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).

Koivu out; Should the Wild consider trading for a forward?

For those naysayers who have been waiting for the rails to come off of the Wild’s seemingly unstoppable train over the last few weeks, you might want to watch this coming stretch of games leading into Christmas – this could well be when it happens.

With the news that Mikko Koivu is now “day-to-day,” the Wild could be facing Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders without four of their top-six forwards, and one other who has been feeling in on the second line (Casey Wellman) severely handicapped with a wrist injury that has made his shot akin to a slow pitch softball pitch. {Ed. Note: That may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the point.}

So, right now, the Wild are left with Matt Cullen and Dany Heatley in their top-six.

Thankfully, Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak and Nick Johnson have been putting up pretty decent numbers on their third line, but even so the lack of Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse and Devin Setoguchi leaves the team with a significant lack of both speed and skill as they’re heading into what could be the most crucial stretch of their season.

To give you an idea of what they’re looking at, here are the lines that Mike Russo posted from their Friday practice:

Clutterbuck/Cullen/Heatley
Powe/Brodziak/Johnson
Wellman/Almond/Staubitz/Gillies
Peters/Staubitz/Gillies

Obviously, they need to call up one more forward if none of their injured list can go (and it’s pretty doubtful that any of them will).

Russo speculated that it could be Jared Palmer that gets the call if the Wild are wanting skill (who has four goals and six assists in 26 games for the Aeros this season) or Jed Ortmeyer if they want some grit (five goals, six assists in 20 games). Either of those are possibilities, though it wouldn’t surprise me to see Jeff Taffe get the nod again, as he showed some pretty good chemistry with Dany Heatley in his two-game stint. Jon DiSalvatore (8 goals, 13 assists, 27 games) or Kris Foucault (6 goals, 6 assists, 25 games with a 20.6% shooting percentage) could be potential candidates as well, if the Wild are looking for skill, but Palmer had a very good camp for the Wild and stuck around quite a while, so he might be the natural choice.

Either way, it’s very clear that the Wild need to do something to help with their injured stable of forwards.

Now, I’m not speculating on anything that I’ve heard, nor do I think this is coming anytime soon, but might a trade be coming soon if these injury problems hold up?

Consider that the Wild currently have eight healthy, NHL defensemen on their roster (along with Nate Prosser and Kris Fredheim in the AHL). That gives the Wild flexibility in their roster decisions, and if they’re looking at the potential of spending a fair amount of time without four of their top-six forwards, doesn’t it lend credence to the idea that a trade might not necessarily be in the works, but might be a good idea?

Last game, Greg Zanon was a healthy scratch for the first time in a Wild sweater. Now, I’d be much more comfortable with the idea of moving Marek Zidlicky, but either of the “Z’s” have trade value – much more than any other of our defensemen (with the exception of Nick Schultz, who I don’t think Fletcher would even consider moving).

Both Zidlicky and Zanon could make for tempting pieces of a trade (especially Zanon, who is in the final year of his contract) and I don’t think that it’s outside of the realm of reason to consider moving either of them – especially with not knowing how long Guillaume Latendresse is going to be on the shelf for.

This is, again, baseless speculation. There’s no indication that the Wild are even calling around.

But if they start to slip with their top forwards out, they very well might need to consider it.

Gameday Thread: Wild look to rebound against Blackhawks

I know I tweeted no gameday thread but, I had a little time, so I thought I’d throw together a brief one for you.

Now, I’m not going to talk at length here before getting down to the nitty gritty, but I do want to address Zach Bogosian’s hit on Pierre-Marc Bouchard quickly before we get to the game stuff.

For those of you who missed it, here it is:

Now, I can abide by the league’s decision not to suspend Bogosian. I don’t agree with it, but I can live with it. Looking at the hit, Bouchard did turn away from Bogosian (despite the fact that he was turning to play the puck, which is apparently frowned upon in this establishment, but we’ll overlook that) before the hit happened.

So, basically, the league said that it falls on Bouchard to protect himself in that situation as opposed to playing the puck. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like it, but what I also don’t like is that the league decided not to even fine Bogosian.

Consider that Mats Zuccarello got a $2,500 fine for this boarding call:

This one is a bit worse, yes?

