Gameday Thread: Wild rolls into Calgary

The Wild need to keep the momentum going tonight

So the Wild are rolling into Calgary tonight for the first of six meetings between these two teams, and there’s a lot to take into account heading into the game.

As I mentioned earlier, Niklas Backstrom’s insertion into the line up tonight has left the Wild with a bit of a conundrum in net, and I feel like I should clarify that a little bit.

Backstrom needs to perform tonight to keep pace with Harding

First, I don’t think there’s a goalie controversy. Backstrom is still the starter, Harding is still the back up and Backstrom hasn’t been playing bad hockey. The fact of the matter is, though that, it’s moved from a 1 and 2 situation to a 1A and 1B situation. There is no de facto starter anymore. It’s whoever is playing the best at the time.

What this basically boils down to is a good, old fashioned, competition. My point earlier was that Backstrom needs to perform tonight. He needs to have a good game and he needs to give Mike Yeo pause about taking him out of the net, just like Harding did.

The Wild is playing very good hockey right now. They’re on a four-game winning streak and, in their last seven games, they’re 5-1-1 and they’ve give up just ten goals over that span.

They might not always be playing good hockey, but they’re doing what good hockey teams do – they’re finding a way to win. That begins and ends with the man in the crease, and that is exactly why Backstrom needs to respond tonight.

If Backstrom responds tonight, I’d imagine he’ll likely get another look in San Jose. If he doesn’t, well, he’s just making it that much easier for Yeo to put Harding back in nets.

The reason the Wild need their goaltender to be so good is, quite simply, because they’re not scoring goals.

They’ve scored more than two goals just three times in 13 games. There’s been some encouraging signs in the last two games (like, you know, shooting the puck) but this team has too much offensive firepower to NOT score goals.

Just look at their roster.

They’ve got six players on their team that are legitimate 20 goal threats (seven, if you consider Clutterbuck one) and, of those six, four

Latendresse is one of the Wild's key offensive players

of those could be considered legitimate 30 goal threats.

That’s a lot of offense, especially when you consider that last year’s Stanley Cup Champions had just one 30 goal scorer and four 20 goal scorers and the runners up had two 40 goal scorers and just one other 20 goal scorer. The year before? One 30 goal scorer and five more with 20 were on the Blackhawks and the Flyers had two 30 goal scorers and just one other 20 goal scorer.

If the Wild can pull all of this together, they could be a very dangerous team, especially the way that their young defense is playing and that both of their goalies are playing. If they can’t? That’s a lot to ask of your goaltenders, no matter who they are.

Lineup

Tonight, the Wild will likely ice the same line up that we’ve seen over their four-game winning streak. They’ve called up Warren Peters, but he’ll only get the nod if Cal Clutterbuck (who is a gametime decision) can’t go. My two cents on this, though, is that if Clutterbuck skates for warm ups, he’s in the game.

I do want to say a little about the lines, though, so I’ll throw in my two cents on them as well.

Latendresse/Koivu/Heatley (This line has been absolutely lights out. I love the strength that they have and they’re actually getting to the dirty areas on the ice too.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Setoguchi (They can skate with anyone in the league, and maybe skate circles around anyone in the league. Their speed is really opening up opportunities for them.)
Johnson/Brodziak/Clutterbuck (The Wild knew what they had in Brodziak and Clutterbuck, but Johnson has been an absolute revelation. He’s been one of the best players on the ice for Minnesota in every game he’s played and that’s not taking anything away from Minnesota’s other players.)
Gillies/Powe/Staubitz (The one line I’m really not pleased with. I know that they’re a defensive unit, but I expected a lot more from Powe and Gillies this season. Or, at least, I expected them to look better than they have.)

Schultz/Zidlicky (They’re getting better. You know what you’re getting with Schultz, and I think that will help Zidlicky find his game.)
Spurgeon/Scandella (Spurgeon still doesn’t look as good as he did last season, but the pairing is still very good. Scandella is going to be a fixture on the Wild’s blue line for years. He’s that good.)
Prosser/Falk (Probably the most unexpected, as they’re both injury fill-ins. They look great. They’re mobile, they’re strong and they haven’t been making mistakes.

Like I mentioned, Backstrom will be in net and Harding will have the gate tonight.

Heatley is key to the Wild "playing their game"

Burning Questions

Will Backstrom respond? He’s been on the bench now for almost two weeks. Is there going to be any rust? Is he going to look listless, or will he look like a man fighting to keep his job? All of these are questions that Backstrom needs to answer with tonight’s performance.

Can Minnesota play their game? It sounds strange to say it, but Minnesota’s game is puck possession and getting shots. They showed that they can be very successful at that against the Canucks and, against the Blues, the shots didn’t necessarily come (hey, we’re not going to get 45 every night), but the pressure did. Shots score goals and they create offense. The Wild are starting to get this, but they need to keep digging and keep playing their game.

