Gameday Thread: Wild look to keep it going against Devils

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

Mike Yeo.

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

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

Yeo, on the other hand, has found it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lineup

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

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

Schultz/Lundin
Zanon/Stoner
Scandella/Spurgeon

Backstrom

Burning Questions

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

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

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

The puck drops at 7 pm on FSN. Enjoy!

Some Early Postseason Playoff Thoughts

Heading into the end of the first week of playoff hockey, there are some surprises and some not quite so surprising surprises. In both cases, my brain is running over with thoughts of mine that are just begging to be shared. So…Here you have it, in a neat and tidy bulleted format.  Enjoy! 

  • When is Marty Brodeur (or his coaches, for that matter) going to realize that it probably isn’t a smart idea to play 1,382 to the fifth power games during the regular season? I get that he’s good. I mean, the guy is arguably the best goalie ever to play the game and his ability to play 70+ games in a season has saved the Devils tons of money on a passable back up. The problem? By the time it comes down to it, in the playoffs, the guy is flat out gassed. Even though Sunday’s debacle against Philly was by no means Marty’s fault, might it not be wise to, say, give the guy a break every once in a while during the regular season? I’m sure it wouldn’t harm their playoff standing THAT much.
  • And continuing with my mental diarrhea about the Flyers/Devils series, this is a perfect example of what happens when a team under intense pressure and expectations meet up with a team with zero pressure or expectations. Don’t get me wrong. I picked the Devils to win this series and I stand by that prediction (at least until the Flyers are on the cusp of closing out the series—I then reserve the right to break both ankles and possibly a rib or two diving off of the bandwagon) but right now the Devils are playing like they’ve got a two-ton weight on their shoulders while the Flyers have realized that they’re lucky just to be there.
  • Speaking of pressure vs. no pressure, what the heck is up with the Caps?! I get that their defense hasn’t necessarily been stellar, but it’s been an absolute train wreck through two games and that’s being very, very generous—Mike Green in particular. Now I’ve always been a fan of Greener. Personally, I’ve never thought he was as bad as everyone claims defensively. There are definite holes in his defensive game, but I’ve never really seen him to be Skoula-esque in that department. But, so far, in these playoffs he has been exactly as bad as everyone claims he is defensively and there have been a handful of Montreal’s goals so far that were a direct result of this ineptitude.
  • Sticking with the Caps/Habs series, does anyone else thing that Scott Gomez’s “What the hell were you thinking?” moment might have awakened a sleeping giant in the Caps? They looked like a completely different team after that fight. As in, they realized “Oh yeah, we’re good!” It certainly hasn’t hurt that Jaroslav Halak suddenly turned into the Michael Jackson of goaltending—meaning that he has a glove on his left hand for no apparent reason (I swear to God, this is the last time you’ll hear me use this line, though this time it is very, very appropriate).
  • And, as far as the Rumble in the Capital between Gomez and Poti, I’ll say it once again. Gomer! What the hell were you thinking?? I understand what Gomez was trying to do—I truly do. But you’re the team’s number one center. If you’re going to drop the mitts in the playoffs, you darn well better take on someone that is going to have as large of an effect on the Caps when they’re missing for five minutes as you will have on your team. Instead, he chooses Tom Poti. Mr. Gomez, your check from the Capitals is in the mail.
  • This next topic is going to be contentious, and I know it. I’m going to throw myself out there as a piñata for all of the Pittsburgh faithful, but it needs to be said. HOLY ANDY SUTTON! Look. I’ve always felt that Sutton is a great player to have on the roster……………….Of the other team, but that hit on Jordan Leopold was spec-freaking-tacular. I feel bad for Leopold, because I truly like him as a player and I hope that he’s going to recover fully from it, but my GOD. I think Sutton may have momentarily detached his brain stem from the rest of his body. Keeping that in mind, the thing I liked most about this hit? IT WAS CLEAN. Yes, Mike Rupp, I’m looking directly at you. I can understand where people can think that Sutton got his elbow up, but I stand by my assertion that it was a clean hit. His elbow, while it may have been high, never actually made contact with Leopold. This was entirely a case of Jordan just having his head down at the wrong time and getting hit by a lumbering defenseman with an entire zone’s worth of built up speed heading at him. And, if you want a firsthand account by an expert of exactly how that feels, check this out.
  • I initially picked Ottawa to win this one in seven because they came into the playoffs hot and, when they’re hot they’re REEEEEEEEEEALLY hot. While I’m not yet backing away from that pick, I probably should have realized that they came into the playoffs hot…Meaning that they were due for the obligatory cold streak that ultimately follows.
