There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Mike Yeo

It didn’t take the Minnesota Wild long after the Stanley Cup Finals had ended to announce their new head coach. Just two days after the Stanley Cup was paraded around Rogers Arena by the visiting Boston Bruins (something we at Wild Nation are exceedingly happy about), the Wild officially announced the hiring of Mike Yeo as the third head coach in team history.

Now, it’s taken some time to figure out whether or not I’m happy with this decision, and I’ve come to the conclusion that: yes, I am.

Here’s why.

First of all, Yeo will still coach an up tempo type system, but a system that is quite similar to the one that Todd Richards coached. There won’t be the whole adjustment period that there was when switching from Jacques Lemaire to Richards. As Hockey Wilderness put it, though, “Similar. Not the same.”

As with any new coach, there will be some growing pains but, with Yeo, these growing pains will likely be considerably less drastic than they were with Richards. You’re not going from a “trap-happy” style to an offensive style. You’re going from one up tempo system to another.

Next, there will likely be a handful of players that played for Yeo in Houston on Minnesota’s roster next season.

The Wild seem to be trending towards getting younger, so players like Casey Wellman, Colton Gillies and Marco Scandella will likely play a larger role on Minnesota’s squad. Whether this is for the best or not will be determined during the season, but there’s no doubt that a sense of hopefulness is definitely present to see what these players bring to the table on the NHL level.

The biggest thing, though, is that Yeo brings player accountability to the table – a concept that Richards seemed to have a hard time with it.

How the players respond to that is another story, but Yeo definitely isn’t going to be the type of coach that lets the players get away with not doing what they need to be doing, which ultimately led to the infamous bag skate early last season.

This is definitely a risk for Fletcher to take. Hiring an un-tested coach to lead your squad after you just fired the last un-tested coach you hired is most certainly a risky move. But, in this case, I feel that it’s a calculated risk.

Fletcher knows Yeo. He knew him in Pittsburgh and was so impressed with him during that time that he hired him to coach the Houston Aeros. He has a history with this guy, just like he did with Richards. He’s going with what he knows, which is very commendable. He did his due diligence, interviewed all of his potential candidates and ignored the outside pressure to bring in someone with NHL experience.

You’ve also got to commend him for this hire because this is a bold move for a franchise in desperate need of a bold move to pay off.

And So Starts the Off Season

This is going to be a pivotal off season for the Wild. Two seasons have now passed since Chuck Fletcher and Todd Richards took over as General Manager and Coach, respectively, and both of these seasons could be easily characterized by the extreme disappointment emanating from the Wild’s fan base (of which, Richards have already paid the price).

Part of this disappointment, I feel, is because of misplaced expectations and, ironically, mismanaged expectations.

That was the one thing that Doug Risebrough said he felt he didn’t do a good job of upon his exit from Minnesota – managing expectations. As in, he didn’t keep everyone’s expectations realistic (especially after the Wild’s miracle run to the Conference Finals in 2003) and, to some extent he was correct, but it wasn’t his only fault.

Right now, I think that’s the trap that Fletcher has found himself in.

He finds himself in a situation with a rabid fan base. We love our hockey and we desperately want the Wild to succeed because we know the pain that comes from having an underachieving franchise (see: Green, Norm). The greater part of the fan base viewed Fletcher as their knight in shining armor. He came in and he proclaimed that his goal was that this team was going to win the Stanley Cup.

But he failed to manage the fans’ expectations about this feat.

What needed to happen was that the team needed to get blown up, if not immediately, by the time their “mid-level” contracts were running out (i.e. the end of this season).

The killer for most mediocre teams are the amount of these $2M to $4M contracts. These are typically players that are second and third-liners or bottom four defensemen. Not bad players, by any means, but not the elite players that you would like to see playing in your top line. Unfortunately, that’s where the bulk of Minnesota’s talent laid.

And now it’s becoming clear that these players aren’t what the Wild need.

