Minnesota Prepares for Home Opener; Will the Streak Continue?

It appears that the Wild are rolling out the red carpet for Opening Night here in Minnesota tomorrow night (as is becoming the custom for NHL teams trying to get fans excited for their season) and the Wild are hoping it will be a good one.

The team is 8-0-1 in Home Openers and has won its last eight straight.

Basically, what this has meant in the past is that no matter how horrible the season is or was shaping up to be, you could always count on the Wild to come and put on a great show in front of their hometown crowd for the first time of the season.

As I will do a lot this season, being a season of nostalgia for Wild fans as the team heads into its 10th season in the NHL, here are some memorable Home Opener performances:

  • ’00-01: Darby Hendrickson scores the first goal in the Xcel Energy Center as the Wild tie the Philadelphia Flyers for their first point in the NHL.
  • ’01-02: Stacy Roest pots two goals and Manny Fernandez makes 35 of 36 saves as the Wild beat the Boston Bruins to start the streak.
  • ’03-04: Sergei Zholtok has a three assist night to lead the Wild past the New York Rangers.
  • ’05-06: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Marc Chouinard and Todd White all have three-point nights, leading the Wild to a 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • ’07-08: Niklas Backstrom made 27 saves to give the Wild their first shutout in a Home Opener.
  • ’09-10: The Wild scored three third period goals to come from behind after giving up three second period goals and beat the Anaheim Ducks in overtime.

As you can see, the Wild have had a lot of success and a lot of great moments on opening night in Minnesota. Will they be able to keep it up though?

They’ll have a tough go of it, as they’re going to be going up against an Edmonton team that I don’t know that anyone has expected to be as good as they have been early.

Edmonton is led by their “kid line,” that sees veteran Shawn Horcoff center Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle – a line that has been fantastic so far in this young season, creating chances and flying around the ice. The Wild will have to contend both with them and also with Nikolai Khabibulin in net, who is having a spectacular start to this season.

Tomorrow I’ll have the gameday thread up, and I’ll take a deeper look at the game then, but it shouldn’t need to be said that this is an important one for the Wild.

They’re coming home with just one point (which is, quite frankly, one point more than I thought they deserved), but are coming off of a good, if uninspired, performance.

In their last game, they showed flashes that this team has not forgotten all that they had been taught by Jacques Lemaire. They played team defense.

The idea is simple. Protect Niklas Backstrom.

Backstrom is a tremendous positional goalie. He is very, VERY strong on the first and, for the most part, second attempts. He’s going to cut down the angles, he’s going to play the shot and he’s not going to give up much ground in net. That being said, his downfall is his athleticism (which is clear when you look at his struggles in shootouts).

In order for Backstrom to be successful and, ultimately, the team as well the Wild NEED to cut down on the amount of second chances they are allowing. Backstrom dominated for so long in the league because, one, his weakness was masked a bit by the Wild’s tremendous team defense but also because he was sort of an unknown. Now that teams have seen his game, they are learning what they need to do – get their first shot on net in an area that a) he can’t gobble up and b) he can’t direct the rebound.

When teams do that, he is forced to rely on his athleticism.

Unlike some hybrid goalies (Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur, for example), Backstrom is not at his best when he is flopping around the crease like a fish out of water.  Backs is at his best when he is stationary and able to play the angles, but when his defense in front of him is not clearing the puck away from the net, he’s forced to turn to his athleticism and try to make spectacular saves.

Is he capable of it? Absolutely. But he’s a better goaltender when he’s able to use his brains as opposed to his reflexes.

So what does this mean for the team?

Exactly what they did in game two in Finland – take care of their own zone first.

That doesn’t mean that they need to forsake the offensive game. That doesn’t mean that their d-men shouldn’t pinch and join the play. That doesn’t even mean that they should scrap Richards’ system and go back to a good, old fashioned, 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck.

What it means is that, when a shot is taken, not all five players on the ice should be releasing to transition to offense. They need to stay back and make sure that the puck is moved out of a scoring area. Then can come all of the fun offensive firepower that Richards promises with his system.

When Richards installed his system, it was mentioned that the biggest change to it was the forecheck. Not once did  anyone mention that anything of the defensive zone responsibilities were changing drastically.

Sure, maybe two forwards release instead of one or none, but overall the defensive zone objective remains the same – get the puck away from the net, THEN get it out.