  • It sounds like Thomas Vanek is going to be out for game three of the Bruins/Sabres series for Buffalo. There’s only one piece of news that could be worse for Buffalo, and that would be if Ryan Miller was going to miss game three. Also, I’d like to make a request to any television station covering any part of this series. Please, for the love of God, STOP SHOWING THE SLASH!
  • It really shouldn’t be any surprise that Boston is competitive in this series. They were one of the hotter teams in the NHL heading into the playoffs and we all know that defense and goaltending wins championships (we’re looking at you Washington). Don’t forget that this is a Boston team that was the class of the Northeast for the last two seasons (sans Kessel). The playoffs are a brand new season and anything can happen. But mostly, I just want to be able to scream LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOCH at the top of my lungs.
  • On to the West now, if you hear any gagging, it’s coming from San Jose. In all seriousness, though, I can’t imagine how much pressure is on the Sharks in their locker room right now. Just like with the Devils and the Caps, it’s a case of pressure vs. no pressure, except for this time magnified by 10-million. Dan Boyle’s gaffe in their last game didn’t help any, as it pretty much epitomized San Jose’s luck in the playoffs over the last few seas—decade.
  • Even though San Jose is doing their yearly choke, it shouldn’t take anything away from how brilliant Craig Anderson has been in this series. If the Avs are going to win it’s going to be on his back, and right now he looks like freaking Atlas balancing the world on his shoulders. To shut out the Sharks is no small feat, but to do it on 50-plus saves? One, you have to tip your hat to that performance and two, you have to wonder where the hell the Colorado defensemen were for those 50-plus shots.
  • Did it surprise anyone to see the Blackhawks rebound and respond to an embarrassing loss last night? The only thing that really surprised me, after seeing the looks on the ‘Hawks faces after that loss, was that last night’s game wasn’t an absolute blood letting. Even little Patty Kane’s mullet looked pissed after that one. It was a great rebound performance for the ‘Hawks against an opponent that, truthfully, shouldn’t really give them a lot of trouble. Then again, the Predators “shouldn’t really be in the playoffs” either…So I’m guessing that this series is going to be a classic.
  • How good are these two young Finnish netminders? Believe me folks. Antti Niemi and Pekka Rinne are the real deal for sure. They’re both young and just entering their prime years. What’s that mean for us? That this is going to be one fantastic series as far as goaltending is concerned. In fact, Rinne was one of the biggest reasons that last night’s loss WASN’T a blood letting by the ‘Hawks. The thing I want to know, though, is how I can get an NHL team to pay me $5.5 million to be a spectator. Anyone know?
  • If there’s anyone that doesn’t think that the Phoenix/Detroit series isn’t one of the most intriguing of the playoffs, they haven’t been paying attention. It’s essentially the NHL’s franchise against the NHL’s model franchise and, guess what? So far, the NHL’s franchise is winning the battle. The reason why? They’ve come out and skated like they have a pack of rabid Coyotes on their tails. They’ve come out and skated hard, played physical and won battles and, if you’ve been watching the series so far, it’s no wonder why they’re ahead. They’ve flat out out-worked a team that prides itself on its work ethic.
  • Detroit might be kicking themselves for winning that couple of extra games now. On the other hand, they showed in Game 2 what they’re capable of if they get rolling sooooooo…Yeah, they’re probably not kicking themselves. If they’re going to win, though, they need better play from their top players. So far, Zetterberg and Lidstrom are the only ones who have shown up to play and contribute on a regular basis.
  • How about those Los Angeles Kings? I don’t know if anyone was giving them a snowball’s chance in somewhere really, really warm to do anything these playoffs, but they not only don’t look out of place…They look goooooooood! Jonathan Quick hasn’t looked out of place opposite Roberto Luongo in this one and the Kings are doing more than hanging with the Canucks. If the Kings keep up this inspired play, this could easily be the series of the first round.
  • The best part of watching this series is watching the speed at which these two teams play. On one hand, you’ve got the youthful exuberance of the Kings who don’t realize that a) they’re supposed to be nervous because it’s the playoffs and b) they’re supposed to be a less talented team and on the other hand, you’ve got the savvy of the Canucks, led by the Sedin twins who continue to ply their trade by making six opposing players look silly all at the same time. 

That’s all for me today folks! If you’re checking this out on Bleacher Report, make sure to check in to Wild Nation tonight for a live blog of the Kings/Canuckleheads game tonight at 9 p.m. Central Time. If you’re checking this out on Wild Nation, make sure you’re back as we’ll have friends of the blog, Justin Bourne and Ms. Conduct with us!

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)

Gaborik to Return Sunday?

Whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that having Marian Gaborik on the ice makes the Minnesota Wild a better team.  The problem is that this has only occurred in six games this season.

According to Brian Stensaas of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, however, it will happen at least once more this season.

Barring any setbacks, Marian Gaborik said he feels he will return to the lineup Sunday afternoon against Edmonton.
Gaborik will travel with the team to New Jersey this afternoon. But he said playing tomorrow night against the Devils is unlikely. Instead, he’ll wait for the Oilers.
“We’ll probably shoot for Sunday’s game,” Gaborik said after an hourlong practice this morning. “Hopefully everything will progress. Hopefully I’ll be more pain free each day and go from there.”

Coach Jacques Lemaire has said all along that the decision to return is the player’s. So this means it is a good bet Sunday will be the day.

This is fantastic news for a team that has been struggling of late.  The initial timetable for Gaborik’s return was set with approximately 5 or 6 games left in the season; not necessarily much time for the team to make much noise if they were not close to the playoff hunt.  Gaborik’s return with 11 games remaining in the season would be a huge shot in the arm for a team vying for a playoff spot.  A fresh Marian Gaborik could spell the difference between missing the playoffs and a potential deep playoff run for this team, as they have remained in the playoff hunt all season long without their top player.  A fresh Marian Gaborik for the Wild essentially equates to the same as a fresh Martin Brodeur does for the New Jersey Devils; that is exactly how important Gaborik can be to this team when healthy.

Now my thoughts on this are quite bittersweet.  I am, first and foremost, a Wild fan and this news brings great hope to our postseason possibilities.  Even injured, Gaborik is one of the better offensive talents that the Wild have and there are many games that his presence could have been the difference between a win or a loss or a loss and an extra point.  At the same time, however, I have never really been a fan of Gaborik’s (though I do concede that he brings a lot to the table that helps the Wild) and his (or his agent’s) seeming lack of cooperation in trying to work out a deal that would keep him in Minnesota has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Quite frankly, it was my hope that we had a team that could do it without him and allow us to be able to say, “See, we don’t need you,” upon his return.  It has been quite apparent, however, that this is not the case.  This team has been mired with inconsistency, both on a whole and offensively.  They have been competitive, but not dominant by any means and the hope that is prevalent from most Wild fans is that Gaborik will help turn a competitive team into a dominant one.

The Wild will also likely hope that this return gives Gaborik a spark to sign a short-term deal with the team, likely at a reduced rate, to try to build up his value and his reputation once more.  The value shouldn’t be hard to re-build.  Let’s face it, this kid can score.  When healthy and willing to work, he can be as dynamic an offensive player as anyone in the league.  Just as the New York Rangers.  His largest problem, however, is inconsistency which stems from a lack of work ethic.  Don’t misread this…He’s in fantastic shape and he certainly works very hard off the ice and outside of games.  Where this lack of work ethic manifests itself is in games where things are not going his way or where he gets shuffled onto a line he does not like.  A great example of this would be the season opening game against the Boston Bruins.  While the Wild won this game, their “superstar” was near invisible for most of the game as he was placed on a line that he considered to be the “checking line” with James Sheppard and Stephane Veilleux.  (It should be noted that Lemaire saw this as another scoring line and not the checking line that it turned into without Gaborik on it.)

His reputation, however, may be a bit harder to repair.  There’s no question about it that, when the Wild’s contract offers got leaked, Gaborik immediately lost the PR battle.  Originally, everyone was under the impression that the Wild were lowballing the Slovakian Sensation.  When the contract offers got leaked (ranging between $8.5M and $9.5M), public perception immediately turned against Gaborik and many questioned his dedication as a team player.

My personal opinion is that the Wild should attempt to re-sign Gaborik to a short-term contract (at most three years) at the same average cap hit that he currently sits at.  While I don’t like Gaborik, I cannot deny that he brings a certain dynamic to our line up that we otherwise would not have and I question both other teams’ willingness to sign an injury prone player to a lucrative, long-term contract with the assumed drop in the salary cap next season and the Wild’s ability to land the “big fish” that would replace Gaborik in terms of productivity.

Regardless of what happens, Wild fans will be able to see Number 10 flying up and down the ice in a Wild sweater for at least a little bit longer.  Like him or not, he’s still with the team and he’s going to be able to help us.  From the reports, it appears as if he’s been practicing on a line with Peter Olvecky and Dan Fritsche, which has the potential to be a pretty fun line to watch.  It will be interesting to see on Sunday how he fares on this line, as well as how the fans react to his return.

Either way, I still can’t escape the feeling of wanting to be able to say, “We can do it without you,” though.