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.

‘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 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!

NHL approves new, radical realignment

As has been reported, the NHL has approved a four-conference realignment plan and, tentatively, a new playoff plan for the upcoming season.

The basics are that every team will play a home-and-home against one another (so, that means that Wild fans will get to see Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and so on at least once a season), the playoffs will begin within the conferences, then the top four teams will square off in divisional playoffs.

Here are the Conferences:

The new conference alignment

On the surface, they’re a lot more geologically friendly. For example, Minnesota and Dallas no longer have to make frequent trips to the Mountain and Pacific time zones, while all teams in the East have to make at least one swing out to the left coast per season.

As a side bar, I’m not wild about this for Tampa and Florida. They lost any divisional rivalries they had aside from each other with this. I think it would have been better to bump Philly and Pittsburgh to Conference 3 and stick Tampa and Florida in Conference 4 where they would at least have existing rivalries.

That’s just splitting hairs, though.

The proposed playoff system, though I’m not all that wild about.

I don’t like the idea of a team with less points than another making the playoffs while the other team gets to go experience the joys of the golf course in April. I like the current race for the playoffs when its coming down to the wire and it also like the drama of the current playoffs that allow for your team to see more than just the same old same old in the first couple playoff rounds.

That being said, rivalries will build quite a bit quicker in this format, which makes for more entertaining series’ at the end of the day.

Under this format, here’s how the playoff picture would look right now:

Not much different, but different enough

So, basically, here’s how it would break down. Edmonton, who is currently out of the playoffs right now, would be in while St. Louis, who is in, would be out. Ottawa, who would be in right now, would be out of the playoffs in favor of the Capitals. Not much change, but it’s a downright shame for fans of St. Louis and Ottawa, both of whom have more points than their counterparts that would be taking their place in the post season.

Now, you may find yourself asking how scheduling would work. We were too. We’ll let NHL.com’s Dan Rosen explain that for you:

“In the seven-team conferences, teams would play six times — three home, three away. In the eight-team Conferences, teams would play either five or six times in a season on a rotating basis; three teams would play each other six times and four teams would play each other five times. This process would reverse each season: An eight-team Conference member that plays an opponent six times in one season would play it five times the following season.”

So, there are pros and cons to this, like anything, but how does this affect the Wild?

Well, on the surface, it’s a win for Minnesota. No more having to head out West to face off against divisional opponents three times a year. That means less games on really late at night, which is a plus for the fans. Travel will be a bit easier too, though as Justin Bourne pointed out, that’s not really that big of a factor when you’re talking about the NHL.

So, from a logistical standpoint, it’s a win. From a fan’s standpoint, though, I’m not so sure.

All of those divisional rivalries that the Wild have spent the last ten years fostering? Gone by the wayside. The Wild won’t see Vancouver or Edmonton or Calgary more than twice a year unless the cards align in the playoffs. Now, you could argue that it makes those few meetings that much more of a powder keg – and for the first year or two, you might be right – but those rivalries that we, as Wild fans, cherish so much will slowly dissipate unless fostered in the playoffs.

That said, Wild fans still bitter about the Stars moving to Dallas will no doubt appreciate the opportunity for a great deal of Minnesota/Dallas playoff series’ in the future, and the Minnesota rivalries of old can be restarted, so there’s that at least.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say whether this is going to be better or worse. Only time will tell for that. One thing’s for sure, though. No matter how you spin it, it’s going to be different.

Wild steal win from Devils

If you were to ask me how the Wild keep winning, I honestly couldn’t tell you.

The Wild played a pretty poor game on Friday night, but still managed to sneak out a 4-2 win over a New Jersey Devils team that has been struggling of late, but is still a very good team.

Friday night, the Wild showed their ability to fight back and, boy did they ever. Minnesota responded to a quick goal by the Devils with a Dany Heatley goal just 20 seconds later (the goal was vintage Heatley, too). Just over three minutes later, Kyle Brodziak scored on a beautiful effort and not even two minutes after that, Casey Wellman re-directed a Matt Cullen shot past Martin Brodeur to give the Wild a two-goal lead and chase the future hall-of-famer from net.