Can the Wild get it done on the road? Minnesota is 5-2-1 at home and 2-1-2 on the road. With a pivotal 5-game road trip underway, they need to show that they’re capable of winning on the road as well and, more importantly, closing out games on the road.

Can the top line keep it up? The insertion of Guillaume Latendresse onto the Wild’s top line has done wonders for them (as has the insertion of Devin Setoguchi onto the second line). Latendresse has two goals in his last two games and is starting to come alive and the Wild need that to continue.

The puck drops tonight at 8:30 and will be on Fox Sports North. See you after!

Photos Courtesy of Getty Images

Backstrom’s return to the net causes a goalie conundrum

It’s a tough decision as a coach when you’re balancing two players that play the same position that are playing well. In a lot of sports, with a lot of positions, you can mitigate those decisions by putting one of the players in a different spot. In basketball, it’s easy to swap backcourt players around like they’re trading cards. In baseball, it’s a little more difficult, but there are positions that you can easily transition from as the skill set is a lot of the same (second to short, third to first, anywhere in the outfield). Even in hockey, you can swap players to their off wings or even put a center on a wing if you want to get a certain combination out on the ice at the same time.

He's been okay this year, yeah?

With goaltending, though, you just can’t do it. Apart from the logistical difficulties of having two players in the crease at the same time (though, sometimes, it seems like certain goalies are as big as two goalies *cough*Lundqvist*cough*) there are, you know, rules against that sort of thing.

And that becomes the problem when you get into the practice of “riding the hot hand” like the Wild have done.

Mike Yeo is making no bones about the fact that Josh Harding hasn’t supplanted Niklas Backstrom as the team’s starter. He knows full well that he doesn’t want either goalie sitting for two or three weeks at a time between starts and, if anything, Harding’s solid play so far this season just means that we’ll likely see him for about 30-35 games (unless Backstrom gets injured or his play falls off).

Because Yeo has been riding the hot hand, so to speak, he has inadvertently put a lot of pressure on the team heading into Calgary.

Backstrom’s going to be back in the cage for tonight’s tilt against the Flames due, partly because of his recent dominance against Calgary and partly because Yeo wants to work him back in. With the way that Harding has been playing, this could easily be one of the most important games of Backstrom’s career (and that’s only partly hyperbolic).

I want to make this crystal clear. I don’t think that it is Yeo’s intent to put Backstrom in this type of a situation. Harding has clearly been the hot hand and, when a goalie’s that hot, you don’t go away from them.

But that’s part of the problem. Harding’s got the hot hand and, as is the case with the back up quarterback in football, the back up goalie

It's going to be up to Backstrom to respond tonight.

is the most popular player on most teams. Harding has cemented the notion in many fans’ minds that he’s the best option in net (and, of that topic, I’m going to reserve my opinion for a while) with his strong play. Anything less than an absolutely perfect, dazzling game from Backstrom tonight and the peanut gallery is going to be chiming in.

But that’s professional sports. That is how you determine whether or not a player is great or just good. When the going gets tough, the great players respond and that is what Backstrom is going to be expected to do tonight.

And if there’s anyone who can respond to that sort of pressure and keep his cool through it all, it’s Backs.

{Author’s Note: Sorry for my long absence. I’ll be back later this afternoon with a gameday thread and I’ll be back tomorrow with that long-awaited schedule for the season.}

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Wild shock Oilers, win 2-1

The Wild battled and came out with a win

Talk about your heart-stoppers. The Wild used every second of regulation last night to get on the board but, when it was all said and done, they left Edmonton with a 2-1 shootout victory, leaving a lot of displeased Oiler fans in their wake.

I’m going to keep it short today, so we’re just going to get right to some of my thoughts on the game:

  • Greg Zanon is having a rough go of it. He had a rough night against the Pens and he had another one last night that culminated

    This looks like it hurts

    with him missing the final 21 minutes with a groin injury. The injury wasn’t even the most troubling part. (Hey, he’s Greg Zanon. He doesn’t do push-ups. He pushes the world down.) For the second game in a row, Zanon made an errant pass that led to the Oilers’ only goal. Granted, Zanon got his skate stuck in the boards and fell, but at the end of the day he’s got to make better decisions than that with the puck.