The Wild did that against Carolina and dominated for the first period when they played with a fire in their bellies. The second and third periods were still good, but that dominant team that came out with something to prove in the first period was no longer there. Instead, they were content to play their game and not force the issue on anything.

Good? Yes. They protected Backstrom well and got some fantastic scoring chances – proof that you CAN play solid defense and solid offense at the same time.

But if this team can harness that intensity that they had in the first period of the game for a full game, they could truly be a scary team to play.

I’ll be watching tomorrow night, as I will the rest of the games regardless of the team’s performance – I will watch and support this team regardless of their performance – but if this team wants to move from bubble team to a playoff contender they need to find that intensity for a full 60 minutes, each and every game.

Can they do it?

We’ll have to wait and see.

The Product of Boredom: Top 5 Wild Games

Though the season is nearly here, there is still plenty of boredom to be had in the interim and even more boredom induced blogs.  I’ve already given you the top five forwards, defensemen and goalies in Wild history, so I figured it would be fitting to give you some discussion with the top five games in Wild history.  Just thinking about these games is getting me all forclempt…So talk amongst yourselves…

5)      October 11, 2000 | v. Philadelphia Flyers | Final Score: Wild 3 Flyers 3 – If you need to ask why, you’re probably not a Wild fan.  The Wild’s first ever regular season game in Minnesota was easily one of their most memorable as the team not only netted their first point in team history, but Minnesota native Darby Hendrickson notched the first ever goal on home ice.

4)      April 3, 2008 | v. Calgary Flames | Final Score: Wild 3 Flames 1 - With this victory, the Wild clinched their first ever (and only, to date) division title and notched Jacques Lemaire his 500th career victory.  After falling behind early, the Wild battled back with three straight goals (two by Marian Gaborik) to down their division rival Flames.

3)      December 17, 2000 | v. Dallas Stars | Final Score: Wild 6 Stars 0 - If there was any game in the Wild’s first season that was the most anticipated, it was this one.  Amidst chants of “Norm Green Sucks,” the former Minnesota North Stars returned to Minnesota to the not so friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center and the Wild made sure that they gave the fans a night they would remember.  On the strength of two-point nights by Gaborik, Hendrickson and Jeff Nielsen, and a 24 save performance by former Star Manny Fernandez, the Wild sent the raucous crowd home happy with not just a victory over the Stars, but an emphatic one at that.

2)      December 20, 2007 | v. New York Rangers| Final Score: Wild 6 Rangers 3 - Every once in a while, you see a performance that simply cannot be described.  That was this night for Marian Gaborik.  Gaborik posted the league’s first five goal game in 11 years and showed the entire NHL what he is capable of if he is fully healthy.  After notching a hat trick just 26 minutes into the game, Gaborik turned on the afterburners and helped lead the Wild to a very emphatic victory over the visiting Rangers, and a night that none will soon forget.

1)      April 22, 2003 | @ Colorado Avalanche | Final Score: Wild 3 Avalanche 2 OT – The Wild weren’t even supposed to be in the playoffs, let alone defeating the juggernaut that was the Colorado Avalanche, but the team accomplished both feats in one fell swoop in this game.  Behind what is arguably the single most memorable goal in Wild history, the team came back from behind twice in the game and Manny Fernandez was spectacular in backstopping the team to their most memorable victory in franchise history.

The Product of Boredom: The Wild’s Top 5 Goalies

So the lack of just about anything happening during the off season usually leads to one or two posts that are either ill-advised, or really stretching for ideas.  My next three posts will, hopefully, fall in the latter rather than the former.  I will be taking a look at the top five players that the Wild have had in their respective positions (defense, forward, goaltender).  They always say that you should build a franchise from the back out, so let’s start in nets.

5) Jamie McLennan – De-Fault…The two sweetest words in the English language.  That’s also the reason why McLennan makes this list despite his less than stellar statistics for the Wild in their inaugural season.  Splitting time with Manny Fernandez, “Noodles” posted just five wins in 38 games played…But also may have been the victim of playing for an expansion team that had a hard time scoring goals, as he had a decent GAA of 2.64 and a Save Pct of .905.  He also notched two shutouts during the season as well.