Over the next few articles, we’ll be taking a look at the Wild’s upcoming off season. In the first, we’re going to look at the needs of this team. The second in this series will be the players whose contracts are expiring and whether or not they meet these needs. The third will be looking at players that could find themselves on the move this off season, the fourth looking at potential free agent acquisitions and the fifth will be looking at the upcoming draft in St. Paul and what needs the team must fill through the draft.

Breaking News: Wild fires Todd Richards – Updated

I’m going to keep it brief, as I’m about to head out to the zoo with the kids, but the Minnesota Wild have fired Todd Richards as their head coach after finishing 12th in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for the second straight season under Richards and the third overall.

The writing was on the wall after the Wild’s staggering late-season collapse this year and, for the second time in three off seasons, the Wild will begin searching for a head coach.

I’ll have more later, but I just saw this as I was heading out the door and wanted to get this up for you.

UPDATED: As promised, I’m updating this with my thoughts.

The firing of Richards isn’t totally unexpected. In fact, some fans probably believe that it’s a long time coming. Richards just wasn’t very good behind the bench. He failed at matching lines and he didn’t experiment with the first line because of what the captain of the team wanted as opposed to what was best for the team. His relationship with Martin Havlat was tenuous at best and he failed to have any answers for the team’s shortcomings.

The biggest red light to me was his response to a question posed about Niklas Backstrom after a pre-season loss last season. He was asked about Backstrom’s play and his response (and I’m paraphrasing here) was something to the effect of “I don’t know. I’ve never played goalie before, so I can’t comment on his game. That’s why we have a goaltending coach.”

Yeah…Underwhelming, to say the least. Just like his coaching career in Minnesota.

To be fair, I was actually willing to give him a chance during the team’s run towards the middle of the season. Hey, he was a new coach instituting a new system. Everyone knew it was going to be tough. But then the team went on their monumental slide. One that just. Kept. Going.

At a time when the team needed Richards to motivate and fix the problems that the team was having, he instead wore his dejection and confusion on his sleeve.

Yeah, he did a good job protecting his players, but when your coach is talking to the media and telling them he doesn’t know how to fix what’s wrong, what are you supposed to think as a player?

To boot, he clearly had his favorites as well. I’m not talking about favorite players to use in certain situations. It’s clear that all coaches have those. But it would seem that he gave certain players preferential treatment in terms of their ice time and their linemates.

The situation with Antti Miettinen being on the first line is a clear cut example of this. You’ve got Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Martin Havlat, both tremendous offensive players, sitting on your second line. You’ve got Cal Clutterbuck, who led the team in goals for a good portion of the season, hopping between the second and third lines, but you wait until the last two games of the season to switch things up when Miettinen is in the midst of a 27 game stretch that saw him score just five goals and four assists, with those five goals all coming in the last 11 game of the season?

I’m sorry, but that either reeks of ineptitude or favoritism.

And there’s not room in the Wild’s locker room for either of those two things.

In the end, I do think that Richards deserved his fate. He could never figure out how to motivate the team and, honestly, he was thrust into a job that he just wasn’t ready for. The blame for two extremely sub-par seasons by the Wild doesn’t lay entirely at his feet, but he certainly didn’t do anything to help matters.

We’ll be back later this week with a look at some potential candidates for the coaching job.

Injury-Riddled Wild Can’t Solve Kings

Well, this is becoming quite the theme. The Wild played hard, but they just didn’t have the offense to get it done.

I’m going to keep this brief, because I’m working on our trade deadline primer that should be up sometime this evening or tomorrow morning, but this was a game that the effort was there for the Wild, but you can’t honestly say that they deserved better.

The Kings wanted it more. Plain and simple.

They forechecked harder, they played smarter, they simply did everything better than Minnesota, right down to hitting the net when they had the opportunity.

Last night, the Wild’s offense was downright putrid at times. They couldn’t get anything going and a large part of that was due to our line combinations.