I’m not going to belabor the point here, so I’ll just lay it out for you here. I disagree with the league’s ruling for the following reasons. Bogosian crosschecked Bouchard in the back, dangerously close to the boards. Bouchard turned away from the hit, but it was to play the puck in an offensive situation, not to attempt to draw a penalty, nor does he ever fully face the boards upon turning. If you watch, he turns enough to get his stick on the puck. Bogosian had time to pull up and pin Bouchard to the boards. Instead, he opted to cross check him square in the back.

Like I said – I can live with the NHL’s decision not to suspend Bogosian, because I don’t believe that it was his intent to injure Bouchard, but to not even fine him is absolutely ridiculous in this situation.

Anywho, on to today’s game.

Lineup

Both Cullen and Bouchard are game-time decisions, but judging by the fact that Butch has a freshly (as in last night) broken nose, I’d be surprised if he goes. Here’s the projected line up per Wild.com:

Clutterbuck/Koivu/Heatley
Latendresse/Cullen/Wellman
Johnson/Brodziak/Powe
Gillies/Almond/Staubitz

Schultz/Lundin
Spurgeon/Scandella
Stoner/Zanon

Backstrom in nets.

Burning Questions

How do the Wild respond to a tough loss? If we know anything about this Wild team, it’s that they typically respond well to adversity and to a tough loss. This could be the toughest game they’ve played in a while, but it’s going to be on home ice, in front of a sold out arena (it feels great to write that again). The hallmark of a good team is that they don’t let a loss derail their momentum. The Wild need to do that tonight.

Can Guillaume Latendresse rebound? Despite his goal, Mike Yeo wasn’t pleased with Latendresse’s game last night. To be fair to G-Lat, he hasn’t played with the squad for a while, so he’s not at the same place as everyone else in terms of the Wild’s system. His puck support last night left a lot to be desired (he left the zone very early) and he didn’t look like he was fitting in for a lot of it. That will change as he gets more comfortable with the system, but he’s got to play catch up, and quick, with Pierre-Marc Bouchard potentially out.

Will Marek Zidlicky play and, if so, will he be useful? To say that Zidlicky has had a subpar season so far this year would be an understatement of huge proportions. If he plays, odds are Clayton Stoner will find himself as the odd man out, which leaves the Wild with a big, gritty hole on their blue line. Zidlicky has made poor decisions with the puck and has not played up to his potential this season and, because of that, the Wild have had struggles when he’s on the ice. If he plays, that needs to change. He needs to make good decisions with the puck, he needs to support his d-partner (likely Greg Zanon) and he needs to shoot the effing puck.

How will Backstrom look in his second game in two nights? Backs wasn’t unbelievably busy against the Jets (at least, not as busy as Ondrej Pavelec was), and that might be a good thing for tonight’s tilt against the ‘Hawks. Historically, he hasn’t been the best againstChicago, but he’s going to need to come up big tonight for the Wild to rebound.

The puck drops at 6:30 pm and the game will be on Versus.

Gameday Thread: Wild look to slow down Jets

If this keeps up this way, the Wild are going to get a serious Rodney Dangerfield complex, because they just can’t get no respect

Ask any talking head or stat junkie and they’ll tell you that the Wild are one of the worst teams in the league – that is, if they recognize that they’re even part of the NHL.

The talking heads will tell you that the Wild play a passive, defensive style of hockey. That they can’t score goals, that the only reason that they’re winning is because they’re riding strong goaltending, then dismiss the Wild and move on talk for 60 minutes about the fact that Sidney Crosby is still hurt.

They’ll talk about the fact that the Wild are fifth in the league in goals-against (64) and laud how great of a job the Wild’s goaltenders have done winning them hockey games because the Wild are 22nd in the league in goals for per game (2.50).

They’ll ignore, however, that the Wild are actually in the top half of the league in total goals for with 79. They’ll also ignore that the Wild have the seventh best goal differential in the league at plus-15.

They’ll talk about the fact that the Wild don’t have a “go-to” type player. That Kyle Brodziak is leading the Wild in goals and that Dany Heatley isn’t the same player that he was back inOttawa(never mind the fact that Heatley has a point in each of his last six games and his shooting percentage has climbed back into double digits).