4) Josh Harding – Harding is really so far down on this list only because of the fact that he doesn’t have the body of work that the “Big 3” of the Wild goalies do.  Harding has performed admirably over the last few seasons being relegated to a mostly back-up role with the team and has posted career numbers that many back-up goalies would be envious of.  He was supposed to slide in to start for the team this season before the emergence of Niklas Backstrom, so we’ll see how long he remains with the team.  For now, though, he’s definitely a name to be mentioned on this list.

3) Manny Fernandez – Fernandez has always been a polarizing figure among Wild fans.  Some love him.  Some hate him.  But he is certainly deserving of being on this list.  He was a key part to the Wild’s big playoff run in the ’02-’03 season and he was a big reason why the Wild were above .500 in the ’05-’06 season.  His athleticism was absolutely dazzling at times and the biggest thing that worked against him and prevented him from being a truly elite goalie is the fact that you could fit a sperm whale through his five-hole.

2) Dwayne Roloson – Roloson was another big part of the Wild’s ’02-’03 playoff run and, to be honest, the reason why he is up higher than Fernandez is his consistency.  He always remained a consistent backstop for the Wild and was well liked by both fans and players alike.  He also was the Wild’s lone goalie to make the all star team until last season and performed marvelously for the Wild during his tenure with the team. 

1) Niklas Backstrom – This was really a no-brainer.  The only of the Wild’s goalies to make it as a finalist in an award and probably a top-ten goalie (if not top-five) in the entire league.  Backstrom gives the Wild a calming presence in net and is always level headed, no matter what the situation.  He has backstopped the Wild to two playoff appearances and was the sole reason that the Wild were even sniffing the playoffs last season.  He has never had a season below a .920 Save Pct or above a 2.33 GAA and has notched at least 30 wins in his past two seasons and 23 in just 41 starts in his rookie season.

Up Next: The Defensemen

Backstrom For Vezina; Aeros Advance

First off, I’d like to thank you all for bearing with me over the last few days.  My seven month old daughter had come down with something which necessitated my being gone for a few days.  But never to fear…It’s the off season, so not a whole heck of a lot occurred over those last few days!

Niklas Backstrom
It’s been a big couple weeks for the Finnish netminder.  First, his surgery was a huge success, leading Dr. Philippon to conclude that Backstrom will be ready to go in full in about 12 weeks.  I don’t know all of the details, but apparently the cartilage damage was much less than the doctor had originally thought and the issues with Backstrom’s hip have been corrected by the surgery.  Keep in mind that this is the same surgery that Marian Gaborik underwent during the season.

In addition to a successful surgery, Niklas Backstrom also became the third member of the Wild’s organization to be named a finalist for a voted-upon NHL end of the year award.  The other two?  Jacques Lemaire and Wes Walz for the Jack Adams and Selke trophies respectively.  This is not the first hardware that Backstrom has won as a member of the Wild.  In the ’06-’07 season, his rookie season, he walked away with the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the league’s best save percentage and teamed with Manny Fernandez, winning the William M. Jennings Trophy, for the team with the least goals against.

Backstrom will have a tough time winning this award, however, as he will be going up against Boston’s Tim Thomas and Columbus’s Steve Mason. 

My personal thoughts on this is that Backstrom will come in second in the voting.  Backstrom was certainly the Wild’s best player, and Josh Harding’s 3-9-1 record on the season certainly helps Backstrom’s cause, but let’s not forget that Harding posted extremely impressive stats during those 13 games as well.  The way I look at it is like this:

  • Without Mason, the Jackets miss the playoffs AND are likely to have a lottery pick in the top six.
  • Without Backstrom, the Wild are likely to have a lottery pick in the top ten.
  • Without Thomas, the Bruins probably wouldn’t have won the conference, but still likely would have made the playoffs.

To me, what that equates to is that Mason will get the Calder-Vezina sweep this season (and, honestly, I think there’s a pretty good argument for him getting the Hart as well, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Backstrom had a phenomenal season and, let’s be honest…If the Wild make the playoffs, there’s no question that he’s up there for the frontrunner.  The bottom line is that, as important as he was this season to our team, Mason was just a touch more important in their run.

Aeros Advance to Round Two
Leave it to the farm team of a Minnesota team to take every opportunity to give their fans more hockey.  Houston won game seven against the Peoria Rivermen 5-2 on the strength of goals by Krys Kolanos, Marco Rosa and Maxim Noreau as well as empty netters by Corey Locke and Mitch Love.  Goaltender Anton Khudobin was credited with the win, saving 19 or 21 shots.