  • It wasn’t the Wild’s best game, but they showed flashes of what they were capable of. The biggest thing that the Wild need to do, but aren’t, is possess the puck. They’re still working on getting comfortable in this system and getting comfortable with each other in this system, but once they do they’re going to be a force.
  • Again, Matt Cullen and Guillaume Latendresse had awesome games, even though they were held off the scoresheet. Both were buzzing, Latendresse was a physical force again and both had some great chances. Believe me when I say, if Latendresse can shake off the rust soon, he could be the Wild’s leading goal scorer this season even if Heatley hits his stride.
  • Backstrom was great again in the shootout. He turned away Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins on good plays and got a little lucky when Belanger rung his shot off the pipe. In all honesty, if it’s anyone but Belanger, I think they don’t even get the shot off. Backstrom went for the poke check, but it was obvious that Belanger knew his tendencies from his time with the Wild and he knew exactly what Backs would do and when he would do it. Backs missed the puck by this much, but Belanger’s move pushed him to a bad angle. Seriously. The distance between Backstrom’s stick and the puck couldn’t have been much longer than the word this.
  • Heatley was on tonight, period. He was exactly the Dany Heatley that the Wild thought they were getting. He was dynamic with the puck, he peppered the net and was just flat out good. Setoguchi, on the other hand, still looked tentative playing with Heatley and Koivu. The line was much better tonight, but Setoguchi has got to stop deferring to the two veterans and shoot the puck himself. If he’s not going to do it on the top line, then maybe it’s time to swap him with Bouchard and see if he’ll do it on the second line.

Backs was really, really good again

Burning Questions

Can Guillaume Latendresse continue his strong start? He was held off the scoresheet, but he still made an impact on the game (just ask Anton Lander). He had a couple glorious chances and he was all over the place (in a good way).

Can the first line buzz again? Yes and no. Heatley and Koivu looked really good, but Setoguchi still looked a bit tentative. They controlled play a lot better, but they still need to be better for the Wild to be successful this season.

Can the Wild come out of the gates strong? Again, yes and no. They came out better than they had in previous games, but they can still be a lot better.

Three Stars

1)      Dany Heatley – He scored the game-tying goal with 1.2 seconds left on the clock. Sure, it might have been a bit lucky, but it was definitely deserved.

2)      Nikolai Khabibulin – For the second straight game, Khabibulin was the reason that the Oilers were ahead in this one.

3)      Niklas Backstrom – Backs rebounded well from a rough night against the Pens and was a big reason why Heatley’s goal tied the game.

Wild fall to Pens 4-2

The Wild were manhandled by the Pens on Tuesday

You can’t say the Wild aren’t getting what they deserve.

For the second straight game, the Wild came out and laid an egg and, at the end of the night, skated off the ice with a 4-2 loss to an ailing Pittsburgh Penguins team.

Minnesota just couldn't get anything going in a physical tilt

The Wild were, again, their own worst enemy as turnovers, penalties and poor special teams doomed the team from the start and, once they fell behind they just couldn’t catch up again.

A turnover by Greg Zanon led to the first Pens goal by Chris Kunitz just 46 seconds into the second and, after Brad Staubitz took a four-minute high sticking penalty, Jordan Staal made it 2-0 after he gobbled up a rebound and fired it past a sprawling Niklas Backstrom.

Just under a minute later, though, the momentum seemed to be turning as Cal Clutterbuck scored his second of the season, firing a wrist shot past Brent Johnson on a 2-on-1 chance shorthanded to pull the Wild within one.

Once Clutterbuck scored, the table seemed to be tilting back towardsMinnesota. The fans were back into it and the team started getting their legs under them again. They were forechecking, they were engaged, they were battling, but they couldn’t get anything past Johnson and the period ended, as did their momentum.

Early in the third, a poor turnover by Marco Scandella led to James Neal fooling Backstrom and firing a shot five-hole on the veteran goaltender to make it 3-1. To the Wild’s credit, they didn’t fold after this goal and were pushing to pull it within one. Staal took an offensive zone penalty for the Pens and the Wild had a brief chance to pull within one, but their power play was a huge momentum killer (as it has tended to be of late) and it ended up leading to a short-handed breakaway and firing the puck past Backstrom for a three-goal lead.

Guillaume Latendresse got the Wild on the board again with his first of the season, but by that point the curtain had fallen on the Wild.

They had a couple more chances, but they just couldn’t crack Johnson again.

Some thoughts:

  • The Wild just killed themselves tonight on the man advantage. They went 0-for-5 on the power play and, every single time they

    Latendresse was the Wild's best player all night long

    got on the power play any momentum they had just crashed and burned. With all the offensive weapons they have, this should just not be the case. Heatley is struggling, Setoguchi is struggling, Koivu is struggling, Zidlicky is struggling. The list goes on. In fact, the only two players that see power play time that haven’t been struggling of late have been Latendresse and Cullen. That should tell you something.

  • The Wild have got to learn to shoot the puck when they have the shooting lanes. They’re holding onto the puck WAY too long right now and, by the time they decide to pull the trigger, the lane they had has disappeared and they’re shooting it right into a forest of shinpads. I hate to sound like that annoying guy up in the cheap seats, but “SHOOOOOOOOOOOT!”
  • Turnovers have turned into this team’s Achilles’ heel. Three of the four goals were direct results of Wild turnovers. All the Pens had to do was put on the pressure and the Wild just put the puck right onto their sticks. Mike Yeo has preached responding under adversity, and the Wild just haven’t gotten it yet. Any time they’ve gotten into an adverse situation, they’ve just folded so far this year. This is something that has got to be learned, so they’ll get there, but it’s going to take time.

