Wild get big win over Preds

If there was ever a playoff series I want to see, it would have to be between the Wild and the Predators.

By the time the game was over, there was so much pent up animosity between the two teams, I’m surprised things didn’t boil over at the final horn (though there was never really a chance for it to).

It started at the end of the first period, with Francois Boullion poking and prodding at Dany Heatley and seemed to abate a bit until Mike Fisher blatantly speared Kyle Brodziak in a “sensitive” area.

Fisher’s excuse to Brodziak? It wasn’t intentional.

I watched the replay and there was nothing unintentional about it.

It really got going, though, late in the third when Cal Clutterbuck caught an unseen punch from Patric Hornqvist and went absolutely ballistic. In fact, he got a solid DDT from the ref in order to stop him from trying to tear Hornqvist limb from limb.

But the Wild came out and played a full game and played quite well for the duration. They seemed very disorganized in the offensive zone during the first two periods but, they spent most of that time in the offensive zone. In fact, the Preds were so pressed in their own zone that, when they got the puck, all they could do a lot of the time is chip it out and change.

That’s exactly what the Wild want.

They wore the Preds down and, were it not for Pekka Rinne, the game could have been a lot different. Like 5-2 or 6-2 different.

Rinne was brilliant all night long but, by the time the third period rolled around, the Wild had won the war of attrition. They finally played their game for the whole 60 minutes and it paid off for them.

And, speaking of which, I’m sold. I’m sold on the system, I’m sold on the coach and I’m sold that this team is actually a good team.

That’s right, I’ve said it. They’re a good team.

They’re not only getting bounces, but they’re creating bounces.

You hear coaches on teams that are down say a lot that they’ve got to create their own luck, and that’s true. Puck luck only takes you part of the way. The rest is up to the team to create and that’s what the Wild are doing. They’re putting themselves in the right positions to get those lucky bounces and things are starting to fall into place.

What else?

  • Dany Heatley looked like the Dany Heatley of old tonight. He broke a six-game goal drought with his third-period tally, he had four shots and he legitimately could have had a hat trick tonight if not for some solid goaltending by Pekka Rinne.
  • Koivu was dominant again tonight. He had two assists, three shots and he led the Wild in ice time.
  • Harding was dazzling once again, which keeps giving the Wild a great tandem. He’s 10-0-1 in his last 11 games at home (dating back to 2008).

Burning Questions

 Can the Wild avoid a letdown tonight? Boy, did they. They played great in all three zones tonight and were a dominant team.

Can the Wild’s weapons start firing? Their top line combined for three points. They definitely started.

Can the Wild’s second line get into the act again? Yes and no. Clutterbuck got a shortie and their second power play had the PP goal.

Three Stars

 1)      Mikko Koivu – 2 assists and dominating play all night long.
2)      Dany Heatley – 1 goal, great offensive play.
3)      Josh Harding – 23 of 25 saves, was dazzling all night long.

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

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

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

So let’s get started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions

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

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

Up Next: The Northwest Division

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!