Wild down Sharks in a shootout

Well, the Wild did it. They won against a good team and, with the exception of the last few minutes of the game, played a very good game.

Of course, the last few minutes of the game almost saw the wheels come off entirely and the Wild skated through overtime by the skin of their teeth to get to the shootout and then got the win off of goals from Matt Cullen and Mikko Koivu and two good saves by Josh .

According to many people, the buzz word of the day today for Mike Yeo was “fight.”

He wasn’t talking about dropping the mitts (though the Wild came very close a couple times). Instead, he was talking about pushing back. Fighting for the win.

In other words, showing a little passion.

The Wild got a lead early in the game with Cal Clutterbuck sniping a horribly positioned Antti Niemi (I’m not a goalie and even I could tell you he was way too far back in his crease) and the Wild used that momentum to keep the pressure on the Sharks for most of the first period.

A very poor decision by Kyle Brodziak (though it was one heck of a two-hand to Joe Thornton’s boot) got the Wild two-men down with just a few minutes left in the first period and the Sharks capitalized with a Dan Boyle shot that got through a screen and past Josh Harding.

Warren Peters scored the lone goal in the second, crashing the net and seeing the puck carom into the net off of him and past Niemi. Just a few moments later, it was almost 3-1 as Matt Cullen hit the post and Casey Wellman then put in the rebound which was lying on Antti Niemi’s breezers, but the ref blew the whistle to stop play right as Wellman was getting his stick on it. It might have been an early whistle, but it was the type of play that might have broken the Wild in the past few games – but not in this one. The Wild kept pushing, even after the unfortunate break and…

…Nick Johnson made it 3-1 in the third with another beautiful snipe on a horribly positioned Niemi. In fact it was almost identical to the shot that Clutterbuck took on Niemi.

The Sharks didn’t have an ounce of quit in them, though, and fought back to make it 3-2 with a gorgeous deflection from Benn Ferriero that Josh Harding didn’t even see (evidenced by the fact that he was standing straight up when the puck went past him) and they put the pressure back on the Wild.

The difference between the Wild, tonight, and the Wild over the last handful of games was that they didn’t give up. In fact, they pushed back and fought as if their lives depended on it (and, for some, their lives with the Minnesota Wild very well might have). They fought and, just under four minutes later, Casey Wellman Matt Cullen put the Wild back up by two, driving to the net, getting the shot on and then being fortunate enough to have a Casey Wellman shot deflect off of his leg on the way in.

Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau had something to say about the Wild’s win, though, tallying goals 22 seconds apart to tie the game at four with time winding down.

And that’s where you could feel the wheels start to come off.

The Wild’s confidence was shaken. They started to doubt again. Had there been any more time left on the clock, they very well might have fallen. But they hung on and got the game to the shootout, where they were finally able to put it away.

Some Thoughts

  • Cool story about Cal Clutterbuck’s goal. Clutterbuck spoke to Jack Jablonski before the game and promised him he would score for him. It’s not Babe Ruth, calling his shot, but it’s cool nonetheless.
  • Devin Setoguchi was a healthy scratch for having a little too much fun on Monday night with his old teammates and missing a team meeting Tuesday morning. I get that he’s young, but he’s got to be smarter than that. According to Yeo, he’ll get a fresh slate on Wednesday, but what he did damaged both his teammates’ and his coach’s trust in him. He’s going to have to work to get that back.
  • Casey Wellman looked spectacular for most of the game. I’d say that, for a good chunk of it, he was the best Wild player out there. He had two assists and looked very much at home on the Wild’s second line. He finally is starting to look like he belongs in the NHL.
  • Josh Harding looked solid. I’d have a hard time pinning any of the Sharks’ goals specifically on him. Now, I’m a huge Backstrom supporter, but I think Harding has earned the chance to run with the ball a bit and see if he can help the Wild get hot again.
  • Huge, huge win for the Wild. If they lose, they’re in ninth place, just three points from 12th. With the win, they’re in seventh place, three points ahead of the ninth place team. They’re also just three points out of fifth and seven out of first with a lot of hockey left to play.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild score? Four goals in regulation, plus two more in the shootout. I’d say that, at least for one game, they found their scoring touch again.

Can the Wild play with trust in their teammates and their system? They did. They were supporting the puck all over the ice and they played within their system quite well for the majority of the game. They had a relapse towards the end of the third and in overtime, but they were still able to come away with the important thing – two points.

Can Josh Harding have another stellar night? Stellar? That’s debatable. But good? Yes. If I’m Mike Yeo, I give him another shot on Thursday in Chicago.

Can the Wild stay healthy? So far, it seems like they did.

Will the Wild make Matt Cullen’s 1,000th game a memorable one? A win, a goal for Cullen and a shootout goal for Cullen. I’d say it was pretty memorable.