So, what of our Burning Questions?

Can the Wild control play instead of the other way around? Well, yes and no. The Wild outshot the Pens and did control the play at some points of the game, but at the end of the day they couldn’t control play when they needed to the most.

Will the Wild take advantage of the Pens’ lack of manpower? Nope. They just couldn’t get any traction tonight. Even without their four best players and their starting goalie, the Pens were still the better team.

Can Backstrom continue his strong season so far? The Wild needed Backstrom to come up huge, but he struggled tonight in large part due to his team’s struggles. Three of the goals were a direct result of poor turnovers by the Wild – in other words, they should’t have been scoring chances to begin with. That said, in games like this one you need your goalie to make a couple big saves to cover your rear ends, and Backstrom didn’t do that tonight.

Can the special teams be special? Again, nope. 0-for-5 on the power play, 1-for-2 on the penalty kill and a short-handed goal against. That’s pretty bad.

Three Stars

1)      Pascal Dupuis – The ex-Wild winger came out and tore it up against his old squad for a goal, an assist and six shots.

2)      Brent Johnson – The Wild didn’t make it terribly difficult on the Pens’ keeper, but Johnson still made some big stops when he needed to.

3)      Guillaume Latendresse – G-Lat keeps looking better and better and he was easily the Wild’s top player tonight.

Wild down Oilers in shootout 2-1

Snipe!

I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I was watching the game on my DVR (two kids, plus bedtime doesn’t always for an easy time watching the game make) and one of my buddies texted me to share something he did in Dark Souls (trust me, if you’re a gamer and you’ve played the game, you know doing something positive in the game is definitely something to brag about). Being that he’s a huge Wild fan, my response was to immediately tell him that I was watching the game because I didn’t want any spoilers.

His response to that was, “Well, I won’t tell you what happened then.”

To which, my response was, “If it went to a shootout, I can guess.”

Boy was my guess wrong, and I’m man enough to admit it.

Okay, so it's not the shootout. But he was still good.

Backstrom simply rocked the shootout. He got outwaited by Jordan Eberle first thing, then stopped three shots in a row to give the Wild a shootout victory and, according to Russo’s twitter, his second shootout win in his last ten.

I’ve always been a Backstrom sympathizer (not always a popular position among Wild fans), and seeing him come out and turn the Oilers away in a shootout yesterday just made me smile.

Before the shootout, Mike Yeo came over and pumped his tires (to steal some phrasing from ourVancouvercounterpart), and Backstrom looked like a completely different goalie than he did inOttawa. InOttawa, he wasn’t sure of himself. He almost looked timid trying to stop the shots. Tonight, he did not.

The Oilers came out strong and, again, the Wild struggled through the first period, giving up a goal midway through the period to Ryan Smyth, which seemed to wake them up a bit. From there, the Wild poured on the pressure and after being outshot 12-9 in the first period, the Wild outshot Edmonton26-10 the rest of the way.

Despite the disparity in shots, the only goal the Wild managed to get through Nikolai Khabibulin’s wall was Matt Cullen’s snipe in the second period. The rest of the way was typified by some great chances by the Wild and either some great saves by Khabibulin or missed opportunities byMinnesota.

The Wild came out of overtime assured of a point, but wanting the extra mark against a division foe and, this time, you saw just what kind of coach Yeo really was. Backstrom was staring at open ice, preparing himself for the shootout, and Yeo came over, leaned in and said something to him, then patted him on the back.

Now, I’ve never played goalie, but I can tell you from my experience playing organized sports, that sort of pep talk from your coach can do you wonders. Even if it’s a simple, “You got this,” it’s something that is vastly underrated in a coach’s arsenal, and Yeo utilized it to perfection last night. After allowing a goal to Jordan Eberle, Backstrom played the rest of the way perfectly and the Wild were able to skate away with a shootout win.

So, some thoughts on the game:

Yay! We won!

