Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Central Division

Well, here we are. The Eastern Conference is down and just three divisions and the playoff picture are left to go, so let’s delve into the Western Conference picture, shall we?

The Western Conference has been the more competitive of the two conferences in term of depth over the last few seasons and this season should be no different. The core of this depth has come from the Central division. Last season, three of the five teams made the playoffs, while one more was on the bubble and there’s no doubt that there’s at four teams that could be challenging for the playoffs this season.

So let’s get started.

Chicago Blackhawks – There is no doubt that the Blackhawks are going to be a much, much different team than the one that won the Stanley Cup last season.

Gone are role players like Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien who have been replaced by Fernando Pisani and a handful of players who have been developing in Rockford. This is both troubling for Blackhawks fans and intriguing as well. Jack Skille, Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell will finally get their chance in the big leagues, as will Viktor Stalberg.

The good news for their forward corps, however, is that returning are their core players like Toews, Hossa, Kane and Sharp. With those players to guide their incoming youngsters, the Hawks should still be in good hands next season.

On defense, the team has added big defenseman John Scott who will add some toughness in the absence of Ben Eager. While the contract of Niklas Hjalmarsson may be questionable, there’s no doubt that their top-four are as good as any in the league and the potential addition of Nick Leddy to the group is encouraging indeed.

Their biggest question lies between the pipes. With the decision to walk away from Antti Niemi and sign Marty Turco, the ‘Hawks have also made a statement that they are confident that it was not the young Finn who led them to the promised land.

While Turco’s record in big games is more than questionable, there is no doubt that he has both the drive to succeed, as well as the talent to be a successful goaltender in Chicago.

Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets find themselves in a precarious position.

They are just one season removed from their first playoff appearance in team history, yet there is an air of uncertainty surrounding this team that is undeniable. In fact, questions are abounding when it comes to the Jackets.

Is Steve Mason a true franchise goaltender? Can Nikita Filatov find himself in the NHL? Can Rick Nash truly be dominant player without a top center?

If the answer to two of the three of those questions is yes, then you could very well see the Stanley Cup Playoffs return to Ohio.

The problem is, however, is that there is no certainty that the answer to any of these three questions is yes.

Mason started to find his game again at the end of the season, while Filatov may find himself much more suited to the style of Scott Arneil than of Ken Hitchcock, but the fact remains that Nash does not have that one player on his line that can complement him and help him become the dominant player that we saw in the Olympics.

The addition of Ethan Moreau makes the team tougher to play against, to be sure, but it does nothing to help their top-six forwards.

Unfortunately for Jackets fans, it would appear that this team is again going to be on the outside looking in unless things turn around very, very quickly. There are significant needs that the team has that were not addressed in either the draft or free agency, most notably help on defense. These needs must be addressed before the team can take any significant steps forward so, they may be looking at another lottery pick.

Detroit Red Wings – So, how do the Detroit Red Wings follow up an admittedly disappointing season?

Well, how about signing a future hall-of-famer, a gritty defenseman and getting back one of their top young players from the KHL?

Their forward corps now have Jiri Hudler back in the fold as well as newcomer Mike Modano, who will serve as a depth center and also get some powerplay time, most likely. But on top of that, they will have a healthy and rested forward unit that is one of the most potent in the NHL.

Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom will be back healthy and the return of Hudler will likely spell a resurgence for the team’s two superstars in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and that can only mean bad things for the rest of the league.

On defense, Ruslan Salei joins an already solid defensive unit and will provide them with some added grit. He, along with Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall will ensure that opposing forwards keep their heads up.

Led, once again, by Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings blueline will be one of the toughest to play against in the league and Salei’s hardnosed style will only add to that and their defense should only solidify Jimmy Howard’s place in net with the squad.

Howard had a breakout season with the Wings last year and the Calder Trophy nominee unseated Chris Osgood in the starting role. He held the Wings together through the injuries last season and was the sole reason that the team was able to not only make the playoffs but claw their way as far up as they did. Howard will have a lot to prove in order to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump but he is in the best situation possible to be able to do so.

When you look at the Wings, they are a team that is poised and ready to be a competitive team in the Stanley Cup race once again and could easily find themselves as the frontrunner to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals again.

Nashville Predators – To be perfectly honest, Nashville is like the bad cold of the Central Division. When it comes down to it, there’s no reason they should be there but you simply can’t get rid of them.

The Preds are about $13 million under the salary cap heading into this season with 15 forwards under contract, but just five defensemen and one goaltender. As always, however, it should be expected that those positions will be filled from within.

Chet Pickard will likely get a good, long look as the team’s back up goaltender while it could be expected that Ryan Ellis or Cody Franson will get a look as the team’s sixth and seventh defensemen.

But overall, this is a Predators team that is looking like they could match up very well with the rest of the division.

Matthew Lombardi joins an underrated forward unit and Colin Wilson will find himself in an increased role as well, after the departure of Jason Arnott. The top six, while not flashy, are both reliable and clutch and their young players of Wilson and Patric Hornqvist are continuing to improve. Throw in the addition of Sergei Kostitsyn, who will have a renewed lease on life after a change of scenery, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow former-Montreal Canadiens underachiever, Guillaume Latendresse and some solid role players like Joel Ward and Jerred Smithson round out the group.

On defense, they still have their solid top-two of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. These two will anchor a defensive unit that could use some work, but is very promising.

With veteran Francis Boullion, youngsters Ryan Parent (who is looking for a new lease on life in Nashville as well) and Kevin Klein will round out a defensive unit that will look much different by the time the season starts.

In net, they have Pekka Rinne, who will look to improve on a pedestrian season last year. Without Dan Ellis looking over his shoulders, however, the starting job is Rinne’s to lose and the team’s hope is that the certainty of his job will elevate his play.

The Predators are likely going to be a bubble team this year, as they have been the past few seasons, but that shouldn’t be a problem for a team that is used to that tag being saddled on them.

St. Louis Blues – Last season was admittedly disappointing for the Blues, who had come in with high hopes of contending, or at least winning a playoff series.

The young Blues team faltered early on and, after the firing of Andy Murray and hiring of Davis Payne, began to find the fire that had made them a force to be reckoned with in the West.

This season will be one of change for the Blues, though it shouldn’t make them any less deadly. Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk are both gone, leading to a youth movement for the team. This will lead to increased ice time for players like David Perron, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, all of whom will look to improve on their performances from last season.