3 Stars

1)      Matt Cullen – His 1,000th game saw him pot a goal, the game-winning shootout goal and have a solid, solid game.

2)      Dan Boyle – A goal and two assists, plus a dynamic performance all around.

3)      Casey Wellman – Two assists and a terrific game all around.

Gameday Thread: Wild look to stop slump against Sharks

Well, I suppose if you’re going to play the injury card, you might as well do it right.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard has officially been shut down, suffering a concussion that seems to have been sustained during Zach Bogosian’s “clean” hit last month in Winnipeg.

Now, we’re not going to debate whether or not Bogosian’s hit was clean and should have been suspendable. See the above quotes to get our views on that. We are, however, going to talk about how this latest injury affects the team.

First of all, kudos to the Wild for not using their injury problems as an excuse – they could easily point to the injuries and try to excuse their poor play because of it and they’re not.

So they’ve got that going for them, which is good.

Now, on the surface, this should be a catastrophic injury for the Wild. Bouchard is their fourth leading scorer and is one of the keys to their power play. His playmaking ability is among the best in the league, when he’s healthy, and he’s a huge cog in this offense.

That, coupled with the continued absence of Guillaume Latendresse should spell doom for the Wild’s second line.

The injuries are the bad news and, make no mistake about it, it’s terrible news both for Bouchard (who missed more than a year with a concussion) and the Wild.

The good news, though, is that the Wild have players who can step in and fill in the blanks.

Matt Cullen is still centering the second line, so that gives at least some semblance of cohesion. Cal Clutterbuck has played great on both the first and second lines this season and Casey Wellman, who has seen time with Matt Cullen on the second line, has played very well this season.

Something’s got to give. Something’s got to spark this team that has looked listless for nearly a month now. Something has to give this team some sign of life. All there is left to do for fans is to hope that this latest development is it.

Lineup

Per Wild.com, here are the projected line combinations:

Setoguchi/Koivu/Heatley
Wellman/Cullen/McIntyre
Johnson/Brodziak/Clutterbuck
Powe/Peters/Gillies/Staubitz

Schultz/Falk
Zidlicky/Zanon
Spurgeon/Stoner

Harding will be between the pipes.

Now, those are the line combos that Wild.com projects, and they very well might start the game that way. I’m going to take my opportunity to play armchair coach here, though, and give my line combos and my reasoning behind them.

Clutterbuck/Koivu/Heatley – Koivu and Heatley have played better this season when they’ve had a physical presence on the line with them. That’s not a knock against Setoguchi, but having that physical player allows both Koivu and Heatley to play their natural game.
Wellman/Cullen/Setoguchi – The thing that Wellman has excelled at this season has been getting “dirty” goals around the net. Wellman can go to the net, allowing Cullen and Setoguchi to fire the puck towards the opposing goalie and giving the Wild the opportunity for some gritty goals.
Johnson/Brodziak/Powe – Not much here. These three have played together for stretches this season and have been a great checking line and energy line. It’s a natural fit for a third line.
Gillies/Peters/McIntyre – It might lack the toughness that Staubitz brings but, let’s be honest, the Sharks aren’t necessarily a team that you’re going to need an enforcer against. They’re last in the league in hitting by a good clip and they don’t have a true enforcer on their roster either. I’d go with speed and a little more offensive upside for a fourth line on a team that needs scoring.

So there you have it. That’s what I would do at forward.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild score? They’ve been abysmal offensively during their slump and they would seem due to break out in a big way. But in order to do that, they need to answer the next question.

Can the Wild play with trust in their teammates and their system? The biggest reason that the Wild have slumped is that they’ve gotten away from what made them successful in the first place. Their teamwork and playing within their system. If they can get back to that, they can get back in the win column.

Can Josh Harding have another stellar night? Harding is quickly sneaking up on Niklas Backstrom and making a case for being the Wild’s starter. At some point, Yeo is going to have to ride the hot hand but, first, Harding needs to prove that he can win a game and not just play outstanding.

Can the Wild stay healthy? It seems strange to say that the Wild are, once again, having injury problems this season. It’s not the reason why they’re struggling, but it’s a huge contributing factor. Every game, it seems, a new injury pops up and it would be huge to just let San Jose leave town with the Wild healthy.

Will the Wild make Matt Cullen’s 1,000th game a memorable one? Enough said.

The puck drops tonight at 6:30 pm and will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network (or the Network Formerly Known as Versus).

‘Hawks down Wild in shootout

First of all, watch this shootout goal from Patrick Kane and not say, “Are you effing serious?” I dare you. It’s impossible.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I didn’t do a write up on the game last night because I was too busy watching 24/7. Like, watched it three times too busy.

Would I have watched it three times had I not had to write a review for it? Probably not. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself in the process. My review will be up on Hockey Primetime soon, and I’ll link you too it as soon as it is, but I’ll give you a preview to how awesome the first episode was.

Not gonna lie – that song is now on my iPod.