In fact, they’ll find every single reason why the Wild shouldn’t be winning hockey games, ignoring the fact that they still are winning hockey games.

The stat junkies will spout their metrics and their Corsi ratings. They’ll talk about how the Wild are terrible because they start more often than not in their own zone or that they’re defying logic because they play a lot of the game in their own zone.

They’ll tell us these things as if they’re revelations to those who watch Wild games on a regular basis when, in reality, we all know these things.

I don’t think any Wild fan is fooling themselves into thinking that the Wild are going to sustain this pace throughout the season. If they did, it would truly be a remarkable task because of the fact that their goalies are getting used and abused with the amount of shots they’re taking (Minnesota is 29th in the league in shots against per game).

But what is painfully obvious in every analysis of the Wild is that neither the talking heads nor the stat junkies are spending any appreciable time actually watching the Wild play.

Neither of these groups take into account the fact that the Wild underwent a significant makeover this off season.

Two of their key offensive components (Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi) are playing their first season alongside anyone other than themselves, while the Wild lost two other key components (Brent Burns and Martin Havlat) from their past teams.

What does that mean? Chemistry, of course.

On top of that, the Wild had to learn a brand new system (or, at least, those that didn’t play inHoustondid). That takes time. It takes time to get comfortable with the system and it takes time to stick with it when the going gets tough.

First, looking at the offensive components, Heatley and Mikko Koivu have combined for 13 points in the last six games. It looks a little like they’re starting to mesh, yeah?

Second, looking at the system and the coaching, over their last 15 games, the Wild are averaging 3.0 goals per game, a significant boost over their season average of 2.5. To give you an idea of the difference .5 goals per game makes,Ottawais currently tenth in the league with 2.93 goals per game. If the Wild had been on this pace since the start of the season, they would be tenth in the league in scoring.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying, quite simply, that the Wild is improving with each game.

Yes, the statistical breakdown of the Minnesota Wild defies logic. Looking at just the stats, there’s no reason why the Wild should be as good as they are, but the Wild have won 12 of their last 15 games because they’re starting to get it. Their offense is coming around. They’re starting to understand what they need to do to be a winning hockey team.

These metrics and stats that everyone is talking about looks at the stats of their season as a whole, which is important to do, but is also skewed because of the fact that their offense has taken a while to get going. They had to learn one another and they had to learn the system. Now that both are happening, the Wild are coming around and are playing tremendously good hockey.

Now, is this all to say that I think the Wild are going to continue to play this way, win the Presidents’ Trophy and win the Stanley Cup?

No. I’m not going to be as bold as to suggest that.

What I will suggest, however, is that this team is not as bad as everyone seems to think. What I will say is that this is the real Minnesota Wild team, not the team that went 4-3-3 during October.

The offense, the shots, the time of possession – all of that will come with time. But right now, people need to get over their obsession with statistics, sit down and watch a Wild game and realize that, yes, this team is a good hockey team.

Lineup

There is, indeed, a Wild game tonight. Per Wild.com, here is their projected lineup:

Clutterbuck/Koivu/Heatley
Bouchard/Brodziak/Wellman
Johnson/Almond/Powe
Gillies/Staubitz/Latendresse

Schultz/Lundin
Spurgeon/Scandella
Stoner/Zanon

Backstrom is in the cage.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild keep it up? The Wild have played some tough games in the past week, or so, and I would call this game a “trap” game, so to speak. The Wild got to go home and sleep in their own beds on Sunday before heading up to Winnipeg. Cullen is out sick and Latendresse is back in. If there is any game that could see the Wild suffer a let down, it’s this one.

How effective will Latendresse be in his return? Don’t expect him to play a lot, but Latendresse will be back and I would imagine will see power play time, as well as a shift on the top line here and there. The last time G-Lat was “eased” into the line up, he looked pretty impressive in a 3-2 loss to the Ducks, playing a little over 13 minutes and taking three shots. I’d expect a similar game from him tonight, keeping it simple and getting his legs back.