The biggest news coming out of the game, however, was that Niklas Backstrom was injured during the first period. Josh Harding entered in relief and played a solid two periods, stopping all 22 shots he faced. Backstrom’s injury isn’t thought to be serious and it sounds like he’ll be on the road trip with the Wild, but they’ve called up Matt Hackett just to be safe.

Predictably, though, it was a sloppy game for the Wild. It was a one-game home stand, after a big shootout win, against a desperate Devils team and, if not for their great start, the Wild probably lose this game. They spent a good chunk of the game pinned in their own zone because of sloppy play in the neutral zone and poor execution, which is evidenced by their 16 total shots, but they got great goaltending and they never stopped working and battling, which Mike Yeo lauded after the game, saying “I love the work ethic and the attitude that our guys bring.”

But, the good news is that the Wild won. They’ve now won three straight since their two-game slump heading into their five-game road trip and things are very optimistic around the team right now.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild solve the Devils? I don’t know if you can say that they solved the Devils, but they certainly solved Brodeur. 3 goals on 4 shots. Ouch.

Can the Wild get on the board first? Nope but, once again, it didn’t matter. With as quickly as they responded to the Devils’ goal, though, they might as well have scored first.

Can Casey Wellman impress on the second line? He scored a goal, he brought speed and even a bit of a physical game and his goal was not only a key goal but it was the type of goal that the Wild are looking for more of – the dirty kind.

3 Stars

1)      Kyle Brodziak – Two goals, plus-two and five shots.
2)      Josh Harding – Stopped 22 of 22 shots and was dominant for the Wild.
3)      Zach Parise – A goal and an assist and eight shots.

We’ll be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend!

Gameday Thread: Wild look to keep it going against Devils

The Wild are off to their best start in franchise history, and there’s one big reason why.

Mike Yeo.

As was mentioned on Sports Illustrated’s Red Light Blog, the Wild’s biggest asset this season has been their system – when they stick to it, it works. But just as big as that has been the guy that’s gotten them to do what the great Jacques Lemaire couldn’t do in his last season with the Wild and what Todd Richards couldn’t do in two seasons with the Wild – gotten them to buy in.

You won’t hear a bad word about Jacques Lemaire ever come from my mouth, but he did lose the locker room in his last season with the team, and the locker room remained lost through two years with Todd Richards.

Yeo, on the other hand, has found it.

The system in question? Well, it’s quite similar to the one that the Pittsburgh Penguins run and it basically boils down to getting the puck in deep, forechecking hard and pinning their opponent deep in their own zone for extended periods of time.

In their own zone, it’s much like Lemaire’s system, meaning that the intent is to keep the puck to the outside and not give up second chances, or at least limit them quite a bit.

Now, to say that the Wild have done it with similar success as the Pens just wouldn’t be true. The Wild still have a long way to go to reach Penguin-ian levels in regards to how they play the game.

The system, however, works. You can tell that it works because, when the Wild stick to it, they have success.

Take the game against the Lightning. The Bolts got on the board first, but the Wild stuck to what they wanted to do. They got the puck deep, they forechecked hard and they forced the Lightning into mistakes, two of which ultimately led to goals.

Minnesotastill has a way to go, though. They’re far from being perfect.

Yeo (and many others) wants to see the team shoot more. The Wild are averaging 26.2 shots per game. That’s good for 27th in the league. They’re also giving up 31.3 shots per game, which is good for 25th in the league.

In short, they’re not yet proficient at the system. They’re not spending as much time in their own zone as they’d like and they’re not shooting the puck as much as they would like.