Anyway, on to the Wild game.

As has been their M.O. this season, the Wild came out glacially slow again and, thanks to some spectacular goaltending by Niklas Backstrom, were still tied at zero when the buzzer sounded. Considering how badly they were outshot (11-2), this was no small feat.

They then kept their M.O. going, falling behind 2-0 in just over a minute on two quick goals from the ‘Hawks. The first, Marian Hossa potted on the power play after catching the Wild scrambling and then looking (just about every single player had their back to the blue line) and the second saw a beautiful pass end up with Michael Frolik, who had a tap-in into the open net.

The Wild, though, didn’t stop. In fact, they just kept getting better as the night went on. They, once again, scored two very quick goals to tie the game up. The first was a very controversial call, in which one linesman called an icing and the other waived it off. The ‘Hawks learned the hard way that they have to keep playing until the whistle blows, because Colton Gillies came in hard on the forecheck with Steve Montador and John Scott playing the puck very relaxed, expecting the icing to be called. Gillies got the puck out to Kyle Brodziak who scored on an incensed Blackhawks team – and rightfully so. I’ll take that kind of blown call any day of the week but it was, indeed, a horribly blown call.

Matt Cullen pounded home a Cal Clutterbuck rebound just a short time later to tie the game and the Wild were buzzing.

Jonathan Toews buried a beautiful wrister in the third to put the ‘Hawks back up, but the Wild were not to be denied with Mikko Koivu tying the game with a blistering one-timer on a beautiful play by Cal Clutterbuck.

Overtime was uneventful, in terms of goals, but was a tremendous pace and highly entertaining to watch and, seriously. Tell me that a 10 minute overtime of that pace wouldn’t end in a non-shootout win? If the league wants to minimize the impact of the shootout, that’s the way to go.

On to the shootout, where Jonathan Toews scored a typical shootout goal on Backstrom (five hole) and Patrick Kane made about a bazillion and two dekes before potting a shootout goal that, quite frankly, made Backstrom look silly.

So, how does this match up? Is this the Wild regressing? They’ve lost two straight, it obviously must mean that they are, right?

Well, not so fast.

Yeah, the Wild lost two tough, hard fought games. They didn’t find a way to win, when they needed to.

They ran into a hot Ondrej Pavelec, hell bent on rebounding from his seven-goal disaster against the Red Wings and, stuck with a team that about 99-percent of the pundits around the league would say is unequivocally better than the Wild, losing in the skills competition on a shootout goal that, quite honestly, bordered on the ridiculous.

This team isn’t regressing. This is a team that is coming together that has lost a couple tough hockey games in which they’ve played quite well.

The Wild play again on Saturday against the New York Islanders and you can bet they’ll be one hungry team.

Burning Questions

How do the Wild respond to a tough loss? They responded well, despite looking tired in the first period. They lost, yeah, but it was a hard-fought game that took the shootout for Chicago to win.

Can Guillaume Latendresse rebound? He ended up leaving the game with post-concussion symptoms. I was concerned that this would happen when he was rushed back into action, and it did.

Will Marek Zidlicky play and, if so, will he be useful? He didn’t look terrible, but he didn’t look great either. He had a few good looks, but one has to wonder if those good looks were worth scratching the puck magnet, Greg Zanon, against the Blackhawks.

How will Backstrom look in his second game in two nights? He looked good. None of the regulation goals could be pinned on him and, honestly, Backstrom didn’t lose the shootout; Kane won it.

Three Stars

1)      Cal Clutterbuck – Two assists, including the game-tying one on a delayed penalty and a gorgeous pass.

2)      Jonathan Toews – Great game. Goal and an assist, a shootout goal and was a force all night long.

3)      Mikko Koivu – Game-tying goal, +1, six shots.

Gameday Thread: Wild head to the Sharktank

The Wild are going to have a big test on their plate tonight, as Casey Wellman is going to return to his old stomping grounds for the first time with the Wild and he’s been on quite a roll.

Wellman is looking for the longest point streak of his career as he comes into San Jose and is looking very much at home on the Wild’s second line. He’s exhibiting the speed that the Wild saw when they signed him as an undrafted free agent three seasons ago and he’s now showing that he’s got the confidence in himself and in his shot to get the job done and he’s getting the job done in a big way.

On Sunday, against the Ducks, Wellman tallied the first multi-point game of his career and looked every bit the player that the Wild envisioned him being. In fact, the chemistry he’s starting to gain with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen, quite honestly, reminds me of the chemistry that Guillaume Latendresse had with Martin Havlat a couple seasons ago.

But, what Wellman has done is much more important to the team than some comparison. Wellman is providing the team with a legitimate top-six in the absence of Latendresse.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Cal Clutterbuck, but he’s best suited in a role on a checking line, where his offensive abilities are an added bonus as opposed to the expectation. He’s best when he’s able to throw his weight around with abandon and, on the top two lines, he’s not really paired with players that are suited to support that type of game.