The fate of the Blues likely lies in how these four perform. With the subtractions of Tkachuk and Kariya, their forward unit is significantly younger and has lost two of their more prominent leaders. That means that these four, as well as players like Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald will have to step up and fill the void both in leadership and in point production if this team is to be successful.

On the back end, the team has their potent young duo of Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo (who will likely finally crack the lineup for good this season). These two will be the cornerstones of a defensive unit that is as offensively talented as it is gritty, making for a potent combination.

Behind this defensive unit is the hero of the Montreal Canadiens, Jaroslav Halak. Halak proved in the playoffs that he is capable of bearing the load of a franchise and is really the first solid goaltender that the team has had in a few years. Behind him will be perennial solid back up, Ty Conklin, who will fill in admirably when needed and the duo will provide one of the more solid goaltending tandems in the West.

There is no doubt that the Blues are a bubble team, but there’s no doubt that Davis Payne has this team playing the way that he wants them to and heading in the right direction.

Predictions

1) Detroit Red Wings
2) Chicago Blackhawks
3) Nashville Predators
4) St. Louis Blues
5) Columbus Blue Jackets

It breaks down like this. The Red Wings and Blackhawks will most likely be back in the playoffs this season. As with the last couple seasons, one of the last spots in the West could be determined by who finishes third or fourth in the division, lending hope to Predators and Blues fans. Finally, Columbus will find themselves looking at the lottery once again; however, their future continues to look up under Scott Howson.

Up Next: The Northwest Division

The Minnesota Wild Trade Deadline Primer

The Olympics are just a few days from being over, and the Minnesota Wild have hit the ice once more, practicing together for the first time since the Olympic freeze on Wednesday. 

Looking at the standings, the Wild have a daunting task ahead of them.  With 21 games remaining, they sit five points out of the playoff race and, seeing Kim Johnsson shipped out to Chicago, are looking more and more like they will be sellers at the March 3 trade deadline. 

As Hockey Reference shows, the Wild’s chances of making the playoffs are slipping drastically. 

The bottom line remains that the Wild simply are not consistent enough to be in the playoff picture this season.  They cannot sustain any sort of solid effort on the ice in a single game, much less in a stretch of games. 

Keeping that in mind, here is a look at the players that the Wild could potentially move and what their going rate might be. 

Owen Nolan: After Johnsson, Nolan is probably the next “big ticket” item that the Wild have to offer. 

I know what you’re thinking.  14 goals, 28 points?  How is Nolan a big ticket item? 

I’ll tell you how. 

65 playoff games. 

He’s been there and done that, plain and simple.  At the trade deadline, playoff contenders are typically looking at two things.  Veteran leadership and either defensive help or scoring punch (depending on the team’s needs). 

Nolan brings both veteran leadership and the ability to score clutch and timely goals.  He has been a key part of the Wild’s locker room this season and a great number of Wild fans will be extremely sad to see him go; however, he is a player that the Wild could get some good assets for the future for. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $598K 

Expected Return: Prospects and/or picks 

Eric Belanger: Belanger is having one of the best seasons of his career.  He’s just two points off of his career high in points and assists and he’s been a huge asset defensively for the Wild. 

He also has something else that playoff teams tend to look for. 

He can win faceoffs. 

If there’s a big draw to be taken, Belanger will be in on it.  He’s been a large part of many of the Wild’s successful runs this season and has also started showing a bit of a gritty side to his game. 

As a penalty killer, he’s one of the better ones on the Wild’s squad and has started to exhibit that he has the hands to be a threat on the offensive side of things as well. 

In addition, Belanger has the added upside of still being relatively young (or, at least compared to Nolan).  If the fit is good enough, there’s the potential for the team to get a couple more solid years from him after the trade. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $390K 

Expected Return: Depth roster player and/or pick(s) 

James Sheppard: Wild fans will attest to the fact that Sheppard’s stock has fallen like a rock this season. 

Sheppard has gone from the asking price for Olli Jokinen to being less tradable than Benoit Pouliot (which, in Wild fans eyes, was saying quite a bit).  

If there’s one thing that Chuck Fletcher has proven, though, it’s that he’s more than willing to move a player that might need a change of scenery and Sheppard could use just that. 

I’m firm in my belief that he can be successful somewhere—I just don’t think that somewhere is in Minnesota. 

Sheppard was touted as the “next big thing” for the Wild, and he certainly hasn’t turned into that.  Fans have begun to tire of seeing him on the ice, to the point where many would rather see Derek Boogaard get Sheppard’s ice time. 

The bottom line is that Sheppard needs to play somewhere where the expectations facing him are tempered, and that place isn’t in Minnesota. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $312K 

Expected Return: Struggling young roster player 

Derek Boogaard: I’m putting Boogaard on this list because there is the chance that he could get moved, but I’ll say this right now. 

The chance is slim-to-none. 

Boogaard is one of the most feared enforcers in the game on a team that lacks a suitable replacement and is earning ice time this season. 

While it’s a possibility, it certainly isn’t probable. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $212K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Shane Hnidy: The Sherriff has been an excellent addition to the Wild’s blueline this season, but two facts remain. 

One, he’s been an excellent addition, meaning that he would be an excellent and cheap addition to a team needing defensive help and two, what he brings to the team can be done by either a) Clayton Stoner or b) Jaime Sifers. 

If any team is looking for an injury filler or depth on the blueline, Hnidy can certainly fill that need and fill it quite well. 

In addition, he has gotten more playing time this season on the offensive side of things (more notably, on the powerplay) and has exhibited an extremely heavy (if not very accurate) shot from the point. 

While the return for Hnidy probably wouldn’t be great, he could be a low risk, high reward pick up for someone in need of a d-man. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $167K 

Expected Return: Mid-to-late round draft pick 

John Scott: Let’s face it.  Scottie won’t be on the team next season. 

He’s regressed this season in terms of the ability that he brought to the table that had the Wild keep him around, but he’s moved forward in his enforcer ability—something that teams may be looking for. 

He brings toughness and he can play solid defense, if you don’t take into account his lack of skating ability. 

Scott is the more likely of the two “big men” that the Wild have to be moved, as he quickly became expendable on the blueline—even moreso with the emergence of Stoner. 

Scott could easily be a boon to a team looking to increase its toughness heading into the playoffs. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $123K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Josh Harding: Harding is the player that he Wild will likely look to shop the hardest, especially with the emergence of Anton Khudobin this season. 