So, that’s both good news and bad news. The bad news is that the Wild aren’t yet where they need to be in terms of their ability to do what Mike Yeo wants them to do. They’re still trying to be too cute with the puck and still trying to find the perfect shot before pulling the trigger, rather than getting the puck towards the net and getting some dirty goals. The good news, though, is that they’re not where they want to be with their system yet, but they’re still first in the Western Conference and second in the league only to, ironically enough, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Lineup

The Minnesota Wild’s Twitter account has confirmed that Cal Clutterbuck will be out tonight and that Darroll Powe will be in, while Niklas Backstrom will be back in the cage. Casey Wellman skated on the second line in practice yesterday, so this is my best guess at what the line combos will be tonight:

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

Schultz/Lundin
Zanon/Stoner
Scandella/Spurgeon

Backstrom

Burning Questions

Can the Wild solve the Devils? Marty Brodeur is 7-1-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average against the Wild in his career. If any goalie has consistently owned the Wild, it’s been him. The Wild is struggling to score this season, so if there’s any perfect storm for Brodeur, it’s tonight’s game. The Wild need to avoid that.

Can the Wild get on the board first? When they do, they’re 6-1-3, compared to 9-6-0 when getting scored on first. The Devils, meanwhile, are 5-7-0 when their opponent scores first compared to 7-3-1 when scoring first. As much as I like comeback wins, a pole-to-pole win would be nice every once in a while.

Can Casey Wellman impress on the second line? Wellman has been an enigmatic prospect for the Wild. Not in the James Sheppard sense, but in the sense that he’ll dominate down in Houston, then come up to the NHL and seemingly forget what made him get his call up. He looked good in his first game of the season against the Lightning. Can he take advantage of his opportunity tonight?

The puck drops at 7 pm on FSN. Enjoy!

The Wild have bought in and you should too

If you’ll forgive me for a moment, I’d like to indulge in writing something that I never in a million years thought I’d be writing this season.

Before any games are played, on December 1, 2011, the Minnesota Wild are atop the NHL.

Let me let that sink in for a moment. The Wild are the top team in the NHL.

Now that we’ve reveled in that momentarily, let’s do what the team has likely done and move on.

The reality of the situation is that the Wild have a very, very difficult schedule coming up over the next two months. In fact, starting tomorrow, the Wild will have just nine home games between then and February 9, when the team starts a four-game home stand.

Not only that, but the Wild are again being hit by the injury bug this season. Currently on the shelf are Darroll Powe and Cal Clutterbuck, though it’s yet to be determined how serious those injuries are, and on the IR are Marek Zidlicky and, most importantly, Guillaume Latendresse.

All of this should, seemingly, spell doom for the team – yet they just keep on winning.

The stretch that they have coming up, though, is going to be their true test.

After having the Devils at home, the Wild embark on a five-game road swing, four of which are against Pacific division foes. They get the Anaheim Ducks (who, make no mistake, will be playing great hockey), then Phoenix,Los AngelesandSan Jose, all teams who are firmly entrenched in the playoff picture right now.

They then get a back-to-back situation, playing the Jets in Winnipeg and the surging Blackhawks the very next night back in Minnesota.

That’s just a taste of what the Wild have in store for them.

But there is good news. A silver lining, if you will. During this stretch, the Wild play just two back-to-back sets. December 13 and 14 and December 28 and 29. Of course, even that silver lining has a bit of a rough patch to it as the first games of each of these are played on the road and the second game at home.

To put it lightly, if the Wild are still in the top-eight by the time they return home for an extended home stand on February 9, this team is a serious threat in the playoffs. If the Wild are still in the top-four in the West by the time they return home from this stretch, well, I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it but if that’s the case, I’ll have high, high hopes for this team.

Why? Because, on February 9 the Wild will have 30 games left in the season. 18 of those games are home games. Up until this point, the Wild have played 25 games, 14 of which were played in the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center.

This is a team that can win at home (though winning three of five during their last road trip could raise expectations of the team on the road as well).

What’s more, this is a team that is starting to thrive under adversity, and they’re going to have a lot of adversity in the next two months.