That’s not to say that they’re not able to – just that they’re at their best when they’re not having to cover for a guy coming out of position to make a big hit from time to time.

Wellman’s emergence isn’t a surefire thing (even Benoit Pouliot showed flashes of brilliance), but he’s showing some encouraging signs and, if he continues to play this way, it’s going to be very difficult for Mike Yeo to take him out of the line up.

Now, when Latendresse is ready to come back, that’s going to have to be a bridge Yeo crosses when it happens (Setoguchi still isn’t impressing on the first line, in my opinion, and Latendresse was on fire when teamed up with Heatley and Koivu), but Wellman needs to make that decision as hard for Yeo as possible because, if he does, that’s just good for the team.

Lineup

Per Wild.com, here is the lineup and it looks to be more of the same:

Setoguchi/Koivu/Heatley
Bouchard/Cullen/Wellman
Johnson/Brodziak/Clutterbuck
Powe/Almond/Staubitz

Schultz/Lundin
Spurgeon/Scandella
Stoner/Zanon

Harding is between the pipes.

Burning Questions

Can Wellman keep it going? That’s the big one that is on most people’s minds. Wellman has been stellar in his last two games and is looking like he could be the real deal. The Wild have struggled against the Sharks lately, so another big game would be a huge help.

Can Minnesota put pressure on the Sharks? San Jose is at their best when they’re attacking and taking it to their opposition. Likewise, Minnesota is also at their best when they’re taking it to their opposition. One of them isn’t going to get to stick to their gameplan and, when the Wild haven’t been able to against the Sharks, they’ve struggled – a lot.

Will the former players strike against their teams? Heatley, Setoguchi, Burns and Havlat were all kept off the board against their former teams in the last meeting. Will that continue?

The puck drops tonight at 9:30 pm on Fox Sports North. Enjoy!

Wild rebound to down Lightning

Now that’s how you respond from a couple of down games.

After two pretty lousy games over the weekend, the Minnesota Wild came out on Monday and won a very impressive game over a very talented Tampa Bay Lightning team.

The Wild, as has been their M.O. this season, came out of the gates slow (though I think it was less of them coming out slow and more of the Lightning coming out like a bat out of hell), but rebounded with two incredibly solid periods of play to break their two-game losing streak and head into their 20 of 29 on the road on a high note.

Minnesota did exactly what had made them so successful for the first quarter of the season. They battled. When they got down in the second period (by the way, what an absolute laser by Steven Stamkos on that shot), the Wild didn’t just fight back – they fought back with an energy that I’ve never seen from a Minnesota Wild squad.

They didn’t just respond to the adversity; they thrived under it.

Cal Clutterbuck evened the score with a shorthanded goal shortly after Stamkos’s tally and that’s when the Wild really got going. That goal turned the tide of the game and, from that point on the Wild played like a boulder rolling downhill. They just kept pressuring the Lightning and the Lightning kept making mistakes.

With under five minutes left in the second, Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored what would stand up as the winning goal with a howitzer of a one-timer from right faceoff circle that, like Clutterbuck’s goal, was caused by a Lightning mishap. It would stand up as the game-winner and Mikko Koivu would put up the insurance tally with an empty-net goal late in the game.

The biggest story of the game, though, was the play of Niklas Backstrom.

Just one night after being pulled in the first period after giving up three goals on eight shots, Backstrom responded and responded big. He set the tone for the Wild’s game with his battle-level, fighting back after his terrible (and justifiably so, read Russo’s post if you want the whole story, but he’s not a robot) performance against the Flames and fought all night long, making some amazing saves to keep the Lightning off the board.

Overall, a great win for the Wild, especially heading into a very tough stretch that will see them on the road quite often.

Let’s see, what else…

  • Pierre-Marc Bouchard was absolutely spectacular on Monday. In fact, his whole line was solid, but Bouchard seemed to be right in the middle of everything. He was making play after play and he was the offensive force that the Wild need.
  • Clutterbuck was also terrific for the Wild. He was great in every zone and he was the Wild’s steadiest player all night long. He was even chirping Martin St. Louis, which I suppose is a bit like playing with fire.
  • The Wild’s fourth line was great. Both Wellman and McIntyre were buzzing all night long and, despite not finding themselves on the scoresheet, brought the “little bit of life” that Mike Yeo wanted them to.
  • I’ve never seen a player have so many scoring chances and such bad luck as Kyle Brodziak in the second period. He had two breakaways, he rung one off the post on one and got stoned on two shots on the other. He had a shot at an open net blocked by Stamkos and he just couldn’t buy a goal.

Burning Questions

How will Lundin and Zanon slot back into the line up? Quite well, actually. Both Lundin and Zanon looked terrific and they didn’t look like they had much rust at all.