Hards had a tough start to the season, but has rebounded nicely and if there is one thing that teams love heading into the playoffs, it’s a capable, young backup that can take over in the case of injury (see: Cam Ward). 

Harding can provide that for a team and deserves the chance to be someone’s goaltender of the future because, with Backstrom planted in net for the Wild and Khudobin and Matthew Hackett coming up behind up, the Wild’s net is starting to get a little crowded. 

Harding is a restricted free agent this coming off season and would be a tremendous pick up for just about any team looking to improve in net. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $245K 

Expected Return: Roster player and/or prospects or picks

The Draft Picks/Prospects: Fletcher has said that he’s not interesting in trading picks or prospects for players; however, he will be willing to part with picks or prospects if the price is right. 

If he can get a good, young player that can have a future on this club, he will not hesitate to pull the trigger, even if it involves a pick or a prospect. 

While it may be maddening to some, it is a stark contrast to the strategy of Doug Risebrough, and ultimately leads to the line… 

In Chuck We Trust.

Gameday Thread – Game 51 – Red Wings @ Wild

Well, here we are.  The first game of a three-game homestand – possibly the most important homestand of the season…Or, at least, since the last one. 

I’ve got a few housekeeping matters to talk about before I get to the preview…But I promise, its coming. 

First off, thanks to everyone who sent mailbag questions in.  It got a pretty good response for a first time and I swear the answers are forthcoming.  I’m still working on the responses, but it will be up early next week for sure and my Early Off Season preview of the defensemen will be as well. 

Now…On to the shameless plugging (then I swear, to the preview.) 

Shameless Plug #1: Check out my article on what I think the Wild’s trade deadline strategy should be, leading up to March 3.  It’s on Bleacher Report and I think you’ll like it, or at least appreciate the commentary. 

Shameless Plug #2: As always, Hockey Primetime will be offering Trade Deadline coverage on the day of.  We’ll be starting our coverage at about 8:30 am CST, and hope to have our regulars (J.P. Hoornstra, Sam P. Woo and Justin Bourne), as well as a guest or two.  It will be on Hockey Primetime, but you will also be able to see feeds of it here and at Bourne’s Blog, most likely. 

Shameless Plug #3: Finally, check out one of the new Friends of Wild Nation, Stadium Journey.  Along with it being a website reviewing sports stadiums and their surrounding areas, it will feature my review of the Xcel Energy Center (SPOILER ALERT: I really like it) soon. 

Alright.  Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, it’s down to business. 

I’ve got good news and bad news. 

First, the good news.  The Wild’s Great Eight will be hitting the ice tonight for the first time since Nov. 18. 

That’s right folks.  Burnsie is back. 

Mike Russo reported that, in his first practice back with the team, he could be heard just about everywhere in the arena and let me tell you, that’s a good sign. 

Burns has struggled this season and struggled in a large, large way.  In 21 games, he had just two goals and ten points and was a staggering minus-11. 

But, during that time, Burnsie just didn’t look like himself.  Most notably, he just didn’t look like he was having any fun. (Thanks to Wild Nationite Rick for that insight, which I completely agree with.)

I know what you’re thinking right now.  Brent Burns?  Not having fun?  Get out of town! 

The fact is, though, that it was true and it was very evident in his play.  The question tonight, however, is which Brent Burns do we get back?  The Brent Burns that tried to do absolutely everything on the ice and, as such, was one of our worst players?  Or the Brent Burns that caught the eye of Team Canada over the last two seasons? 

Based off of the accounts of his practices back, I’m betting on the latter. 

Now, onto the bad news.  I don’t want to alarm anyone, but we’re playing the Detroit Red Wings tonight. 

Sure, they’re riddled with injuries.  But they’re still the Red Wings.  You remember them.  The team that sports a 21-5-5 record against our Minnesota Wild all time. 

But, there is good news in the bad news.  This is a wholly different Wild team than the Wings have ever faced.  A different system, a different tempo…Different everything.  Also, the Wings are struggling through injuries.  Not to say that I’m glad these players are injured (I’d never wish harm to any player not named Matt Cooke), just to say that this is a Red Wings team that isn’t at full strength. 

Oh yeah.  And both teams are looking to break three-game losing streaks. 

Lineup(s)

Well, you all heard the news over the last few days.  We said bye-bye to Sykora and Earl has remained with the team thus far, so we’ll likely see the same lineup that we’ve seen over the past few games. (Unless Fletcher decides to make a trade with Detroit.  Sykora for Zetterberg?  I like it!) 

I would expect that Derek Boogaard will be a casualty, though, against a not-so-pugilistic, quick Detroit squad. 

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

On defense, he’s back, he’s back, Lord Almighty he’s back!  The return of Brent Burns essentially means that John Scott is back sitting next to Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the press box and Clayton Stoner will likely be moved to the IR. 

Schultz-Johnsson
Zanon-Zidlicky
Burns-Hnidy 

And, drumroll please, between the pipes for the Wild will be Josh Harding.  Whether it’s a message being sent to Niklas Backstrom that he needs to play better or it’s giving him a rest or even rewarding Harding for his solid play, the youngster will get the nod in the crease tonight. 

What to Watch For

Let’s just put it this way.  Whenever the Wild play the Red Wings, I’m not optimistic about our chances. 

Bearing that in mind, the Wild are now running a system that is strikingly similar to Detroit’s and, if they’re going to win tonight, need to beat the Wings at their own game – namely, shoot, shoot, shoot. 

The Red Wings pepper goalies.  They are averaging almost 33 shots per game, almost five shots more than the Wild, and even put up a 40-spot on the Capitals in their last game, despite losing 3-2. 

With Minnesota’s defensive struggles of late, it seems to me that the best defense would be a good offense. 

The key to that good offense will start with the team’s top two lines.  There is no doubt that the offensive catalyst for this team has been the line of Latendresse, Brodziak and Havlat.  The three-headed beast of HavLatziak (Cut me some slack.  It’s easier than typing all three names.) has been one of the team’s top lines over the last handful of games. 

The line that really needs to get into the game early, however, is the AMA line of Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen.  These three have struggled together of late, and it took moving Mittens to the third line to spark him into action. 

The biggest problem with this line, however, is that they are as defensively proficient as they are offensively.  This means that, essentially, they will likely draw the brunt of the matchup against Detroit’s top line of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Bertuzzi.  (Rest assured, you will know when Big Bert is on the ice.  We Minnesotans may move on, but we never forget.  The boo birds will be out in force.) 