Houston advances now to play the first seeded Milwaukee Admirals in what should prove to be an intriguing match up; at least from a front office point of view.  Milwaukee is the farm team for Nashville, making it Craig Leipold’s current farm team vs. his former farm team.  In other words, two candidates for the Minnesota Wild GM position (Tom Lynn and Paul Fenton) fighting it out for GM supremacy, though I doubt this series would be the deciding factor in one or the other getting the job.

Houston has three of the top 20 scoring leaders thus far for the playoffs, with Corey Locke third in scoring (4-5-9), Matt Beaudoin sixth (2-6-8) and Krys Kolanos sixteenth (2-4-6).  Meanwhile, Khudobin is trucking along with a 4-3 record, a 2.45 GAA and a .906 Sv Pct, as well as one shutout.  The most interesting stat?  Corey Lock has 24 penalty minutes.  Anyone care to explain that one to me??

Wild Sign Carson McMillian
The Wild also have signed another of their 2007 draft picks to an entry level deal.  Carson McMillian of the Calgary Hitmen has been signed to a three-year, entry level deal.  McMillian was in his fourth season with the Hitmen this season and recorded career highs in goals (31), assists (41), points (72) and penalty minutes (93).  On top of that, he added seven game winners, five powerplay tallies and four shorties.  It will be interesting to see how McMillian fares in Houston next season, as he is certainly an intriguing player for this organization (one that has rarely seen success at drafting in the later rounds). 

Seventh Heaven
There are two game sevens on the docket tonight and, honestly, does it get ANY better than a Game Seven in the NHL Playoffs?  It’s win or go home for four teams and it’s going to be I-N-T-E-N-S-E!!!  Now I typically shy away from predictions (for those unable to pick up on sarcasm through text, I’ll note it here), but I feel inclined to share my views on these two games.

2) Washington v. 7) NY Rangers - I made the observation a few days ago that, if any team is equipped to come back from a 3-1 defecit, the Capitals were certainly one of them.  It took a few games for the Caps to realize that they can’t shoot at Lundqvist’s mattresses (and for Boudreau to realize that he can’t have Theodore in nets), but once the Caps got it figured out and started executing their gameplan, they started rolling.  Torts will be back on the bench for the Rangers after his Game 5 hissy fit and, if I were a Caps fan, I wouldn’t relish sitting behind him because he’ll likely be packing for this one.

The Rangers Win If: They score first.  If they can do that, they can tighten up around Lundqvist and clog up the neutral zone.  In their three wins, the Rangers have proven that they can give the Caps fits when they do this.  The Caps offensive stars need room to skate in order to be effective, and if the Rangers are protecting a lead, they can afford to tighten up and not give the Caps the space to skate

The Capitals Win If: They get to Lundqvist early and often.  Not necessarily score, but pepper him with shots.  He’s been pulled in two straight games and they can’t afford to let him gain any confidence.  Crash the net, get in his way, do anything and everything they can to disrupt his game.  If that means buzzing him and taking  a goalie interference penalty early on, that’s what they have to do.  Get in his head and this one’s over.

My Prediction: Washington 4 New York 2

(3) New Jersey Devils v. 6) Carolina Hurricanes – This series has been the epitome of even.  Neither team has won more than one game in a row and only two of the six games have been decided by more than one goal.  At the onset of the series, everyone expected this to come down to goaltending and, tonight, it will.  Both Ward and Brodeur will be at their best and this game will be very, very tightly played.

The Devils Win If: Their offense shows up early.  This team has an absolutely explosive offense.  The problem is that they have been extremely inconsistent this series.  One game, they’ll look like absolute world beaters; the next, they look like they couldn’t find the back of the net if it were the size of the broad side of a barn.  If they come out of the gates ready to skate hard and ready to play, they’ll gain the advantage over Carolina.  If they falter, though, Carolina will exploit this.

The ‘Canes Win If: Cam Ward plays like he did in Games 5 and 6.  Ward is the catalyst for this team.  If he’s playing well, this team gains confidence and can steamroll opponents.  This team does not have the defense to protect Ward if he’s playing poorly and that can lead to a collapse if he is.  A couple big saves early and Ward’s confidence will go through the roof.  If this happens, it gets exponentially harder for the Devils to take ahold of this game and get any sort of momentum.