How will Lundin and Zanon slot back into the line up? I’d say so, in a huge way.

Can the Wild find goals? They didn’t find much, but the players that needed to play well for Minnesota played very well. Dany Heatley still struggled, but the rest of the players picked up the slack.

Can the defense buckle down? The additions of Lundin and Zanon definitely helped and the Wild’s defense looked back to normal.

3 Stars

1)      Niklas Backstrom – Backs stopped 32 of 33 shots and that one that he let in was an absolute laser that I’m not sure any goalie in the league would have stopped.

2)      Pierre-Marc Bouchard – Butch was spectacular. He scored a goal and he was the wild’s best offensive player all night long.

3)      Cal Clutterbuck – See Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Clutterbuck was great for the Wild.

Gameday Thread: Wild look to rebound against Bolts

So, if you’re like me, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I insulated myself from the Wild this weekend, due to the holiday part of it, and after perusing the reading materials on the interwebz, I’m glad I did. It sounds like it was a brutal last couple of games.

Mike Yeo is always about the response, so I would expect the team to respond in a big way tonight especially with both Mike Lundin and Greg Zanon returning to the line up forMinnesota. In addition to the return of the two veterans, the Wild have recalled Casey Wellman and David McIntyre from Houston and Warren Peters and Nate Prosser have been returned to the AHL.

The insertion of Lundin and Zanon should provide a little veteran punch on their young blue line, whose inexperience has started to shine through over the last few games, and the youthful exuberance of Wellman and McIntyre should provide some scoring pop on the fourth line, or so the Wild hope.

Lineup

Per Wild.com, here are the probable lines:

Clutterbuck/Koivu/Heatley
Bouchard/Cullen/Setoguchi
Powe/Brodziak/Johnson
Wellman/McIntyre/Staubitz

Schultz/Lundin
Zanon/Stoner
Scandella/Spurgeon

Backstrom between the pipes.

Burning Questions

How will Lundin and Zanon slot back into the line up? Both Lundin and Zanon have been out for extended periods of time (in Lundin’s case, this is his Wild debut). Backstrom came back against the Flames after a few games off and was extremely rusty, will Zanon and Lundin be the same?

Will Backstrom rebound? Backs is typically stellar the game after being pulled, and that looks to be what Mike Yeo is banking on here. As a father of two, I’m surprised Backstrom was slated in to start against the Flames simply because it takes a few days to get re-adjusted after you have a kid. Backstrom understandably looked rusty against the Flames. I wouldn’t expect that again.

Can the Wild find goals? Setoguchi will be back on the second line, where he had some great chemistry with Bouchard and Cullen. The down side is that Clutterbuck will be back on the top line, where he’s had some opportunities, but the chemistry just wasn’t there. With Guillaume Latendresse still out, the Wild need Clutterbuck to step it up. Also, they’re going to expect a lot from McIntyre and Wellman on the fourth line, hoping for some offense to be generated there.

Can the defense buckle down? The Wild’s defense has been abysmal the last two games. Against Stamkos and the Lightning, they can’t be at anything less than their absolute best.

The puck drops at 7 pm and will be broadcast on Versus.

Wild get big win over Preds

If there was ever a playoff series I want to see, it would have to be between the Wild and the Predators.

By the time the game was over, there was so much pent up animosity between the two teams, I’m surprised things didn’t boil over at the final horn (though there was never really a chance for it to).

It started at the end of the first period, with Francois Boullion poking and prodding at Dany Heatley and seemed to abate a bit until Mike Fisher blatantly speared Kyle Brodziak in a “sensitive” area.

Fisher’s excuse to Brodziak? It wasn’t intentional.

I watched the replay and there was nothing unintentional about it.

It really got going, though, late in the third when Cal Clutterbuck caught an unseen punch from Patric Hornqvist and went absolutely ballistic. In fact, he got a solid DDT from the ref in order to stop him from trying to tear Hornqvist limb from limb.

But the Wild came out and played a full game and played quite well for the duration. They seemed very disorganized in the offensive zone during the first two periods but, they spent most of that time in the offensive zone. In fact, the Preds were so pressed in their own zone that, when they got the puck, all they could do a lot of the time is chip it out and change.

That’s exactly what the Wild want.

They wore the Preds down and, were it not for Pekka Rinne, the game could have been a lot different. Like 5-2 or 6-2 different.

Rinne was brilliant all night long but, by the time the third period rolled around, the Wild had won the war of attrition. They finally played their game for the whole 60 minutes and it paid off for them.

And, speaking of which, I’m sold. I’m sold on the system, I’m sold on the coach and I’m sold that this team is actually a good team.

That’s right, I’ve said it. They’re a good team.

They’re not only getting bounces, but they’re creating bounces.

You hear coaches on teams that are down say a lot that they’ve got to create their own luck, and that’s true. Puck luck only takes you part of the way. The rest is up to the team to create and that’s what the Wild are doing. They’re putting themselves in the right positions to get those lucky bounces and things are starting to fall into place.