Before I start on this, I’m not blaming Todd Richards in any way, shape or form for this (a shocker, I know). Quite simply, the discombobulated lines were not his fault. It’s the fact that our top two centers are out right now. The distinct lack of chemistry between Matt Cullen and Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen was painfully apparent last night, with that line getting a grand total of four shots on goal. That’s half of what Martin Havlat had on his own.

Meanwhile, John Madden fit in well with Havlat and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, but it was painfully obvious that he was not comfortable playing in an offensive capacity as opposed to a shut down role. Madden was, in a lot of cases, either out of position for what Havlat and Bouchard were doing or simply not expecting it. He battled, he fought hard, but he just wasn’t able to keep up offensively with either of Havlat or Bouchard and the line struggled for it.

It’s a distinct problem when the players through the first half of the game that were most noticeable offensively were Eric Nystrom and Cody Almond, but that was the case for most of the first thirty minutes.

That’s not a recipe for success and that, again, shows that we need to find some sort of depth at the center position.

The good news is that Brodziak will likely be back in the line up on Monday against the ‘Hawks. The bad news, though, is that the team is going to have to do without him for tonight’s game against Anaheim, so expect a type of game similar to what we saw last night.

But that’s enough of the negatives. Let’s look at some of the positives quickly.

Niklas Backstrom, again, was great. Despite giving up three goals, he kept the Wild in the game with some big saves and, were their offense clicking, could have gotten a win or at least a point out of the game.

Brent Burns was great last night, playing physical and he was in on the rush as much as any forward was. For a team that’s struggling offensively, the Wild need Burnsie to step up into the play as much as he can and it looks like that’s exactly what he’s being told by the coaching staff. If he can keep providing some offense from the blue line, it’s going to lighten the load for our beleaguered forward unit right now.

Nystrom also continues to be really good for the Wild. He seems to be playing with more confidence now that he’s finally broken through in the goal column and it’s showing in his game. He’s creating offensive chances now on the team’s checking line.

What else?

The Wild are now sixth in the West, dropping a spot behind L.A. after the loss, and are tied with four other teams at 70 points, and I wouldn’t look at that logjam being alleviated any time soon. This is going to be a race to the playoffs that takes years off of a coach’s life. It’s been hard for any team to gain any sort of separation over the other and it’s going to continue to be hard.

For example, tonight both Calgary and Minnesota are in action. L.A. moved up to sole ownership of fifth with 72 points, but if Calgary and Minnesota both win, there could be a three-way tie with 72 points and a three-way tie with 70 points. Conversely, if both teams lose, there will be six teams tied at 70 points.

The league wanted parity, and this is parity at its best.

There won’t be any gameday preview today, but the puck drops tonight at 9 p.m. and will be on Fox Sports North.

Enjoy your Friday and, if anything happens before tonight’s game we’ll be sure to let you know!

Gameday Thread – Game 51 – Wild @ Avs

Minnesota rolls into Denver today to face the Colorado Avalanche in what will be the fourth meeting between these two teams and, boy, is it a big one.

Just one point separates these two teams in the standings and these are two teams that, in Twitter terms, are “trending” much differently. Minnesota has been making a surge up the standings lately, sitting just four points back from the fourth spot after winning five of their last six during which they’ve given up more than two goals just once (in their lone loss to San Jose during that span).

Meanwhile, Colorado has won just four of their last ten games and has cooled off quite a bit of late after a very hot December.

* * * * *

NHL.com Game Preview

That’s the only preview you get right now. I’ll add more down the line if I’m able to.

* * * * *

So, what’s going to be the key to this game?

Well, first of all, this is going to be a game where players such as Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz play just as big of a role as Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat. The first three games of this season series have been intensely physical games (just ask Chris Stewart’s hand) and I’d expect no different from tonight’s tilt.

Now, whether or not that benefits the Wild is highly debatable.

Minnesota has both struggled and excelled in physical games this year (kind of a microcosm for their season, wouldn’t you say?). There are times when the physical nature of the game really spurs this team to another level, but there are also times when a physical hockey game gives them fits.