Also, keep an eye on Brent Burns.  Since his injury, the Wild’s powerplay has been absolutely dreadful.  While Burns likely won’t log a great deal of minutes tonight, (I’d wager between 15-17), you can bet your sweet bippy that he’ll be at the point of every single one of the Wild’s powerplay. 

Key(s) to the Game

First and foremost, defense. 

Josh Harding is going to get peppered tonight.  He’s going to see a black piece of vulcanized rubber tossed at him so much that he might have nightmares about it. 

The key to this, however, is the quality of these shots.  The Wild did a great job of limiting the quality shots against the Blues and Harding rewarded them with a spectacular performance.  Conversely, the Wild did a terrible job of limiting the quality shots against the Coyotes and Stars and Backstrom was hung out to dry more often than a fifteen-year-old dress shirt. 

If the Wild can limit the quality shots that the Red Wings get, they’ll have a very good chance at stopping a struggling Red Wing team.  If they can’t, however, it’s going to be a long, long night for Harding and a long, long night for the fans in attendance. 

Also, for the love of God…Can we please score first?  Is that really too much to ask? 

I would almost sacrifice a win just to see the Wild ahead 1-0 at some point during this game.  Almost. 

The fact is that the Wild have come out flat more times than not.  In their past three games, they have not scored a single goal before the five minute mark of the second period. 

That simply is not the hallmark of winning hockey. 

Heck.  I’d even settle for not falling into a two-goal deficit. 

We’ve proven that we can finish the game with energy.  Now it’s time to prove that we can start the game with energy. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST and is televised on KSTC, Channel 45. 

Also, if you’re going to the Wild’s skills competition on Sunday, keep an eye out for me.  I’ll be the bearded guy wearing the white Wild jersey autographed by Doc Emerick and possibly an Atlanta Thrashers hat. (No…I haven’t planned my wardrobe out that far in advance.  I swear.)  

In any event, feel free to stop and say hi if you see me.

Gameday Thread – Game 43 – Wild @ ‘Hawks

If anyone needed a break, it was the Minnesota Wild. 

After a hot December that saw them tally ten victories (a team record for the month), the team proceeded to lose three games in five days, looking like a very tired team for the majority of those games. 

But a two-day break in the Windy City and the presence of their fathers has the team rejuvenated and ready for action against the team that is arguably the best in the league—the Chicago Blackhawks. 

The Wild have an extremely daunting task in front of them, as their loss on Saturday to the New Jersey Devils kicked off a month of January in which nine of the team’s 14 games are against teams that are currently in playoff contention and three more are against teams currently ahead of them in the standings. 

In other words, January will be a good measuring stick for just how good this Wild team actually is. 

The good news for the Wild is that Brent Burns has made this trip with the team and, though he didn’t practice, he is getting closer and closer every day to returning. 

What’s more is that, by all accounts, the Wild held one of their hardest working practices of the season yesterday—in large part because of the presence of their fathers.  The speculation following practice was that the Wild would have heard it afterwards if they didn’t, and I suspect the same will go for tonight’s game. 

As for tonight’s game, the Wild will be facing a Blackhawks team that has won three straight and eight of their last ten.  In fact, there’s not much that has not been going right for the ‘Hawks this season. 

Lineup(s)
I haven’t heard of what the lines might or might not be for the Wild but; the injuries have been talked about.  While Burns travelled, he is still out with a concussion.  In addition, the Wild might be down one of their more important players and team leaders in Owen Nolan, who is questionable for tonight’s game.  Assuming that Nolan doesn’t go, here’s my attempt at the forward lines: 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Latendresse-Ebbett-Havlat
Clutterbuck-Belanger-Sykora
Boogaard-Brodziak-Sheppard 

I think that, in the case of these lines, you could easily see James Sheppard and Cal Clutterbuck switch spots.  First, because Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak have some absolutely sick chemistry with one another and second, because Sheppard is more of a playmaking-type player—something that could be important to getting sniper Petr Sykora rolling after returning from his concussion. 

In addition, don’t be surprised if Sykora gets some shifts on Martin Havlat’s opposite wing, with Belanger in between them.  The three were showing some fantastic chemistry before Sykora went down and it took the Wild a while to find some other players that fit with Havlat.  That said, Havlat is riding a four-game points streak and has five goals and 15 points in his last 15 games, most of which has come playing with Andrew Ebbett and Guillaume Latendresse. 

On the other hand, if Nolan is able to go tonight, I’d expect the casualty to be Derek Boogaard due, in large part, to his lack of mobility. 

As for defense, I doubt you’ll see much of a change there.  Clayton Stoner has recovered from his tweaked groin and continues to gain the confidence of the coaching staff.  While he’s cooled off from his “call up” hot streak, Stoner has continued to play solid, physical defense—something that has endeared him to the coaching staff and the fans. 

In addition, against the ‘Hawks quick forward group, I’d be surprised if the Wild rolled out John Scott who, as with Boogaard, isn’t the most mobile member of the team. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Stoner-Hnidy 

In nets, expect to see Josh Harding who will give Niklas Backstrom a much needed break following performances that have seen him give up three goals in six of his last seven games. 

Especially in his last few games, Backstrom simply looked tired and, because of this, I would expect Harding to be in the cage tonight regardless of the score—especially with an ever-important divisional match up coming tomorrow night. 

What to Watch For
Keep an eye on the Wild’s defense tonight.  Against both Los Angeles and New Jersey, they didn’t give their goaltenders much help and that will need to change in a big way against Chicago’s high octane offense. 

As was mentioned earlier, the Wild’s fathers are on this trip and I would expect the team (and the defense especially) to play a solid, blue collared, hockey game—lots of hitting, lots of good positioning and lots of hard work. 

For the Wild, keep an eye on the usual suspects—Havlat, Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette. 

These three players have been three of the Wild’s hottest players of late, with Koivu picking up the Wild on his shoulders and shouldering much of their offensive load. 

The dark horse for the Wild, however, is defenseman Marek Zidlicky. 

While ‘Z’ has driven Wild fans crazy with his play in his own zone, he has certainly come into his own this season and is playing much better defense than he did last season.  His pairing with Greg Zanon has turned into the Wild’s top defensive unit and he is showing that he is a true asset moving the puck. 

In his last five games, Zidlicky has six assists and is a plus-one.  He has had the hot passing hand and his ability to break the puck out will be crucial to the Wild’s transition game. 