What else?

  • Dany Heatley looked like the Dany Heatley of old tonight. He broke a six-game goal drought with his third-period tally, he had four shots and he legitimately could have had a hat trick tonight if not for some solid goaltending by Pekka Rinne.
  • Koivu was dominant again tonight. He had two assists, three shots and he led the Wild in ice time.
  • Harding was dazzling once again, which keeps giving the Wild a great tandem. He’s 10-0-1 in his last 11 games at home (dating back to 2008).

Burning Questions

 Can the Wild avoid a letdown tonight? Boy, did they. They played great in all three zones tonight and were a dominant team.

Can the Wild’s weapons start firing? Their top line combined for three points. They definitely started.

Can the Wild’s second line get into the act again? Yes and no. Clutterbuck got a shortie and their second power play had the PP goal.

Three Stars

 1)      Mikko Koivu – 2 assists and dominating play all night long.
2)      Dany Heatley – 1 goal, great offensive play.
3)      Josh Harding – 23 of 25 saves, was dazzling all night long.

Gameday Thread: Preds smash into St. Paul

The Wild haven’t played a game since Saturday’s win over the St. Louis Blues, but one thing’s for sure. It was probably the most enjoyable three day break for the fans that they’ve had in quite some time.

Why?

Because the Wild were sitting atop the NHL for the entirety of it.

Now, we at Wild Nation aren’t counting our chickens before they’re hatched. There’s still 62 games to play. It doesn’t matter if the Wild are first in the NHL on November 23. It matters if the Wild are first in the NHL on April 7.

But it’s cool nonetheless.

Now, the Wild aren’t getting ahead of themselves. They’re not content with this accomplishment and they’re not going to rest on their laurels. In fact, Mike Yeo is saying all the right things, basically saying that the Wild aren’t satisfied with this (a paraphrase, of course). He’s saying what he’s supposed to, the players are saying what they’re supposed to. Everyone’s focused on moving forward.

That’s going to be important, because the Wild have a huge test coming up tonight in the Nashville Predators who, if you were wondering, are currently fifth in the West, just three points behind the Wild.

The Wild have won eight of their last ten, but they’ve also been playing against a bunch of teams that have been struggling. The two losses in their last ten were against the Kings and Sharks – two teams that have been playing quite well – so this is going to be a great test of where the Wild are at.

The good news is that they’re not only winning the games they’re supposed to be winning, but they’re also finding ways to win close games and they’re starting to expect to win close games and they’re starting to expect to win, period.

That’s good news, because that confidence is going to come in handy, especially as long as their top scorers aren’t scoring.

Lineup

Per Wild.com, here’s the line up for tonight’s tilt:

Setoguchi/Koivu/Heatley (Koivu finally showed up on offense on Saturday. Now it’s time for Heatley and Setoguchi to follow suit. If I know anything about the Wild’s Captain, he’s not going to be satisfied with his performance against the Blues, and he’ll drive his linemates to be better too.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Clutterbuck (This line has really struggled without the presence of Latendresse or Setoguchi. Clutterbuck is a great player, but something just seems off when I watch these guys skate together.)
Powe/Brodziak/Johnson (I can’t really say much that hasn’t already been said about these three. They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder and they’re really coming into their own as a solid checking line.)
Gillies-Peters-Staubitz (The Wild basically need these three to play eight to ten minutes of mistake-free hockey. They’ve been doing that recently.)

Schultz/Prosser (Nate Prosser is blossoming into a stud, right in front of our eyes. That is all.)
Scandella/Stoner (Marco Scandella is returning to the line up after missing a couple games with a concussion. Given how cautious the Wild have been returning people from concussions of late, I wouldn’t expect any setbacks, but keep an eye on him nonetheless.)
Spurgeon/Falk (Justin Falk has been unbelievably impressive this season. With how he’s playing, as well as the rest of the young defensemen, it’s going to be really hard to justify taking anyone out of this line up when Greg Zanon and Mike Lundin get healthy.)

Backstrom between the pipes.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild avoid a letdown tonight? The Wild have had great success against teams not in the top eight, but have struggled a bit against the conference’s top eight. This is going to be a huge test for the team, but one that I think they can definitely pass if they play their game.

Can the Wild’s weapons start firing? Dany Heatley is second on the team in points, but sports a sad looking 9.5% shooting percentage. Setoguchi’s is much better at 14.3% (it’s higher than his career average) but Koivu’s is at 6.5%. The Wild need these three to get into a groove, and the only way they’re going to do that is by shooting the puck.

Can the Wild’s second line get into the act again? The Wild’s second line has really looked lost at times with Clutterbuck on it. With Latendresse out indefinitely, they need to start getting some chemistry between the three.