This is all a really round about way to say one thing:

The Wild have a rough road ahead of them, but if I’ve ever been confident in any Wild team’s ability to weather the storm that’s coming, it’s this one. This team is consistently getting better and they’ve bought into Mike Yeo’s system as much as, if not more than, the 2002-03 Wild bought into Jacques Lemaire’s.

I’m not fooling myself into thinking that the Wild are Stanley Cup favorites right now and you shouldn’t be either, but I’m not looking at the schedule anymore picking out the games that the Wild can and can’t win, because I no longer feel like there’s a single game that the Wild can’t win.

And you shouldn’t feel like that either, because this team is for real.

Around the League: New coaches and suspended players

Man, there’s a lot going on in the NHL right now (and the world of hockey in general). Coaches gone, players banned, and amidst all of that, the Minnesota Wild just keep winning.

I won’t talk about the Wild’s winning ways today, but the rest will be addressed.

Boudreau and Maurice Out

The Maurice one I could have called as happening pretty soon. The ‘Canes have been absolutely horrific this season.

Their star player has been playing horrible, the team hasn’t been winning and, well, there’s usually a surefire band aid solution for a general manager when that happens – bring in new blood.

Maurice’s departure isn’t terribly surprising. The ‘Canes haven’t made the playoffs since his first season and have struggled greatly at points of the season. They remain a good team, but they just weren’t getting the job done.

Boudreau’s dismissal, however, was a bit more surprising – at least on the surface. The more I looked at it, though, the more I realized it really shouldn’t have been.

The situation for Boudreau was exactly as it was for Maurice.

He had a star player that has been playing horrible. The team hasn’t been winning and Boudreau has been pulling out all of the stops to try to right the ship, and it just hasn’t worked.

Both teams are going to be getting bench bosses with no head coaching NHL experience, despite being highly sought after coaches, so will this work for either team?

My gut says that, for Washington, this will work. Just look at all of the high end players that have come out of London that have played under Dale Hunter. I think he’s going to do just fine in Washington. In fact, he might even be able to solve the mystery that is Alex Semin – but let’s not put that much pressure on him just yet.

Hunter is, by all accounts, a players coach. Basically, what that means, is that he’s flexible. He’s willing to listen to his players’ needs which, from what I can tell, Gabby wasn’t towards the end of his tenure in Washington. As Daryl Reaugh said on Twitter, you can’t “go from teddy bear to grizzly bear with the same team.”

As for Kirk Muller, I’m not so sure his success as an assistant will translate to the head coaching ranks.

Muller has been the head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals and has done marvelously for them, but I get the feeling that he’ll be more Todd Richards than Mike Yeo.

That’s neither here nor there, though. The ‘Canes got their guy and, for better or worse, they’re going to roll with him.

Yablonski suspended from KHL

Well, this is pleasantly surprising news.

Jeremy Yablonski was suspended from the KHL today for general, all around goonery.

If you don’t know what happened, well, just click here and go look at the fight of the night.

If you’re video impaired, it’s pretty much Yablonski running around and cheap shotting people and the KHL has had enough.

In fact, suspending Yablonski for the season wasn’t enough for them. They’re going bring on a pretty major rule change because of it.

The gist of the rule? If a North American player hasn’t played at least 80-120 NHL games, they can’t play in the KHL.

Now, I agree with friend of the blog Justin Bourne, over on Backhand Shelf. The rule, in and of itself, is absolutely ridiculous. It prevents players from the CHL that weren’t drafted or haven’t been able to crack the roster after a few years in the AHL or who just want a different view from playing in the KHL and it seriously limits the amount of talent that comes into the league, not to mention the quagmire it starts with players currently in the league that don’t meet the restrictions.

But, overall, it looks like the KHL was forced to do something. This might just be a temporary fix, it might be permanent, but either way it’s sure going to at least draw attention to the fact that they don’t want to be the wild west.

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