  • Backstrom truly looks back to his old form and, honestly, I feel a lot of the reason why is because of his level of trust in his defense. The last two seasons, he never really seemed to trust the players in front of him (and for good reason, because he never really knew who was going to be where) and it showed in his play. This season, he’s confident that players are going to need to be where they should be and he’s able to play much more aggressive and much more self-assured because of it.
  • Guillaume Latendresse continues to look great on the ice. He’s throwing his weight around and he’s shooting the puck and getting some great looks. It’s only a matter of time before he starts putting the puck in the back of the net, though I feel like he’ll have a lot better shot at doing that if he uses his quick release and stops winding up for slap shots.
  • Matt Cullen scored his third goal in four games and, though he’ll probably slow down sometime soon, he’s looking really good and really confident with the puck. More importantly, he’s scoring at even strength – something he did only three times last season.
  • The Wild’s first line was held off the scoreboard last night, but they still got some great looks. They already have some decent chemistry and haven’t even been playing together more than a couple of months. Once they start learning each other’s tendencies, watch out – they’re going to be very explosive.
  • How about Colton Gillies? The kid just keeps getting better and better. He hasn’t shown much of an offensive upside yet (though, in his defense, he hasn’t really played with any players that exude offensive ability), but if he keeps playing like he has, he’s definitely going to get a shot on the power play at some point.

Alright. There was no gameday thread, so no questions to answer, but here are our three stars.

Three Stars

1)      Nikolai Khabibulin – There’s no way this game even makes it to a shootout without the Bulin Wall playing like he did. 34 saves, many of them coming after defensive zone turnovers by the Oilers and, my goodness, that third period was spectacular on his part.

2)      Niklas Backstrom – Backs played solid again, and he looked like a man with a chip on his shoulder in the shootout. If he keeps playing like this, it bodes well for the Wild.

3)      Matt Cullen – Cullen scored the Wild’s lone goal and potted the opening goal in the shootout. He looks calm, confident and very, very good out there right now.

Alright. Coming up in a few is our look at the game for you all to watch tonight with no Wild game on. Cheers!

Wild down Jackets 4-2 in home opener

It was exactly what everyone hoped it would be. The Wild came out and, despite being outshot, dominated most of the play en route to a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets to stretch their home opener record to 10-0-1 (the one being a tie) and their streak in home openers to ten wins.

The Wild started this one quick with a beautiful breakout pass from Guillaume Latendresse to Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who just feathered the puck up to Matt Cullen, who promptly buried it for the 1-0 lead, and they would never look back. A power-play goal by Marco Scandella (his first NHL goal) and a power-play marker by Dany Heatley (not his first NHL goal, but a sick goal nonetheless) would give the Wild a commanding three goal lead midway through the third.

Derek Dorsett would close the gap to two with a gritty, hard nosed goal in the crease, but Devin Setoguchi would give the Wild a three-goal advantage again with a blistering one-timer from the slot just under a minute later. Maksim Mayorov would close out the scoring in the latter part of the third period but, by that point, the game seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

So, the first game is in the books. How did the Wild look?

Well, it took a while, but they look like they “get it,” so to speak. The biggest thing was that they buy into the system that Mike Yeo has put in front of them and, for the most part, they look like they did. They forechecked hard, they possessed the puck (even when they weren’t getting a ton of offense out of it) and they kept the play in front of them. In fact, the only two goals came from when they let the play get in close to Backstrom. They even kept their foot on the gas for most of the game.

If I’m nitpicking, the one thing I will say is that the last half of the third period was the Wild’s second period in this one. The Jackets started looking tired and, instead of putting their foot down and trying to get one more, they seemed to be content with just sitting back and coasting to the win, and that’s part of where the Jackets’ second goal came from.

In any event, some thoughts:

  • Marco Scandella looked really good tonight. I mean, really good. As in, he could potentially make everyone forget about Brent Burns this season if he keeps playing like that. He made great decisions with the puck, he jumped into the play, he was aggressive, he was positionally sound and he played mistake-free hockey. He’s going to be a good one, folks.
  • Brett Bulmer had a rough first game, but he showed flashes. He made a couple key mistakes, but that’s to be expected of a 19-year-old rookie. He made a couple key plays, though, including one strong forecheck that led to a drawn penalty that then led to a power-play goal.
  • Have I mentioned that I absolutely love the Wild’s first line? They’re dynamic, they’re fast, they hit…They do everything they’re supposed to do. In fact, Koivu was so shocked by some of the set ups he got that he just didn’t know what to do. That will come in time, but these three are going to be good.
  • Backstrom looked absolutely outstanding. He looked like the Backstrom that Wild fans got accustomed to seeing, not the goaltender that they saw over the last couple years. He made some huge saves and he was right where he needed to be all the time.
  • I’m not sure exactly what happened, but from all the angles I saw it looked like Pierre-Marc Bouchard just flat out two-handed Matt Calvert in the mug. It might have rode up Calvert’s stick, but either way Butch has got to be more conscious of where his stick is. He’s responsible for his stick regardless of what Calvert does, and he’s got to take care of that. I sincerely hope he doesn’t get a call from the Shana-hammer, but I’m worried that he might.
So, before we get to our Three Stars, let’s take a look at our questions:
Will the Wild play a full 60? Not quite, but they did for the most part. They kind of fell asleep with about ten minutes to go in the game, but that’s kind of a moot point as the game was well in hand. That’s not to say that it’s not something that they need to work on, but they need to learn to keep their foot on the gas the whole game, not just part of it.
Can the first line (we need a name for them) keep their momentum? Um, two goals, four points? I’d say they did.
Will the defense rebound after a handful of subpar efforts to end the preseason? Definitely. They kept the Jackets’ offense to the outside and they really played well against a pretty good Jackets offense. The penalty kill, especially, looked very good tonight and that’s something they should be very proud of.
Brett Bulmer will get a lot of ice time tonight. Will he look out of place? He didn’t look out of place, but he didn’t look altogether comfortable either. He made a couple of nice plays and he made a couple mistakes, but that’s to be expected of a rookie who’s playing in his first game. If he keeps playing like this, though, I’d expect him to stick.
Three Stars
1) Dany Heatley – Heater was just as promised. He played a great offensive game and, more importantly, he shot the puck. His goal in the second was a thing of beauty and he showed some great playmaking skills too in setting up Devin Setoguchi’s blistering one-timer. I wouldn’t expect 164 points from him, but he didn’t look out of place in the least.
2) Niklas Backstrom – Backstrom looked fantastic in net for the Wild. He stopped 29 of 31 and he played the type of hockey that the Wild need him to play in order for the team to be successful. He had to make a couple spectacular saves but, for the most part, he was very unassuming in net which means he was playing his game very, very well.
3) Marco Scandella – The Wild’s young defenseman scored his first NHL goal and looked pretty darn good out there all night long. His power-play goal was a beaut and he didn’t look out matched — in fact, he reminded me a lot of Brent Burns in many regards. He made good decisions and he played good, mistake-free hockey.
That’s all for now. We’ll be back on Monday with our gameday thread for the Isles game which, reminder, starts at 11:30 in the am.

Preseason Gameday Thread: @ Pittsburgh

The Wild try to keep their momentum going in Pittsburgh today.

The preseason 3-0 Wild have likely landed in Pittsburgh and are resting up for their 2 pm tilt today against the Pens and I don’t know that there has ever been this much optimism about this team in the preseason. Harding played a full game last night, the first line was as advertised, Yeo is growing on the fans, Backstrom pitched two shutout periods in St. Louis.

It’s just plain encouraging.

This won’t be a long, drawn out one because the kids are eating breakfast, so I want to get it done quick, but here’s the Wild roster (or at least part of it) per Russo for tonight’s game:

Backs will likely get the full game in Pittsburgh

I’ve got a partial lineup:

Guillaume Latendresse-Matt Cullen-Pierre-Marc Bouchard

Colton Gillies-Eric Nystrom-Jarod Palmer

Jeff Taffe-Warren Peters-Jed Ortmeyer

Jon DiSalvatore-David McIntyre-XXXXX

The 12th forward will be Carson McMillan, Brad Staubitz or Brett Bulmer

The defensemen will be:

Clayton Stoner-Jared Spurgeon

Justin Falk-Jordan Hendry

Jeff Penner-XXXX

The sixth defenseman will be Kris Fredheim or Marco Scandella

The goalies will be Niklas Backstrom and Dennis Endras.

Wellman might get his first action of the preseason tonight

Casey Wellman was on the charter from Minneapolis, so if he’s ready to go, I’d guess he slots in at the 12th forward spot. If I had to guess, I’d say Scandella gets another chance to go also, especially with both Stoner and Spurgeon (the two whose job he’s competing to steal) playing.

Also, if what the Wild radio crew said last night is correct, look for Backs to play the whole game tonight.

Some questions to ponder:

Jarod Palmer is slotted in with Gillies and Nystrom. Could be a coincidence, but will he grab hold of the opportunity to prove he belongs?

If Wellman is healthy enough to go, which Wellman do we see? The difference maker he learned to be in Houston, or the nervous kid?

Backstrom had a great game against St. Louis. Can he keep it up against Pittsburgh?

Who comes out ahead in the defensive battle today? Will it be Stoner and Spurgeon, or will one of the players battling for a spot sneak in?

That’s all for me. The puck drops on the NHL Network at 2 pm today.

Baby Wild down St. Louis 1-0

Hackett makes a save on Jonathan Cheechoo

Well, I don’t want to say that was unexpected but…Okay…That was unexpected.

The Baby Wild came out last night and took on a St. Louis Blues team that was mostly comprised of their NHL regulars, and looked pretty darn good in the process.

Peters scored the lone goal for Minnesota

Niklas Backstrom and Matthew Hackett combined for the shutout, while Warren Peters got the lone goal, beating Jaroslav Halak witha nifty little backhand. Incidentally, Backstrom got an assist on the play too, making him not only their top goalie, but one of their top offensive players also.