The puck drops tonight at 7 pm and will be televised on FSN. Enjoy!

Gameday Thread: Wild rolls into Calgary

The Wild need to keep the momentum going tonight

So the Wild are rolling into Calgary tonight for the first of six meetings between these two teams, and there’s a lot to take into account heading into the game.

As I mentioned earlier, Niklas Backstrom’s insertion into the line up tonight has left the Wild with a bit of a conundrum in net, and I feel like I should clarify that a little bit.

Backstrom needs to perform tonight to keep pace with Harding

First, I don’t think there’s a goalie controversy. Backstrom is still the starter, Harding is still the back up and Backstrom hasn’t been playing bad hockey. The fact of the matter is, though that, it’s moved from a 1 and 2 situation to a 1A and 1B situation. There is no de facto starter anymore. It’s whoever is playing the best at the time.

What this basically boils down to is a good, old fashioned, competition. My point earlier was that Backstrom needs to perform tonight. He needs to have a good game and he needs to give Mike Yeo pause about taking him out of the net, just like Harding did.

The Wild is playing very good hockey right now. They’re on a four-game winning streak and, in their last seven games, they’re 5-1-1 and they’ve give up just ten goals over that span.

They might not always be playing good hockey, but they’re doing what good hockey teams do – they’re finding a way to win. That begins and ends with the man in the crease, and that is exactly why Backstrom needs to respond tonight.

If Backstrom responds tonight, I’d imagine he’ll likely get another look in San Jose. If he doesn’t, well, he’s just making it that much easier for Yeo to put Harding back in nets.

The reason the Wild need their goaltender to be so good is, quite simply, because they’re not scoring goals.

They’ve scored more than two goals just three times in 13 games. There’s been some encouraging signs in the last two games (like, you know, shooting the puck) but this team has too much offensive firepower to NOT score goals.

Just look at their roster.

They’ve got six players on their team that are legitimate 20 goal threats (seven, if you consider Clutterbuck one) and, of those six, four

Latendresse is one of the Wild's key offensive players

of those could be considered legitimate 30 goal threats.

That’s a lot of offense, especially when you consider that last year’s Stanley Cup Champions had just one 30 goal scorer and four 20 goal scorers and the runners up had two 40 goal scorers and just one other 20 goal scorer. The year before? One 30 goal scorer and five more with 20 were on the Blackhawks and the Flyers had two 30 goal scorers and just one other 20 goal scorer.

If the Wild can pull all of this together, they could be a very dangerous team, especially the way that their young defense is playing and that both of their goalies are playing. If they can’t? That’s a lot to ask of your goaltenders, no matter who they are.

Lineup

Tonight, the Wild will likely ice the same line up that we’ve seen over their four-game winning streak. They’ve called up Warren Peters, but he’ll only get the nod if Cal Clutterbuck (who is a gametime decision) can’t go. My two cents on this, though, is that if Clutterbuck skates for warm ups, he’s in the game.

I do want to say a little about the lines, though, so I’ll throw in my two cents on them as well.

Latendresse/Koivu/Heatley (This line has been absolutely lights out. I love the strength that they have and they’re actually getting to the dirty areas on the ice too.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Setoguchi (They can skate with anyone in the league, and maybe skate circles around anyone in the league. Their speed is really opening up opportunities for them.)
Johnson/Brodziak/Clutterbuck (The Wild knew what they had in Brodziak and Clutterbuck, but Johnson has been an absolute revelation. He’s been one of the best players on the ice for Minnesota in every game he’s played and that’s not taking anything away from Minnesota’s other players.)
Gillies/Powe/Staubitz (The one line I’m really not pleased with. I know that they’re a defensive unit, but I expected a lot more from Powe and Gillies this season. Or, at least, I expected them to look better than they have.)

Schultz/Zidlicky (They’re getting better. You know what you’re getting with Schultz, and I think that will help Zidlicky find his game.)
Spurgeon/Scandella (Spurgeon still doesn’t look as good as he did last season, but the pairing is still very good. Scandella is going to be a fixture on the Wild’s blue line for years. He’s that good.)
Prosser/Falk (Probably the most unexpected, as they’re both injury fill-ins. They look great. They’re mobile, they’re strong and they haven’t been making mistakes.

Like I mentioned, Backstrom will be in net and Harding will have the gate tonight.

Heatley is key to the Wild "playing their game"

Burning Questions

Will Backstrom respond? He’s been on the bench now for almost two weeks. Is there going to be any rust? Is he going to look listless, or will he look like a man fighting to keep his job? All of these are questions that Backstrom needs to answer with tonight’s performance.

Can Minnesota play their game? It sounds strange to say it, but Minnesota’s game is puck possession and getting shots. They showed that they can be very successful at that against the Canucks and, against the Blues, the shots didn’t necessarily come (hey, we’re not going to get 45 every night), but the pressure did. Shots score goals and they create offense. The Wild are starting to get this, but they need to keep digging and keep playing their game.