Can the Wild get shots? The Wild have been consistently outshot by a large margin over the last few games, but it hasn’t mattered one bit. To keep winning, though, they’re going to eventually have to start shooting the puck more and playing more on the offensive end of the ice. The Jets might be a good place to start with that.

Can Heatley and Koivu keep it up? The Wild’s top offensive tandem has combined for 13 points in their last six games. Koivu has a four-game point streak going and Heatley’s sits at six currently. Minnesota needs them to keep it going if they’re to keep winning.

The puck drops tonight at 7:30 on FSN.

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!

Gameday Thread: Here come the Avs

The Wild have a couple big announcements for their blue line heading into today’s game.

First, congratulations to Nick Schultz, who will play in his 700th NHL game tonight. To put that in perspective, the total number of games for the Wild’s other blueliners after tonight’s game will be 202.

Schultz has been a rock on the blue line for the Wild since playing 52 games for the Wild as a 19-year-old and has been one of the steadiest defensemen in the league since that time. It’s pretty much that he’s going to play 70-plus games in the season and that he’s going to be playing against team’s top lines more often than not.

The latter part of that is one reason why it is such a testament to Schultz that he is a career plus-19 and that he’s only had three minus seasons in his career.

He doesn’t create many goals (his career high in points is 20), but he’s not going to make it easy for other teams to score many goals (though, I must say that he’s probably deflected more goals into the Wild net than any other player in team history – again, a testament to his positioning, because he’s right where he needs to be).

On a personal note, Schultz has long been one of my favorite Wild defensemen, so congratulations Nick. Here’s me hoping for another 700 games with number 55 wearing Iron Range Red!

Second, congratulations to Kris Fredheim, who the Wild signed to an NHL contract today and who will play in his first NHL game today.

For those of you who don’t know much about Fredheim (and I don’t blame you, because I knew next to nothing about him until today), here’s a little scouting report from Houston Beat Writer extraordinaire and contributor to the blog, Ms. Conduct:

He’s a good, solid, stay-at-home defenseman that you really just never have to worry or think too much about. I almost never even notice him with the Aeros, which I think is a good thing in a stay at home d-man. Nothing flashy or too aggressive about his game. He just does things the right way and sort of flies under the radar as a result.

He’s got good size and good speed and good positioning, so I don’t see him having much trouble adapting to the NHL, though he’ll take a bit to get used to the speed, I’d wager. But he’ll be fine. The best part is that Yeo knows him and his strengths and weaknesses, so he’ll put him in a position to succeed.

So, there you have it. If this season has done anything for the Wild, so far, it’s shown the defensive depth that the organization has, so I don’t think there’s any cause for concern with Fredheim slotting into the line up tonight.

Anyway, congratulations to Schultz and Fredheim. Now let’s go buy some bubble wrap for the Wild’s d-men.

Lineup

Here is the probable line up, per Wild.com (again, with my thoughts intersperced):

Setoguchi/Koivu/Heatley (God, how I just want these three to do something. Anything. Just play like they’re capable of playing. That’s all I ask. Maybe a couple goals too. But that’s really all I ask.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Clutterbuck (As you’ll see below, I think Wellman will end up on this line at some point. Clutterbuck is good, but he’s a checker first and a scorer second. The Wild need someone with a scorer’s mentality on this line.)
Powe/Brodziak/Johnson (This line has been one of the Wild’s best liens over the past few weeks. They’ve just been flat out on point.)
Gillies/Peters/Wellman (See my thoughts on this one below.)

Wellman was recalled again today (after getting demoted yesterday), so I’d guess he’ll get slotted into the line up tonight as Wild.com was speculating. He’ll likely start on the fourth line, but given that the organization has said time and time again that Wellman is the type of player that needs to be in the top-six to succeed, I’d guess he’ll find his way up to the second or even first line at some point during the evening.

Schultz/Prosser (It really says a lot about Prosser that they’d be slotting him in on the top pairing next to Schultz.)
Stoner/Fredheim (Once again, Stoner has come back and been a stud. That’s a great partner for a player in his first NHL game to skate next to.)
Spurgeon/Falk (Two of the Wild’s brightest young defensemen skating next to one another? Should be good to watch.)

Having allowed just four goals in his last two games and with a 17-4-2 record against Colorado, Backstrom will be in the cage.