So, some thoughts on the game:

  • I was impressed with the defensive responsibility of the team on Thursday. The Wild needed to have a performance like this in order to compete with a more experienced, more talented Blues squad and they did just that. For three periods, they did everything they were supposed to do and it showed in the results.
  • The Wild’s AHL veterans (Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters) both looked good again. Unless one of the youngsters really blows Mike Yeo away, I think that 13th forward position could go to one of those two.
  • Of the four defensemen that played last night that are vying for a roster spot, Scandella probably looked the best out of everyone. Prosser and Hendry looked good, but Falk was just terrible for most of the game.
  • Zack Phillips was good, but he was trying to do too much for most of the game. It’s a definite learning curve, and he needs to learn that he won’t be able to dance around the ice in the NHL like he does in the Q. He showed signs of what could be in store, though. He could be a dandy.
  • Both Backstrom and Hackett were tremendous against the Blues. Backstrom made a handful of spectacular saves, as did Hackett who withstood a 14-1 barrage in the third.

But what of my questions? Well, let’s take a look.

Nate Prosser checks Alex Steen

How will the Wild’s youth fare tonight against a fairly experienced roster? Well, given that they won and shut out a team full of regulars, I’d say they fared pretty darn good.

Will Niklas Backstrom look like the Backstrom who was a Vezina Trophy finalist, or the Backstrom who has struggled at times the past two seasons? It’s a limited sample size, but he definitely looked good. We’ll see how he fares the rest of the pre-season, but it’s definitely an encouraging sign.

Where will the Wild’s scoring come tonight, with mostly youth and fringe players playing? Well, the answer to this question, obviously, was Warren Peters.

Can Minnesota’s inexperienced defensive unit hold their own against a fairly experienced stable of forwards? Yes, and yes. This defensive unit was great for the duration of the game. They helped prevent any major scoring chances and gave the goaltenders the opportunity to see the puck.

Will Zack Phillips (my dark horse roster pick), Kris Foucault, Brett Bulmer or Jarod Palmer emerge as surprise front runners to make the roster on opening day? No. The youngsters didn’t have bad games, but none of them blew anyone away. All showed that they’ve got the tools to be good down the road, but right now none looked quite ready to be a full-time NHLer.

Will Jordan Hendry rebound from a less than stellar performance last game? Yes. He wasn’t the team’s best defenseman, but he had a very good game save for a mistake here and there.

Check back later today for our gameday thread. Otherwise, enjoy the weather today…It’s only going to get colder!

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Pre-Season Gameday Thread: @ St. Louis

I decided to forego the roster update last night because there was a birthday in the Benzel household, with my daughter turning 3 years old yesterday, so we’ll just combine the game thread and the roster into one today.

Anyway, it sounds like we’re going to get a good look at a lot of the youngsters that are vying for a roster spot on opening day, tonight so here it is, per Russo:

Coach Mike Yeo today opted to keep most of the familiar faces in Minnesota. Instead, here are the lines and defensive pairings against the Blues (note, Niklas Backstrom and Matt Hackett will play in net)

FORWARDS

Kris Foucault-Zack Phillips-Brett Bulmer
Jeff Taffe-Warren Peters-Jed Ortmeyer
Colton Gilles-Eric Nystrom-Brad Staubitz
Jarod Palmer-Taylor Peters-Carson McMillan

DEFENSE

Marco Scandella-Nate Prosser
Justin Falk-Jordan Hendry
Tyler Cuma-Chay Genoway

Jeff Penner and David McIntyre will be brought along as extras.

Zack Phillips will be one of the youngsters with a chance to impress tonight

So, basically what we have here is a chance for a lot of the youngsters to step up and impress. Forwards Cody Almond and Casey Wellman and defenseman Mike Lundin are all on the shelf right now with injuries, so there are some spots that could be won and some second looks that could be given after tonight’s game.

Also, we’ll get a look at the line of Gillies/Nystrom/Staubitz, which could very well be the team’s fourth line by the time the season starts.

To me, the most intriguing lines/defensive pairings are that of Foucault/Phillips/Bulmer and Cuma/Genoway. Foucault, Phillips and Bulmer are three of the Wild’s more impressive offensive talents in their system, so don’t be surprised if they get a lot of ice time and a lot of power play time tonight. As for Cuma and Genoway, Cuma might be one of the dark horses to make the squad this season while this will be our first look at Genoway this pre-season, so it will be interesting to see how the pairing fares.

Per Blues.com, this is the line up the Wild’s youngsters will be facing tonight:

TONIGHT’S LINEUP*
1 – Brian Elliott
10 – Andy McDonald
15 – Jamie Langenbrunner
18 – Jonathan Cheechoo
20 – Alexander Steen
22 – Kevin Shattenkirk
28 – Carlo Colaiacovo
32 – Chris Porter
36 – Matt D’Agostini
37 – Derek Nesbitt
39 – Philip McRae
41 – Jaroslav Halak
42 – David Backes
44 – Jason Arnott
46 – Roman Polak
54 – Anthony Nigro
55 – Danny Syvret
56 – Brett Ponich
58 – David Shields
59 – Anthony Peluso
63 – Mark Cundari
70 – Ryan Tesink
74 – T.J. Oshie
76 – Brett Sonne
84 – Tyler Shattock

Niklas Backstrom makes his first start of the pre-season tonight

Just look at all of those regulars.