Can the Wild get it done on the road? Minnesota is 5-2-1 at home and 2-1-2 on the road. With a pivotal 5-game road trip underway, they need to show that they’re capable of winning on the road as well and, more importantly, closing out games on the road.

Can the top line keep it up? The insertion of Guillaume Latendresse onto the Wild’s top line has done wonders for them (as has the insertion of Devin Setoguchi onto the second line). Latendresse has two goals in his last two games and is starting to come alive and the Wild need that to continue.

The puck drops tonight at 8:30 and will be on Fox Sports North. See you after!

Photos Courtesy of Getty Images

Ducks beat Wild 3-2

This is just getting painful to watch.

The Wild just can’t seem to get things going offensively, despite all of their offensive weapons, and fell to the Ducks last night 3-2. A large part of that is because, despite getting a good amount of shots, the Wild just can’t sustain any offensive pressure in the zone because, as Russo intimated in his post last night, the Wild are dumping great, but when it comes to chasing, they need some work.

It isn’t even that the Wild aren’t forechecking either. They are. In fact, a lot of times they have a very strong forecheck but they’re not using it to their advantage. When you’re playing a dump and chase style (which, I assure you, isn’t the way that Yeo wants the Wild to play), the chase is dependant on using your forecheck to get behind the defense and get the puck. Instead, the Wild seem to be dumping it, then expecting someone else to chase it.

Again, let me stress that this isn’t the way that the Wild want to play. They want to be a puck possession team. To me, dump and chase has always been the most ridiculous style of play. You’ve worked hard on defense to gain the puck, just to chip it in and chase after it once you hit the blue line? It just doesn’t make sense.

Now, there are some teams that are better suited for it. There are some teams that it works for. This team, it doesn’t.

Now, I’m sure that this isn’t the style of game that Yeo would like the Wild to play, but if it’s going to be something that the Wild continue to revert to (and, let’s be fair, every team dumps and chases at some point), it’s something they have to work on in order to do it well enough so that it’s a benefit to the team, not just a planned turnover.

If they Wild are going to revert back to this strategy at points during the game, then using it to get in behind the team’s defense needs to be indelibly seared into their memory.

When I was back in high school, I was on the basketball team. After one particularly disheartening loss (read: we got curb stomped), our coach decided to teach us a little about hustle. In the drill in question, we lined up in two lines on the baseline, coach rolled the ball towards center court, and one person from each line went, for lack of a better expression, balls out trying to get to the ball first. We got court burns, we were exhausted, we were all hurt in some way, shape or form but, most importantly, we got better. That’s exactly what the Wild needs to do. They need to separate the forwards and defensemen, dump the puck in deep and let them hit it out down low trying to come out with the puck. People are going to get pissed, punches could be thrown, but let’s be honest here. If the Wild aren’t pissed off with the start that they’ve had, they’re not paying attention.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild close out a game? This is kind of a moot point, because the Wild didn’t really have the opportunity to close the game, but I will say that the Wild just folded mentally in the last few minutes of the third period when they were within one. At that point in the game, you just can’t take careless penalties, and that’s exactly what they did. I don’t care how unintentional the delay of game penalty was, you can’t take that penalty at that point in the game. You just can’t.

Will Guillaume Latendresse be successful on the fourth line? No, he wasn’t. In fact, in his 13 odd minutes of ice time, he was largely ineffective. Now, that could be because of lingering after effects of his injury or that could be because he was playing on the fourth line. Two things really stuck with me about this game and it was that Latendresse wasn’t the offensive force he has been this season because, well, he was rarely able to get time in the offensive zone and that, if Cal Clutterbuck is getting more power play time than Bouchard, Latendresse and Setoguchi, something’s wrong. I love me some Clutterbuck, but a top-six forward he is not.

Cal Clutterbuck on the first line? Will he succeed? Yes and no. I’m hesitant to call him a huge success on the first line, but he did create some chances. The problem is, though, that he doesn’t really have much of a net presence. Just because a player is physical doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to hold their own consistently in front of the net. Clutterbuck used his body to create chances for others tonight but, to me, it just seemed like the whole square peg in a round hole scenario for Minnesota.

Can Cullen get back on the scoresheet? Yup. The second line was one of the Wild’s top lines and Cullen got a power-play goal that pulled the Wild within one.

Three Stars

1)      Teemu Selanne – Selanne was just a force all night long, no question about it. He had assists on all threeAnaheim goals and just dominated the offensive zone.

2)      Corey Perry – Perry was his typical “Wild killer” self, getting under people’s skins and scoring goals while he was at it. He scored the first goal and that really set the tone for the game.

3)      Ryan Getzlaf – No “homer” star predictions here. Getzlaf got the game winner for the Ducks and, like Perry and Selanne, was a force for the Ducks.

Next Page »