Burning Questions

Can Casey Wellman contribute at the NHL level? Wellman was sent toHoustonat the beginning of the season under instructions to dominate. He’s done that, but can those skills translate to the NHL level? Mike Yeo seems to think so. Most of Wellman’s goals this season have been “NHL” goals, meaning they’re goals that would have been scored in the NHL as well. If that’s the case, he could finally be ready.

Can the Wild’s young defense keep stepping up? With Zidlicky out,Minnesotahas just one player on their blue line tonight that’s played in a full NHL season. So far, their young blue line has been one of the big reasons that Minnesota has been as good as they have been. The Wild need that trend to continue tonight.

Can the top line finally put together a full, solid game? Heatley, Koivu and Setoguchi are together again thanks to an injury to Guillaume Latendresse. They absolutely dominated in the pre-season. The Wild need them to do that again, and quick.

Can the Wild avoid the hometown blues? The first game back after an extended road trip is typically a tough one. Can the Wild come out strong and avoid that? Coming back home from the Eastern Time Zone should help, but they’ve got to come out strong tonight.

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

Wild atop the Northwest despite themselves

It’s not always pretty, but this team has learned the most important thing that any team just learning to walk (like the Wild are) has to do.

They’ve learned how to win.

Thanks to some spectacular goaltending, the Wild is returning to the Twin Cities with six out of a possible ten points and they’re riding high. What’s even more encouraging is that, in every win, the Wild scored three or more goals. In fact, in their wins, the Wild outscored their opponents 10-4.

Of course, in their two losses, they were outscored 8-3, but we’re focusing on the positives here.

I’ll be honest here, my faith in the team wavered after the debacle inLos Angeles. The Wild responded in a big way, though. They came out strong in Anaheim, and even though their legs caught up to them (they really looked like a team that had played the night before in the last two periods), they got out of Dodge with a huge rebound win. Two days later, in Columbus, they looked like a team that had just travelled across three time zones. They got flat out dominated in the first period, but rebounded and scored four goals over the last two periods and really snuck out ofColumbuswith a win.

But they got the win, and that’s the important thing here.

The problem behind this, though, is that the Wild is still having problems scoring. Of the 10 goals they scored, just one was an empty-netter, but the Wild’s top line is just not clicking and a big reason why is a seeming reluctance to shoot the puck.

Dany Heatley, one of the Wild’s leading scorers, is on pace for 237 shots right now, which would be the fourth lowest total of his career. (For comparison’s sake, his two 50-goal seasons in Ottawa, he had 300 and 310 shots respectively.) He’s on pace for 23 goals and 50 points, both of which would be career lows for seasons in which he plays 70 or more games. Even his 9.6% shooting percentage is 2.4 percent lower than his career low.

Meanwhile, Mikko Koivu has an abysmal 2.5% shooting percentage and is on pace for 46 points, which would be his lowest total in a 60-plus game season since his rookie season (he had 42 points in his injury shortened season in 2007-08).

In other words, the chemistry experiment with the Wild’s top line is failing, miserably.

For all intents and purposes, these two players should be enjoying huge years playing together. Koivu has long been thought of as a solid playmaker, while Heatley is undoubtedly an elite sniper, but they’re just not clicking.

The addition of Guillaume Latendresse to the line helped. Latendresse’s size helped create space for the two men and allowed them to play the position that they’re used to (i.e. not camping Heatley in front of the net, but putting him at where he can utilize his shot), but with Latendresse out, the line has gone back to being stagnant.

Now, the fix is a lot harder this season than it might be in future seasons when the Wild has a little more talent in their bottom-six players (for example, after Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and so on are in the system), but this season it’s showing the distinct lack of depth that the Wild have at the NHL level and it’s a serious cause for concern.

I know, I know. I said I was going to look at the positive, but this is just too glaring to ignore.

The Wild are winning on the backs of their second line and their role players. Quite simply, their best players aren’t their best players right now, and there’s no easy fix.

But I don’t want to take away from the optimism of the situation. In fact, I’m using this instance to try to add to it.

The Wild are top in the Northwest Division and their top line isn’t playing well.