Key(s) to the Game
Which leads me into the first key to the game. 

The Wild need to, need to, need to get their transition game going early.  They are simply not going to get a whole lot of quality chances against the Blackhawks team and are going to be pressured early and often. 

The Blackhawks give up just over 24 shots per game, while taking around 33.  For the Wild to win, they are going to need to take advantage of the ‘Hawks aggressiveness and catch them pinching.  If they can do that, they can get quality chances against this team.  If they can’t, though, they might not be seeing too many of their pucks hitting the net. 

Anyone who watched the Winter Classic can tell you that a solid transition game can change the tempo and the momentum of the game and that a solid transition game can win the game. 

My second key to the game is discipline. 

The Wild need to a) hope that Chicago remains disciplined and b) remain disciplined themselves. 

The reason I say this is twofold.  The Wild’s powerplay, of late, has largely been a momentum killer for the team.  Much of this likely has to do with the loss of Brent Burns on the blueline but, on a whole, the Wild’s powerplay has been ineffective. 

For the ‘Hawks, however, their powerplay has been buzzing of late, having converted at least one opportunity in each of its last seven games.  The team is 8-for-25 during that time—an impressive 32% clip.   

Finally, it is paramount in this game that the Wild get out to a good start.  This is a very potent offensive team that they are playing and stumbling out of the gates could very well lose the game for them.  

Minnesota has not started well for most of the season and it is very important that they get their legs under them early.  They need to slow down Chicago with physical play and they need to grind it out with them, plain and simple. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST on Versus.

Reminder: I’ll be answering my first Wild Nation mailbag here next week.  If you have any questions or comments, be sure to send them to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com.  So far, I’ve gotten just one response, but I’m confident that I have more than one reader, so be sure to send in your questions.

Gameday Thread – Game 39 – Wild @ Kings

It’s amazing how much difference a couple months time makes.

After a 3-9-0 start, the Wild were looking to be in the running for the Taylor Hall Sweepstakes. The turnaround that the team has made the season, however, has been nothing short of miraculous.

After their horrific start, the Wild are 16-7-3 and were 9-4-0 during the month of December and now are just four points back from the odds on favorite to win the Northwest Division this season, the Calgary Flames, and third place in the division.

More importantly, they are just four points back from a playoff spot.

The combination of new blood being injected into the system and the old blood learning the new system has proven to be a potent mix and the team is looking poised for a solid run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out last season.

They come into Los Angeles tonight with a record number of wins for the month of December and are looking to increase on that total against a very good and very surprising Los Angeles Kings team.

The Kings are third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference despite slumping of late. A testament to how good the Pacific Division has gotten, the Kings dropped from first in the division to third after a stretch of two losses and eight games off in between.

Lineups
The Wild will be short one of their top checking players, as Chuck Kobasew is going to be on the shelf for about 4-to-6 weeks with a sprained MCL. While his injury will certainly hurt the team, it is possible that it may have opened up a spot for Petr Sykora to return to the lineup sooner than hoped.

Sykora is travelling with the team on their two-game road swing but has not yet gotten approval to play. If that changes, though, the Wild could see a big addition to their lineup.

Barring Sykora’s return, though, here are the forward lines for the Wild as predicted by Wild.com:

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

Now, while Belanger’s line is listed as the team’s second line here, it’s important to note that the Kings will likely see a large dose of Ebbett’s line early and often. They have been one of the hotter lines on the team since Latendresse and Ebbett have both gotten healthy and that could bode well for the Wild. In addition, the injury to Kobasew might just give Sheppard yet another chance to prove himself. He’s played much better of late, but he needs to step his game up another level if he wants to continue to find playing time as players begin returning from injury.

On defense, Clayton Stoner has been an absolute revelation for the Wild and looks to have stolen John Scott’s spot from him. In his five games since being called up, Stoner has a pair of assists, an even rating, a couple fights and is averaging just under 13 minutes per game. His solid skating ability and his willingness to throw his body around has quickly endeared him to Wild fans.

Wild.com lists the defensive pairings as follows:

Zanon-Zidlicky
Stoner-Johnsson
Hnidy-Schultz

The one thing that I like the most about these pairings is that it gives the Wild a 100% legitimate shutdown pairing in Hnidy and Schultz. But what’s more is that the defensively responsible Stoner and Zanon give both Zidlicky and Johnsson chances to step up into the play a little bit more often—something that benefitted the Wild in their 4-3 defeat of the Blues on Saturday.

There was a break between the games, so in net we’re most likely going to see Niklas Backstrom again. Backstrom has been absolutely fantastic in his last eight games, with six wins and a 1.87 goals-against average.

What to Watch For
The Wild have forward on their team that is white hot right now, and he’s not who you’d think.

Guillaume Latendresse has notched four goals in his last four games and six in 13 games with the Wild. In addition, in those 13 games, the Wild is 11-2-0 and is 4-0-0 when he scores a goal.

You don’t believe me? Do the math yourself.

G-Lat has quickly become an important cog in the Wild’s offense and is continuing to get more and more ice time with Minnesota.

The other key is going to be Martin Havlat. He was largely invisible on Saturday night against St. Louis, but has really snapped out of his early season slump with nine points in his last eight games with a plus-six rating.

He is going to be very important to the continued success of the Wild and the continued success of both Latendresse and Ebbett. He has shown great chemistry with both and this looks to be as bona fide a second line as the Wild has had all season long.

If these three start clicking in a game, watch out…It can be scary good.

Key(s) to the Game
Shoot the puck.

Both teams have great records when outshooting their opponents and tonight should be no different.

For the Wild, LA’s Jonathan Quick is a goalie that thrives on confidence. If they can get to him early, they can have success. But Quick gets better as the game goes on and as he gets more confidence, so hitting him early and often will be paramount for a Wild win.

For the Wild, stopping Anze Kopitar will also be a huge task. Kopitar is one of two Kings players in double digits for goals this season and is the only one who is active (Jarrett Stoll is out with a groin injury). If the Wild can stop Kopitar, they’re that much closer to stopping the Kings.

Kopitar, however, is not the only player that the Wild need to focus on. Ryan Smyth quickly asserted his presence in the Kings’ lineup this season before getting injured and has since returned to the lineup and will provide a huge boost for a Kings team playing without Stoll and Justin Williams.

The puck drops tonight at 9:30 CST and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Gameday Thread – Game 34 – Wild @ Habs

Well, well, well.  Look who’s back in Montreal. 

