Gameday Thread – Game 30 – Wild @ Coyotes

The Wild roll into Phoenix tonight riding high. 

They are 6-0-1 in their last seven games, including the fact that they are currently on a five-game winning streak. 

But tonight, they will face off against the resurgent Phoenix Coyotes—a team that has persevered through their managerial hardships this season to be firmly planted in the playoff picture in the Western Conference in sixth place, just two points behind their division rival Los Angeles Kings and just six points in front of their quarry for tonight’s game. 

It’s possible that these two teams could be two of the hottest teams in the NHL at the moment. 

The Wild have won their last five and have scored at least five goals in four of them (though one of the five-goal games was the team’s shootout victory over Anaheim on Friday). 

While the Wild have been hot offensively, the Coyotes have been hot in their own end, giving up two or less goals in each of their previous five games, starting with their 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames. 

In the previous meeting this season between the two teams, the ‘Yotes skated away victorious with the 3-2 victory as Scottie Upshall rudely ruined the celebration of Antti Miettinen’s tying goal with one of his own just 19 ticks later. 

This is a different Wild team than the one that suited up against Phoenix on November 18, however.  They are playing with confidence and poise and are looking the best that they have looked all season long. 

Lineups
As was the case on Friday, I don’t have any information for the ‘Yotes lineup, but here are the likely lines for the Wild according to team scribe Glen Andresen. 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Nolan-Belanger-Kobasew
Latendresse-Brodziak-Clutterbuck
Havlat-Ebbett-Sheppard 

According to Andresen and Mike Russo, of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, team bowling ball Cal Clutterbuck is still feeling some of the effects of the flu that kept him out of Saturday’s game against Nashville, but he is feeling much better than he was.  If he is able to go (and the odds are pretty good that, if he’s with the team, he’ll go), look for James Sheppard to get the nod over enforcer extraordinaire Derek Boogaard, as Sheppard played a great game against Nashville and got his first tally of the season.  

In fact, for those Sheppard detractors out there (we know who you are), the Shepster has a goal and two assists in his last five games, with a plus-two rating and 11 shots on goal.  Now I know he’s been having a bad season, but with those stats?  Come on…Let’s start fresh and see what he can do at wing.  What do you say? 

On defense, you can likely expect more of the same with Jaime “Why Can’t He Spell His First Name Right” Sifers getting the nod over John Scott. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Hnidy-Sifers

In nets, you’ll see Niklas Backstrom for the Wild after getting an off night against Nashville. 

What to Watch For
The let down. 

With two teams riding as high as the Wild and the Coyotes, eventually a let down is inevitable.  Both teams have been playing fantastic hockey over the last few games and both teams are “due,” so to speak. 

The problem that arises with being “due,” is that it’s much easier for a hot defensive team to force their opponent to lay an egg than the other way around. 

I’ll be perfectly blunt.  The Wild have not been that hot defensive team over the last five games.  While the Coyotes come in with a paltry 1.80 goals against over their last five, the Wild sport a robust 3.20 goals against average over their last five.  Their last five have also included a lot of battling from behind—something that will take its toll on any team. 

Both teams also distribute their scoring well. 

What will be important is to see who has players that step up. 

Over the last few games, it has been the Wild’s first line of Brunette, Koivu and Miettinen that have done the stepping up.  This line will likely be drawing a bulk of Phoenix’s defensive attention tonight and will, quite simply, need to be effective.  The good news for Minnesota, however, is that their bottom three lines are starting to be equally as effective. 

In Nashville, Sheppard and Martin Havlat both played their best games of the season and the team continued to get strong play from newcomers Andrew Ebbett and G-Lat. 

For Phoenix, it will hinge largely on the play of Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been spectacular this season.  With a 1.79 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage (not to mention his three shutouts), Bryz has been on fire this season and the Wild will have to find a way to cool him off. 

Key(s) to the Game
Shoot.  Shoot early and shoot often.  From anywhere and everywhere. 