The Wild are tied for third in the league right now (after all the tiebreakers, they get bumped down to fifth, but still), and their best players aren’t playing like their best players.

Now, Mike Yeo is too good of a coach for this lull from the top line to last forever. So, if the Wild are getting these sort of results without a huge contribution from their best players, what can fans expect to see from the team once players like Heatley and Koivu start heating up?

We’ll be back tomorrow with that schedule we promised you and a look at the Avs game. Until then!

Gameday Thread: Heatley and Setoguchi return to San Jose

Full tuck? Really?

Well, the Wild are going for six in a row tonight, facing off against the San Jose Sharks in what is a highly anticipated game for both teams, as Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley are returning to San Jose and Brent Burns and Martin Havlat are facing off against the Wild for the first time since being traded this off season, and I’m not sure whether or not James Sheppard is going to get his first game of the season tonight, but Burns and Heatley will certainly be in the lineup.

Does anyone really think he was serious?

As was mentioned on Hockey Wilderness, Brent Burns made a comment to the San Jose Mercury News that every single person on the interwebz has jumped on:

“I’ve been watching how they’ve been doing, hoping that they would lose every game,” he continued. “You have to be competitive to reach this level and I’m a pretty intense guy. And when a team doesn’t want you, you sure don’t want them to go 82-0.”

And one more: “I have a lot of friends there and you want them to score six goals and lose.”

“But it doesn’t always work out,” he added. “Now it’s like an ex-girlfriend. You really don’t want her to get the white-picket fence and the great job. It’s like a good country song.”

Now, let’s be very clear here. Burnzie loved his time inMinnesotaand he was beloved by many (if not all) of the fans and surely by all of his teammates. In fact, the article goes on to talk about how much Burns liked living in Minnesota.

So, is this bulletin board material?

Probably not. This is just Burnzie being Burnzie.

On the other hand, all it takes is one person to say, “He was being a smartass to the media. Let’s take it to him so we can give it right back.”

Just sayin’.

Lineup

Minnesota is rolling out the same lineup we saw against the Flames, with the exception of Cal Clutterbuck back in. Per Wild.com, we’re likely to see the lines look like this (my thoughts in italics):

Latendresse/Koivu/Heatley (Has Latendresse really gotten this line going or what? It’s nice when everyone gets to play the role that

Latendresse has really helped the top line

they’re used to, and that’s what Latendresse allows everyone to do.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Setoguchi (Ditto to the KHL Line – Like that? I just made it up right here. – The addition of Setoguchi has made this a very dangerous line in transition because of their speed.)
Johnson/Brodziak/Clutterbuck (This line is probably one of the more fun checking lines to watch because, one, they all like to throw their weight around and two, they actually can score.)
Gillies/Powe/Staubitz (Staubitz again found himself stapled to the bench against the Flames, but Powe and Gillies each had pretty solid games, including Powe getting his first goal in a Wild sweater.)

Schultz/Zidlicky (I just can’t tell what it’s going to take to get Zidlicky going, but Schultz was a monster against the Flames. He shut Jarome down and he’s going to have to do the same tonight.)
Spurgeon/Scandella (Scandella continues to impress, but this pairing’s decision making needs to improve a bit for them to really start playing well. Poor decisions can lead to the Wild getting hemmed into their zone, which happened a bit against the Flames.)
Prosser/Falk (If they keep playing this way, I don’t know that Stoner, Zanon or Lundin will ever get into the line up.)

Backstrom is back in net, so we’ll see how he responds to his second straight start. He’s historically had a rough go of it against the Sharks, so this will be a big test for him.

Burning Questions

Can Backstrom keep riding the momentum from last game? A 41-save shutout can either lead to another impressive game or a big let down. Which will it be?

How do Heatley and Setoguchi perform coming back to San Jose? My guess is that one will be booed and the other will be given a warm welcome. Care to guess which?

Does Sheppard play for San Jose? It wouldn’t be a bad first game to slot him in for. If any player has the drive to play well in this one, it’s Shep.

Can the Wild stay out of the box? Minnesota was in seven times against the Flames, including a five-minute major. If they do that against San Jose, they’re in trouble.

The puck drops tonight at 9:30 and is televised on Fox Sports North.

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.

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