That’s right, Wild Nation faithful.  Guillaume Latendresse is returning to Montreal tonight to help the Wild dispatch his former team. 

While the game will likely be much more than just G-Lat versus the Montreal Canadiens, it is certainly a storyline that bears observation. 

Since arriving in Minnesota, Latendresse has been nothing short of marvelous.  He has played with a physical edge, he has shown a tireless work ethic and he has produced.  Since arriving in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, G-Lat has notched three goals and an assist in 10 games, not to mention a shootout goal against the Anaheim Ducks. 

The bottom line is that, suddenly he has had the weight of the world lifted off of his shoulders — and it shows.

But tonight the young power forward heads home again, hoping to rub some salt in the wound against his former team. 

Lineups
While I have not heard anything of yet regarding the Wild’s lineup for tonight’s game, I can’t imagine much changing for tonight’s game, though Andrew Ebbett has traveled with the team and may see action in either tonight’s or Saturday’s game.  Were I setting the lineups, though, here’s what it would look like:

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

This is a quick, undersized lineup that the Wild are facing tonight and it is a lineup that has a wealth of skill on it.  The biggest mistake the Wild could make, in my opinion, would be to put Derek Boogaard on the ice tonight.  Boogaard has not been able to catch a break over the last few games and, against Vancouver especially, his reputation has worked against him.  In a game that will likely be up tempo, it will be important for the Wild to put their best foot forward, so to speak.

Zidlicky-Zanon
Schultz-Johnsson
Hnidy-Stoner

There aren’t many changes here, but I’ll be honest — I want to see what Clayton Stoner can do.  He was called up just before the road trip and he’s played very, very well in Houston so far this season.  The likelihood that John Scott would play anymore than 10-12 minutes in this game is very small, so I don’t see the harm in giving Stoner a shot and getting him in his first NHL action.

Backstrom

‘Nuff said.

What to Watch For
I already mentioned the return of Latendresse to Montreal, but to me, this is one of the less intriguing storylines of the evening. 

What is more intriguing is the match up between two teams that are seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum.  The Wild are coming off of a hard-fought win against the Columbus Blue Jackets and have lost just two games in their last 10.  The Habs, on the other hand, have struggled mightily as of late, losing four straight and just three of their last 10 games. 

The biggest thing to watch in this game will be special teams, however.  The Wild’s powerplay that started out so strong this season has faltered, with the team going zero for their last 19 opportunities with the man advantage.  Against a strong penalty killing team in the Habs, that isn’t going to be an easy stat to change.  Montreal sits at an 84% penalty kill, good for 8th in the NHL. 

The Wild is a surging team, however.  Their play has been much improved from their 3-9-0 start and they are slowly clawing their way back up the standings.  As it stands today, they are just four points from the 8th place Detroit Red Wings and three behind the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks. 

A successful road swing in Eastern Canada could go a long way towards pushing farther up the standings. 

Keys to the Game
How will G-Lat respond? 

The line of Latendresse, Brodziak and Havlat have been absolutely scintillating over the last couple games.  Havlat has six points in three games and has had a hand in six of the team’s last seven goals.  He has finally found linemates that he has chemistry with and the line is clicking. 

But, the pressure of Montreal had gotten to Latendresse before.  Will it get to him again tonight? 

I, for one, don’t think so. 

In Montreal, he was cast out to the fourth line.  His minutes cut and his confidence was shattered.  He has said himself that the fact that Richards thinks enough of him to play him consistently has helped and right now his confidence has got to be sky high. 

With a coach that trusts him enough to play him and is willing to give him every opportunity to succeed, G-Lat is starting to come into his own and is starting to apply everything that he has learned in his young career. 

The Wild also need to continue their trend of shooting, shooting and shooting some more. 

In games that they outshoot their opponents in, the Wild are 9-5-2 this season, compared to the Habs record of 8-11-2 when being outshot.  Minnesota needs to keep Carey Price busy all night long.  While Price is certainly a solid tender, he has not shown the elite level of play that he showed during his rookie season consistently and getting into his head will be paramount for the Wild’s success. 

The puck drops tonight from the Bell Centre at 6 pm CST and is televised on Fox Sports.

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.

Gameday Thread – Game 28 – Ducks @ Wild

The good news has been few and far between this season for the Wild; however, they will try to make it four wins in a row tonight as the Anaheim Ducks roll into town for the third meeting between the two teams. 

Each team has won on their home ice thus far in the season series, with the Wild taking the first game in dramatic fashion, coming from three goals behind in the third period to win the game in overtime and the Ducks returning the favor with a 3-2 victory in Anaheim just eight days later.     

The Water Fowl are just one point behind the Wild in the Western Conference standings, but have dropped their last two games and have struggled for most of this season. 

Part of those struggles have been because of their goaltending.  The usually spectacular tandem of Jonas Hiller and Jean-Sebastian Giguere have both been putting up pedestrian numbers this season—Giguere with a .918 save percentage and a 2.61 goals-against average and Hiller with .909 and 3.09 respectively. 

The Wild, meanwhile, are riding a three game winning streak and are 4-0-1 in their last five games, with their current winning ways pulling them to a 12-12-3 record after starting the season 3-9-0. 

A large part of the Wild’s new winning ways is the fresh lease on life that new acquisitions Andrew Ebbett and Guillaume Latendresse have.  Ebbett and G-Lat were both castoffs from their prior teams and have found stability with the Wild, each playing a humungous part in the team’s five-game point streak.  On top of that, captain Mikko Koivu has five points in his last three games. 

Probable Lineup(s)
While I have no information for the Ducklings, the Wild should be rolling the same offensive lines as they did against Nashville: 

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

The fact that Martin Havlat has been shifted to the team’s fourth line speaks to just how well this team is playing right now.  If he wants to move up, he’s going to need to start showing something to the coaching staff.  His assist in Wednesday’s game is a good start, but he needs to start showing that he can be the Martin Havlat that led the Blackhawks in points despite playing second-line minutes last season before he can expect to start being shifted up the lineup again. 

On defense, the Wild will again look much the same with the exception of John Scott being shifted in for Jamie Sifers against a big, physical team of Duckies. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Hnidy-Scott 

That Zanon and Zidlicky are the team’s first defensive pairing speaks to just how well these two are playing right now.  Despite his blunder in the first period against Nashville, which led to a Jason Arnott goal, Zidlicky is playing some of the best hockey of his career right now.  He’s becoming more responsible on defense, along with being encouraged to jump up into the play on offense.  He still has one of the best shots on the Wild and is now feeling comfortable enough to be able to pinch up to use it, but still be able to maintain his defensive responsibilities. 

