Wild need to get on the board early. Nikolai Khabibulin has given up just one goal this season thus far and the Wild need to beat him early if they want to have any shot at this game.

This means that they are going to have to do whatever they can to get the best matchups on the ice and, if that’s the case, they’re going to eventually need to look at moving Cal Clutterbuck off of their second line and replacing him with Guillaume Latendresse.

The team has, reportedly, not been happy with G-Lat’s fitness level early on this season, but he has been one of the team’s best players in the last two games despite limited ice time and has created some great scoring chances. If he can continue to create these chances on the fourth line, he may leave Richards no choice but to put him back up with Matt Cullen and Martin Havlat.

Finally, the Wild need to bring the fire that we saw in the first period in their last game.

This was a team that came out with fire in their bellies and, because of that, dominated the Carolina Hurricanes for the entire first period. Then, the buzzer rang and they came out in the second flat and uninspired.

Quite simply, they can’t get into that habit. They need to come out with fire and intensity and they need to sustain that for the entire game. They have a big and fast team – they have the ability to dominate teams physically and, if they can do that on a regular basis, this could be a scary team to play against.

The Bottom Line
This is a key game to the Wild’s season, if only because a victory could silence a lot of the naysayers in their own fan base.

If the Wild can protect Backstrom and come out with a hard, sustained effort, there’s no reason to think that a solid victory is out of their grasp in this one.

It will be interesting to see which Wild team comes out tonight, but I have to believe that the Wild are capable of putting together a second-straight solid performance, whether they win or not.

Minnesota Prepares for Home Opener; Will the Streak Continue?

It appears that the Wild are rolling out the red carpet for Opening Night here in Minnesota tomorrow night (as is becoming the custom for NHL teams trying to get fans excited for their season) and the Wild are hoping it will be a good one.

The team is 8-0-1 in Home Openers and has won its last eight straight.

Basically, what this has meant in the past is that no matter how horrible the season is or was shaping up to be, you could always count on the Wild to come and put on a great show in front of their hometown crowd for the first time of the season.

As I will do a lot this season, being a season of nostalgia for Wild fans as the team heads into its 10th season in the NHL, here are some memorable Home Opener performances:

  • ’00-01: Darby Hendrickson scores the first goal in the Xcel Energy Center as the Wild tie the Philadelphia Flyers for their first point in the NHL.
  • ’01-02: Stacy Roest pots two goals and Manny Fernandez makes 35 of 36 saves as the Wild beat the Boston Bruins to start the streak.
  • ’03-04: Sergei Zholtok has a three assist night to lead the Wild past the New York Rangers.
  • ’05-06: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Marc Chouinard and Todd White all have three-point nights, leading the Wild to a 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • ’07-08: Niklas Backstrom made 27 saves to give the Wild their first shutout in a Home Opener.
  • ’09-10: The Wild scored three third period goals to come from behind after giving up three second period goals and beat the Anaheim Ducks in overtime.

As you can see, the Wild have had a lot of success and a lot of great moments on opening night in Minnesota. Will they be able to keep it up though?

They’ll have a tough go of it, as they’re going to be going up against an Edmonton team that I don’t know that anyone has expected to be as good as they have been early.

Edmonton is led by their “kid line,” that sees veteran Shawn Horcoff center Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle – a line that has been fantastic so far in this young season, creating chances and flying around the ice. The Wild will have to contend both with them and also with Nikolai Khabibulin in net, who is having a spectacular start to this season.

Tomorrow I’ll have the gameday thread up, and I’ll take a deeper look at the game then, but it shouldn’t need to be said that this is an important one for the Wild.

They’re coming home with just one point (which is, quite frankly, one point more than I thought they deserved), but are coming off of a good, if uninspired, performance.

In their last game, they showed flashes that this team has not forgotten all that they had been taught by Jacques Lemaire. They played team defense.

The idea is simple. Protect Niklas Backstrom.

Backstrom is a tremendous positional goalie. He is very, VERY strong on the first and, for the most part, second attempts. He’s going to cut down the angles, he’s going to play the shot and he’s not going to give up much ground in net. That being said, his downfall is his athleticism (which is clear when you look at his struggles in shootouts).

In order for Backstrom to be successful and, ultimately, the team as well the Wild NEED to cut down on the amount of second chances they are allowing. Backstrom dominated for so long in the league because, one, his weakness was masked a bit by the Wild’s tremendous team defense but also because he was sort of an unknown. Now that teams have seen his game, they are learning what they need to do – get their first shot on net in an area that a) he can’t gobble up and b) he can’t direct the rebound.

When teams do that, he is forced to rely on his athleticism.

Unlike some hybrid goalies (Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur, for example), Backstrom is not at his best when he is flopping around the crease like a fish out of water.  Backs is at his best when he is stationary and able to play the angles, but when his defense in front of him is not clearing the puck away from the net, he’s forced to turn to his athleticism and try to make spectacular saves.

Is he capable of it? Absolutely. But he’s a better goaltender when he’s able to use his brains as opposed to his reflexes.

So what does this mean for the team?

Exactly what they did in game two in Finland – take care of their own zone first.

That doesn’t mean that they need to forsake the offensive game. That doesn’t mean that their d-men shouldn’t pinch and join the play. That doesn’t even mean that they should scrap Richards’ system and go back to a good, old fashioned, 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck.

What it means is that, when a shot is taken, not all five players on the ice should be releasing to transition to offense. They need to stay back and make sure that the puck is moved out of a scoring area. Then can come all of the fun offensive firepower that Richards promises with his system.

When Richards installed his system, it was mentioned that the biggest change to it was the forecheck. Not once did  anyone mention that anything of the defensive zone responsibilities were changing drastically.

Sure, maybe two forwards release instead of one or none, but overall the defensive zone objective remains the same – get the puck away from the net, THEN get it out.

The Wild did that against Carolina and dominated for the first period when they played with a fire in their bellies. The second and third periods were still good, but that dominant team that came out with something to prove in the first period was no longer there. Instead, they were content to play their game and not force the issue on anything.

Good? Yes. They protected Backstrom well and got some fantastic scoring chances – proof that you CAN play solid defense and solid offense at the same time.

But if this team can harness that intensity that they had in the first period of the game for a full game, they could truly be a scary team to play.

I’ll be watching tomorrow night, as I will the rest of the games regardless of the team’s performance – I will watch and support this team regardless of their performance – but if this team wants to move from bubble team to a playoff contender they need to find that intensity for a full 60 minutes, each and every game.

Can they do it?

We’ll have to wait and see.

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