When playing a hot goalie, this is probably your best strategy.  Pepper him with shots and eventually you’ll start to see some cracks in the armor. 

This is exactly what the Wild have to do in order to break down the defenses of Mr. Bryzgalov. 

The team is extremely familiar with him from his time in Anaheim and they know exactly what they are getting with him in net—they just need to get to him.  The more shots they can get on net, the better off they will be. 

Don’t give up the lead. 

The Wild have been scored on first in eight of their last nine games.  Against a solid defensive team like the Coyotes, this is a trend that needs to stop. 

While the Wild have a team that has confidence while playing from behind, the Coyotes have a team that has confidence while playing with the lead.  It is paramount that the Wild get out to a fast start in this game.  If they don’t and allow a couple early goals, it may not be as easy to come from behind. 

If the Coyotes score first, this game might be all but in the bag because Phoenix can do what they do best.  Shut down and play mistake-free hockey. 

The puck drops tonight at 8 pm CST and is televised on Fox Sports.

Opening Day Eve — What’s Under the Tree?

It’s Opening Night Eve for the Wild, and it’s looking a lot like Christmas Eve.  We’ve got the presents sitting underneath the tree, wrapped up beautifully with a bow on the top, and we’re left spending all day anticipating what they’re going to turn into. 

I’m going to be brutally honest here.  I’m a Minnesota sports fan.  I’m bitterly used to disappointment. 

But this season, for whatever reason, I’m cautiously optimistic.

For whatever reason, I’m cautiously optimistic that the small box sitting to the side of the tree might be keys to a new car as opposed to a set of cuff links.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the shirt-sized box might just be a couple new video games as opposed to a dress shirt. 

There is a lot of cause for both optimism and trepidation this season with the Wild.  The team’s average age is roughly 28 years old.  Consider, though, that they have gray beards Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan on the roster, and you start to see the picture.  We have an exceedingly young team.  Seven of our players are 25 or younger and all of those seven players will play a large role as to whether or not our team succeeds.  

That said, here are some of my predictions for the Wild this season. 

Breakout Player: James Sheppard.  Shep is finally in a role where he will get to play the type of game he’s comfortable with.  He has no more excuses and he has had a very impressive pre-season.  Playing on a line with Antti Miettinen and Cal Clutterbuck, they have found a little chemistry and Sheppard finally looks like he’s comfortable in his role with the team.  He is definitely capable of putting up big numbers, but I would say that anything less than a 20-goal, 50-point season would be considered a disappointment for this youngster this season. 

Biggest Surprise: Benoit Pouliot.  A few weeks back, I posted an article ragging on Benny Poo, saying that it was time for the team to cut bait.  I’ve reconsidered my stance since then, and I think that Pouliot could thrive for us under the right circumstances.  He still takes shifts off every once in a while and he still has a lot that he needs to work on and to learn to be an effective, every day player in this league, but the flashes he has shown this pre-season have been far bigger flashes than in previous years.  He could be poised to try to make an impact on the team, especially knowing that it is likely do-or-die time for him. 

Best Addition(s): Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy.  I know what you’re thinking.  “But Blake, what about Martin Havlat?  What about Petr Sykora?”  Don’t get me wrong.  Havlat and Sykora are going to do great things with this team this season.  They’re huge additions and they’re going to help us in many different ways.  But Zanon and Hnidy give us a blueline that is distinctly different than it was last season.  Last season, our blueline was a point machine.  Behind Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron, our blueline could put up points like nothing else.  But our defensemen lacked grit and in a big way.  Adding Zanon and Hnidy, along with keeping Scott and Sifers on the roster, should give us some much needed grit on our blueline and help protect Niklas Backstrom a bit more. 

Key to Success: Staying healthy.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but the injury bug has hit Minnesota hard over the last few years.  This pre season was no different.  This is definitely a team that can make some noise if they stay healthy.  If they don’t, however, we could be looking at a frustrating season much like last year.  A healthy Martin Havlat and Petry Sykora should easily replace the void (or lack thereof) left by Marian Gaborik’s departure.  Our full line up is certainly capable of beating any team in the league — it’s just a matter of staying healthy now. 

Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune has predicted that the Wild will miss the playoffs this season, finishing much as they did last season, and it’s hard to fault him on that.  The top five spots in the West are fairly easy to predict — it’s the bottom three in the playoff picture that will cause problems.  Anyone in the bottom of the conference (yes, even Phoenix) is capable of making a push for the playoffs.  I’m not going to waver with my prediction that the Wild will make the playoffs this season and, while I think that the Northwest will be a close division again, I think that the Wild are going to be firmly entrenched in second in our division. 

But it’s almost time to drop the puck on this season for the Wild.  Christmas Day for Wild fans is almost here!

Fringe: Wild Nation Style

Camp is winding down and, as such, the roster is starting to take shape. 

The team has just made seven cuts today, sending 2008 first round pick Tyler Cuma back to his junior team, the Ottawa 67s, and reassigning Anton Khudobin, Wade Dubielewicz, Justin Falk, Petr Kalus, Jon Disalvatore and Duncan Milroy to Houston. 

With that announcement, we’re closer to having our opening day roster.  So we’re going to take a look at the roster as it stands now. 

First, the locks: 

Center
Mikko Koivu
James Sheppard
Eric Belanger
Kyle Brodziak 

Wing
Martin Havlat
Petr Sykora
Owen Nolan
Antti Miettinen
Andrew Brunette
Cal Clutterbuck
Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Derek Boogaard 

Defense
Brent Burns
Nick Schultz
Marek Zidlicky
Kim Johnsson
Greg Zanon
Shane Hnidy 

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding 

No big surprises there, right?  We pretty much knew, as of the Sykora signing, that the 20 regulars were set.  The big question, though, is going to be who the three players sitting in the press box will be.

This is…The Fringe Division. 

Colton Gillies - Gillies has impressed in spurts this pre-season, but it is clear that he is still a very raw talent.  He’s going to be one hell of a player for the Wild, but the team has quite the conundrum with young Colton.  Do they let him develop at the NHL level, where he’ll get third line minutes at best, or do they send him to Houston, where he’ll immediately be the leader of the Houston Aeros on and off the ice. 

Danny Irmen - Irmen is one of the fringe player that I think makes the squad.  First, his contract isn’t hefty so it allows the team some wiggle room.  Second, he has done absolutely everything the team has asked of him, to the T, this pre-season.  He is 100% pure energy and has spent the last few years developing in Houston.  It’s make or break time for the young buck and I think it’s time he makes it. 

Benoit Pouliot – I think you’ll see Benny Poo rounding out the Wild line up.  While he still has areas to improve in, it appears as if he was a bit mismanaged by the Wild last season, as he has shown some pretty good flashes getting first and second line minutes.  He’s a work in progress, but this season is a work in progress.  In the right situation, I think that he is capable of elevating his game and will get a chance to do so. 

John Scott - Yesterday, I wrote a little blurb about how Scott hasn’t really done himself any favors in making the squad this pre-season.  After I spoke to a friend about the way he played against Chicago, I am going to have to respectfully withdraw my previous comments.  He said Scott’s skating was much improved over last season and went even further to say that he looked pretty quick to the puck as well.  He also said that his shot looked much better and that, of the six shots he took from the point, all were through screens and five found the net before anything else. 

Jaime Sifers – Sifers could be the wild card for Minnesota.  He’s impressed this pre-season and was impressive in his limited call up with Toronto last season.  Sifers is a solid player and could be beneficial to the Wild in a seventh or eighth defenseman role.  The biggest thing that Sifers can bring to the table is his grit, but his lack of size may keep him off the roster for the time being. 

Marco Scandella - A long shot, at best, Scandella has been turning heads at camp this season.  He’s got a great first pass out of the zone and is slowly but surely getting better at making decisions on the fly and at his defensive zone play.  Scandella is a few years off still, but he’s steadily getting better.

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

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

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

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

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

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

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…

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