So, basically, Wild fans. Don’t jump off the ledge if the Wild or goaltender Niklas Backstrom have a less than stellar showing tonight.

This also means that the Wild’s youth and fringe players will have a perfect chance to show that they have what it takes to be able to compete at an NHL level, because there will be a lot of NHLer’s looking at them from the other bench.

So, some discussion questions for you:

How will the Wild’s youth fare tonight against a fairly experienced roster?

Will Niklas Backstrom look like the Backstrom who was a Vezina Trophy finalist, or the Backstrom who has struggled at times the past two seasons?

Where will the Wild’s scoring come tonight, with mostly youth and fringe players playing?

Can Minnesota’s inexperienced defensive unit hold their own against a fairly experienced stable of forwards?

Will Zack Phillips (my dark horse roster pick), Kris Foucault, Brett Bulmer or Jarod Palmer emerge as surprise front runners to make the roster on opening day?

Will Jordan Hendry rebound from a less than stellar performance last game?

The puck drops at 7 pm tonight and is not televised. You can listen to the game here or on your radio at KFAN 100.3 FM.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

The Monday Mailbag: 8/8/11

Before we get into mailbag time, it’s time for a few more links from around the interwebs.

HPT Bold Prediction #21: Playoffs on the Island
HPT Bold Prediction #22: Barry Trotz will be fired
Hockey’s Future: Minnesota High School 2011 draft review

That’s all for now, so let’s get 8o your questions!

* * * * *

Blake,

Do you see any of the Wild’s top prospects making the squad this season?

Stan
Grand Forks

Not this year Wild fans

Well, I’m assuming by top prospects you mean players like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle and, if that’s the case, I don’t think so.

Obviously players like Casey Wellman, Cody Almond and Colton Gillies will be vying for a spot at forward and Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella at defense, but if you’re talking about the team’s top prospects, well, here’s what I think:

1) Mikael Granlund – He’s already said the plan was for him to spend one more year in Finland to take care of his obligations.

2) Charlie Coyle – Probably not. Chuck Fletcher said that he’s planning on keeping him in college. That being said, anything can happen in camp and Coyle probably has the best shot to make the roster of any of the team’s top prospects.

3) Matthew Hackett – Not unless Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom get injured.

4) Jonas Brodin – He needs a lot more seasoning and there are a lot of defensemen that are more polished ahead of him, so no.

5) Zack Phillips – He could be the dark horse of the group. He can put up points and has the potential to surprise in camp.

So, Stan, there you have it. Those are the five prospects I would consider at the top of the list of our “big guns” that we’ve gotten in the past few drafts, but I don’t seen any of them cracking the roster yet. Some need more seasoning, some have players in front of them on the depth chart, but all are at least one year (if not more) out.

* * * * *

Blake,

Do you think that the Wild will keep Josh Harding around past this season?

Jocelyn
Mankato

Jocelyn, I think this is a terrific question that the organization is probably thinking about right now (and, if they’re not, they should be).

With the exception of a rough spot a few seasons ago, all Harding has done is won games for the Wild. He’s a terrific goaltender

The Wild would do well to keep Harding around past this year

that I think could be in the cards for Minnesota.

The problem is that he’s had injury problems (not that he’s injury prone, he just has gotten hurt in a number of different fashions) and has never really been given the helm for any extended period of time.

The Wild signed Harding to a one-year deal and, to me; this looks like it’s a tryout for Harding, so to speak.

I would imagine that the Wild will probably try to get Harding somewhere between 25-30 starts this season and, if Harding is successful, will likely try to lock up their talented back up for at least three seasons following this season.

Now, here’s my thinking on this. Backstrom has one year left on his deal after this year. He has a no-trade clause (or, at least, a modified one) and a pretty large contract, so it’s unlikely that he’ll be moved unless the team absolutely bombs (and even then it’s highly unlikely).

Say Harding has a good season this year. The team’s third-string goalie is Matthew Hackett, who is still very young and still developing. I think that, after this season, the Wild could get Harding locked up for three years at a reasonable price with the promise that he’ll be the team’s starter after Backstrom’s contract is up.

After Backstrom’s contract expires, Harding slots into the starter role and Hackett into the back up role.

We’ll see how Harding does this season, but that’s how I could see this playing out.

* * * * *

I’ve got a couple kids that want to play with daddy before bed time, so that’s all for today, but keep sending in your questions and we’ll be back with more tomorrow!

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