In nets, it looks like we’ll be seeing Niklas Backstrom again, thought it wouldn’t surprise me if the team opted for Harding as a late switch. 

What to Watch For
Keep an eye out for Corey Perry in this one.  Perry is always dangerous but should be even more so tonight as he will be looking to get back on the scoresheet after having his 19-game point streak snapped last night against Dallas. 

Despite being shutout in the game last night, Perry has 12 points in his last ten games. 

The Quackers will need Perry in this one, as they have dropped seven straight on the road and I would just like to mention that, by pointing that seemingly inane statistic out, I have just doomed the Wild to a night of failure. 

Also, keep an eye out for the Wild’s special teams—most notably, if you can spot them. 

The Wild’s powerplay started out strong this season, but with the losses of Brent Burns, Petr Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, as well as absences from Martin Havlat and Antti Miettinen, their powerplay has fizzled as of late, dropping to 19.3%. 

The Mallards are an aggressive team and prone to taking penalties, so don’t be surprised if the Wild’s powerplay unit gets their fair share of action in tonight’s game. 

Hopefully, however, that is a good thing for the Wild. 

Keys to the Game
The Wild need to stay out of the box. 

Against a team as aggressive as the Web-Footed Birds (give me a break…I’m running out of fresh names to call the Ducks) are, it is easy to let yourself fall into the same trap and take retaliation penalties.  The Wild need to avoid this at all costs. 

More penalties means more time that the Wild can expect to see the unit of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan and the less time they spend on the ice, the better for the Wild. 

Injuries will also play a part. 

The Ducks are missing Teemu Selanne, Kyle Calder, Joffrey Lupul and Ryan Carter, while the Wild are still missing Burns, Bouchard and Sykora. 

My Predictions
And now I’ll make a few predictions destined to be very, very far from the mark. 

First, the Wild will continue their win streak with a 4-3 victory (strike number two against the team in this blog alone). 

Second, the newcomers will continue their strong play.  Both Latendresse and Ebbett have provided some much needed scoring punch to the lineup and will continue to do so. 

Third, Martin Havlat will start getting back on track.  I know this one might be a stretch but, come on…The guy’s due.

There you have it, folks.  My extremely unscientific and possibly biased view of tonight’s game. 

The puck drops at the X tonight at 7 pm CST.

It’s Time for A Change

Hockey sticks beware.  The Minnesota Wild are on the prowl. 

At least, that’s what yesterday’s practice showed, according to Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune. 

At the X yesterday, the Wild underwent an extremely physical practice that caused tempers to run high.  Sticks were broken, slammed against the glass and, in the case of Mikko Koivu, airmailed to the fourth row. 

Richards told reporters afterwards that he’s decided to change his tone after a sleepless night following the team’s loss to Phoenix.  Apparently someone has finally realized that coaxing this team to be better just doesn’t work. 

Let’s be honest here.  Jacques Lemaire was ten times the coach that Richards is at this point in his career.  Lemaire couldn’t do it last year, so why would Richards be able to do it this year? 

Just as Brent Sutter awakened the Calgary Flames with a physical series of practices, Richards hopes to do the same to the Wild, and if there’s any team that needs it, it’s Minnesota. 

On paper, this team isn’t much different from the team that was mere points from making the playoffs last season.  Our lines are even looking very similar to last year’s team at this point.  The most auspicious change was supposed to be the coach, who would take the reins off. 

So far, the reins are off, but the results are much the same—only this time, the defense isn’t playing airtight like they have in the past. 

For a team that wanted to play a fast, physical style coming into this season (much like the Anaheim Ducks team that won the Stanley Cup), they have spent much of the season losing battles on a regular basis.  It has been very rare for a puck to be contested in the corner and have a Wild player come out with it. 

But this “new” Richards might spark something in the team.  To my knowledge, the team has been coddled for most of their careers.  Just look at Brent Burns and Mikko Koivu.  When anyone talks about them, all you hear is how much potential these two young superstars have. 

You always hear about how great of a leader that Koivu is, or how dynamic a talent Burns is. 

But you never hear that Koivu may not have been the best pick for the captain of the team this season, or how Burns tries to do so much on the ice that he is frequently not ready when the game starts going back towards his own end.

The Wild need a change, and the change needs to start at the coaching level right now.  The staff needs to stop coddling their golden boys. 

Just look at James Sheppard.  Is confidence is obviously very, very fragile right now.  He’s playing soft and he’s playing tentative—in other words, he’s not really playing. 

But why not drive home the point with him in practice?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle drill with a John Scott or a Derek Boogaard, or even Owen Nolan?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle and tell him that he’s not stopping until he gets the puck? 

Why wouldn’t you take a stick, tape it to Benoit Pouliot’s hands and tell him that you’re not taking it off until he starts focusing on his shot and shooting like he’s capable of?  Why wouldn’t you do that with Martin Havlat? 

All that has been talked about this season by the media is how bad this team is, but all that has been talked about by the team is how bad they’ve been playing.  There’s an obvious disconnect there.  This team doesn’t think that they’re not good and, honestly, neither do I.  

But what needs to happen on a player level is that players need to begin taking accountability for their actions on the ice. 

Yes, the coaching staff needs to give these guys a swift kick in the backside, but once that has been done the players need to step up and be accountable. 

There is no better example than that of Brent Burns. 

Mysteriously, Burns simply disappears after a poor performance.  He doesn’t talk to the media or even address them—he just disappears. 

To be quite honest, running and hiding isn’t a trait you’d want in your worst player, let alone one who is supposed to be one of your superstars. 

The team needs to stand up and be accountable for their actions.  This isn’t a mandate that needs to come from the coaching staff, however.  This is one that needs to come from within. 

Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette.  These are the players this needs to come from.  Koivu and Havlat.  These are the players this needs to come from. 

A locker room wide mandate that, no matter what the outcome of the game is, you’re sitting at your stall after the game facing the music.  It doesn’t matter if you win 6-1 or if you lose 6-1, you’re sitting at your stall, answering questions. 

But that’s not going to happen.  At least not yet. 

For that to happen, the main offenders would have to have some modicum of mental toughness. 