My Prediction: Carolina 3 New Jersey 2 (OT)

The Walking Wounded and other Wild Updates

Per Russo,

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

This is in addition to Andrew Brunette having reconstructive knee surgery this off season and Derek Boogaard having shoulder surgery.

So what does this mean for the Wild?  Well, if the prognosis for Backstrom truly is 4-6 months, that puts Backstrom back at the earliest, August 24th and at the latest October 24th.  Knowing Backstrom, he will work his hardest to rehab and be back sooner, but this essentially makes the top priority for the new GM hammering out a deal for back up goalie Josh Harding.

If this is indeed the case, you can take Harding off of the table as a bargaining chip.  That is, unless the new GM is suddenly stricken by Barry Brust-mania and believes that Brust can shoulder the load as an NHL starter.  What this could do, however, is drive Harding’s stock through the roof.  If Harding can perform like Backstrom did when he wrested the starting job away from Manny Fernandez a few years back, Harding could easily become a hot commodity among NHL teams.

The Search Begins
After being denied permission by Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to speak with Dave Nonis, Wild owner Craig Leipold recieved permission from the Nashville Predators to speak with a couple of his old employees; Director of Hockey Operations Mike Santos and assistant GM Paul Fenton.

From Russo,

Leipold declined comment on them, ”just like I won’t comment on any of the other candidates.” 

There are lots of candidates that have surfaced. These are just two that so far I know he’ll be allowed to talk with. I’m sure there are others. I’m working the phones.

Santos is in his third year in Nashville and is responsible in negotiating player contracts and preparing for salary arbitrations. He served as assistant GM for the New York Islanders from 1997-2002 and director of hockey operations for the Florida Panthers from 2002-03.

He was Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06. He’s worked for USA Hockey and the NHL.

Fenton is in his third year as Nashville’s assistant GM after eight as the director of player personnel. He oversees the Predators’ amateur player development and managers the team’s pro and amateur scouting staffs. He’s also GM of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

Fenton, who played eight years in the NHL for seven teams and was a former Boston University standout, also spent five seasons working for the Anaheim Ducks. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but another person I’d assume Leipold would request permission to speak with his Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s 41 with 16 years of experience. He’s immensely respected after years in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Remember, Leipold has a fabulous relationship with Penguins GM Ray Shero, who used to be assistant GM in Nashville.

In addition, the Wild have been denied permission to speak with Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.  Nill is under contract until 2010-11 and has a commitment in his contract to stay in Detroit.  In fact, this quote was run in the Windsor Star when Toronto was inquiring about Nill’s availability.

The way we do things here, I’ve already got most of the responsibilities and input that a general manager would have. Ken [Holland] and I work really well together.

I’m comfortable, I’m well-compensated and I like the organization. I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Risebrough Presser
You’ve got to love hockey guys.  Doug Risebrough held his “exit presser” yesterday and held it at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub.  Gotta love it.

Anyway, Russo had some snippets in his blog regarding the players and it just shows how well respected Risebrough was by his own players.  Derek Boogaard had his fiancee drive to the pub after he literally just woke up from having shoulder surgery, just so that he could thank Risebrough for the opportunity and have a chance to say goodbye.  Risebrough also spent some quality time with Marian Gaborik at the arena and went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the youngster after the new broke regarding his concussion problems.

Again, on a personal level, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  He was a great guy, probably the nicest associated with the NHL that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  Part of me feels that he deserved a bit better treatment than he received from Leipold; however, that’s also Leipold’s perogative as the owner.  It’s his team and he can run it as he sees fit.

On a business level, however, it was time for a change.  Risebrough had become increasingly defensive about his decisions over the past few seasons and it seemed as if fans, management and players alike were all growing tired of his smug, “I know best” attitude.  As disappointed as I am that it had to end like this, it certainly had to end.

In the transcript of the presser, however, there was one quote from Risebrough that really rings true to me.

I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

That right there, to me, says it all.  Whoever it is has a good base, but also has his work cut out for him.  This is a solid team in need of a few key components to become a serious contender.  I don’t think this team needs to be blown up and start from scratch again, but at the same time I don’t think that this team is ready to contend next season after all of this going on this off season.  One thing’s for sure, though.  It’s still an exciting time to be a Wild fan!