But the mental toughness won’t start coming until the team begins to show some physical toughness. 

Maybe that’s what Richards wants to start stressing in his practices.  Physical, beat down, drag out wars.  I, for one, certainly hope so because I, for one, am sick of watching this team under perform on a nightly basis. 

Hopefully the Wild will eventually get to the point where they are too.

Game Recap: Wild 4 Ducks 3

The end result definitely made what it took to get there bearable. 

But just barely. 

After two periods of some of the sloppiest hockey I’ve ever seen the Wild play, the team rebounded and in a big way. 

During the first two periods, the Wild’s play was absolutely atrocious.  They were giving away odd man rushes like candy on Halloween, to the point where they actually gave up a 4-on-1 at one point.  In fact, the only reason that the fans in the X had to cheer during the first 40 minutes of the game was when the result of the Twins game trickled down. 

But then big John Scott stepped onto the ice in the third. 

Scott was determined to stay with the team, no matter what, this season so he took boxing lessons with Derek Boogaard over the off season and man did it show.  Say what you want about fighting’s place in the game, but this fight was one of the ones that actually had a purpose. 

Scott started and ended the fight with a big right hand and the end result was pugilism specialist George Parros looking up at the rafters, wondering what train just hit him. 

The end result for the Wild?  A spark of energy that the team hadn’t had all game long. 

Suddenly, it just clicked.  It was one of those moments when, all of a sudden, you could see everything just make sense to the team.  After two periods of playing tentative, sloppy hockey, suddenly the team was loose, they were going out and actually just playing hockey instead of worrying about who needed to be where. 

It started after Joffrey Lupul went off for hooking.  Just over a minute into the powerplay, Mikko Koivu got the Wild on the board, and the team took off.  Just under six minutes after that Petr Sykora notched his first goal in a Wild sweater and the crowd began to stir — there was something special in the works.  Then, when Ryan Whitney went off for tackling holding, the X began buzzing.  Could we be seeing yet another spectacular finish to a Minnesota sports game? 

Eric Belanger would give the fans their answer just over a minute in as he beat J.S. Giguere on a goal that you could barely tell made it in the net it came out so quickly. 

So, why not.  Let’s go to overtime. 

It didn’t take the Wild long in OT, as Kyle Brodziak took a page from the Cal Clutterbuck notebook and goaded James Wisniewski into taking a penalty after the whistle.

Petr Sykora scored his first goal in a Wild sweater on Tuesday.

Petr Sykora scored his first goal in a Wild sweater on Tuesday.

That set up Andrew Brunette, who knows a thing or two about game winners, to be the star of the night and cap the team’s comeback with a goal on the powerplay 3:02 into OT. 

“Backs” to Basics
Despite what the stats indicate, Niklas Backstrom played a relatively solid game.  All three goals were a direct result of a defensive lapse by the team and only one of those three goals Backstrom had any sort of chance on. 

Don’t let the stat sheet fool you.  Backstrom is a top flight goalie.  But your goalie can only do so much. 

On Lupul’s goal, there is absolutely no reason why Lupul should have been standing, untouched, in front of the team’s net.  The result?  An easy tip in for the young sniper. 

On Artyukhin’s, it was a significant lack of back checking that resulted in the Russian forward being wiiiiiiiide open in the slot with an empty net in front of him.  The extra “I’s” are to emphasize just how open Artyukhin was.  Let’s just say that my one year old daughter could have buried that shot with no problem. 

On Koivu’s goal, the only one that Backstrom had any chance on, he was left untouched in the slot.  Give any NHL player that much time in the slot (except for maybe Derek Boogaard) and they’ll kill you. 

The bottom line is that the Wild have a world class goalie behind them, but they need to give him the chance to make the save.  On only one of the Ducks’ three goals, Backstrom had that chance and, on that one, Koivu had to bounce it off the pipe to get the goal. 

Rivalry Renewed
I’d equate this game to the first time you see an ex-girlfriend in a few years.  You start out amicably, but by the end of the night, you remember why the two of you broke up. 

This was a lot like that. 

The teams started out relatively calmly.  There was some physical play, but nothing that wasn’t to be expected. 

But by the end of the second period, these two teams looked to be back to flat out hating each other again.  Even to the point where the two teams were looking to extend the extra curricular activities after the game had ended. 

I’d tune in the next time these two teams face off on the 14th

Time to Shine
Here’s the deal, and I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this. 

When he wasn’t trying to avoid rogue goalies last night, Benoit Pouliot actually looked pretty good. 

He didn’t get onto the score sheet and he didn’t play a big role in the game with only 5:11 in ice time, but one thing is for sure.  In that 5:11 that he was on the ice, you noticed him — and not in a bad way either. 

He was throwing his weight around and he honestly seemed to be buying into the checking role that he was playing. 

In fact, watching from up above, I got the sense that people might just think that he’s not trying hard out there because he just skates so darn effortlessly.  The man looks like he’s actually skating above the ice instead of on it. 

With Bouchard out indefinitely with an injury and the team not calling up any more forwards as of yet, Pouliot has a golden chance that he needs to seize. 

Bottom line, he needs to make it impossible for Richards to remove him from the line up — something that I think he is more than capable of. 

Flipping and Flopping
It became painfully obvious in the third period that Richards may have to re-think his line combinations. 

First, Havlat and Sykora looked like two peas in a pod playing together.  As much as I love having Bruno on Koivu’s wing, putting Koivu between Havlat and Sykora would give us a bona fide scoring line. 

Brunette has proven that he can play with nearly anybody, so why not put him on a line with Sheppard and Miettinen (of whom Bruno has already displayed a fair amount of chemistry with)? 

It would give the team a great, gritty, second line with Nolan, Belanger and Clutterbuck and it would also give the team three lines that could be fairly dangerous. 

3 Stars

  1. John Scott - No goals, no assists, 5 PIM.  Scottie was the reason for the turn around.  His fight against Parros energized the crowd and energized the team.
  2. Andrew Brunette - Bruno managed to turn what was a pretty bleh performance into a pretty good one with his overtime winner.  How does the saying go?  Winning heals all wounds?
  3. Martin Havlat - Havlat was all over the place, assisting on the first three Wild goals.  He looks like he’s getting comfortable with the system, so it’s only a matter of time now.

Coming Up…
Check back here tomorrow for our pregame report for the team’s game against the LA Kings and be sure to check Hockey Primetime for my Central Division Notebook tomorrow!

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