There is cause for hope, however, as Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Kings was a pretty physical affair that saw the Wild hunker down, play tighter and ultimately not get intimidated as they have been known to do under Todd Richards. Plainly put, that could be a fairly good indication that this team has found its identity – or at least knows where to find it when the going gets tough.

Regardless of how physical this game is, however, this is going to be a big test for the Wild. One of my biggest criticisms of the Richards’ regime is that the team is just not consistent. In fact, they’ve been consistently inconsistent ever since Richards took over as head coach. What they’ve found of late, however, is that consistency. They’ve been able to string wins together. The important part now is maintaining that and making sure that when losses come, and they will come, they don’t allow a single loss to snowball into a three or four game losing streak.

They’ve got a two-game winning streak going and, heading on a two-game road swing against teams close to them in the standings, need to keep it going. No overtimes, no three-point games – they need to come out strong and confident and put these teams away.

But that’s more of a macro view of this road trip. The micro view of tonight’s game is simply this – they need their best players to be their best players. Against the Colorado Avalanche this season, their three best players (Havlat, Koivu, Burns) have combined for four assists and a minus-four rating in three games. Minnesota needs these three to step it up and take over the game like they’re capable of doing. At any given time, they can be the three best players on the ice against any team, and Minnesota needs a big game from them tonight to keep this streak going and to keep making up ground.

Now, in nets tonight for the Wild will be Jose Theodore, which I’m not sure I agree with as Niklas Backstrom is typically very good against the Avs, but the rationale behind this is to get Theodore going again, and it’s hard to argue that. Both goalies have been great at different times and I understand the desire to get Theo playing again and having both goalies ready to go. But come on – Backs has been hot lately. I’m not talking about just solid – he’s been on fire, and he’s a second-half goalie. Let him play. Give Theo a couple spot starts here and there, but Backstrom is a goalie that plays better the more he plays and the more action he sees. Let him play!

The only reason I can see behind not starting Backs is that they want to drum up trade interest in Theodore which, as Fletcher has intimated to Russo, is apparently not the case. But, Theodore is arguably their best bargaining chip right now on the trade block, as he has had a spectacular season and as the Wild could afford to part with him because of the strong play of Anton Khudobin.

In any event, Theo is getting the start tonight and my agreement with that is going to do nothing to change that fact.

So, puck heads, what do you think? What are your thoughts on tonight’s game? Let’s hear them!

Finally, the puck drops tonight at 8 p.m. CST and will be televised on FS-North.

Wild Falls to Vancouver in a Big Way

Man, if you didn’t see this one coming, you weren’t paying attention.

The Wild came out tonight, after a lackluster performance last night in Edmonton, and skated like they had lead in their breezers and played like they had lead between their ears.

That might have been a bit harsh, but it’s not too far off from the truth. For three periods of play tonight, the Wild looked like absolute garbage.

But it really should have been expected after the way that they played for the last two periods of last night’s game. In back-to-back games, there’s absolutely no way that you come out strong the very next night after an outing like that.

Plain and simple, the Wild came out flat and it showed in the results. In fact, it should have been a shutout were it not for the fact that Miettinen scored a fluke goal late in the third.

Vancouver controlled play all night long tonight and Manny Malhotra had a three-point night to down the Wild quite easily in this one.

I’d say more but, to be quite honest, I don’t really have much more to say. The Wild got dominated from buzzer to buzzer and that’s all there is to it.

Random Thoughts

  • One game into his Minnesota Wild career and color me VERY unimpressed with Jose Theodore. The man looked so casual in net tonight that, honestly, it bordered on lazy. For most of the evening, his movements in net simply looked listless and sluggish. He was out of position and he was, quite frankly, out of the game. Now, this could have been in large part due to the fact that he didn’t really have a training camp and it was his first game, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt but he has got to be better if the Wild are to be successful at all this season.
  • I can honestly say that I’ve never been as impressed with a young Wild defenseman as I have been with Justin Falk. The guy just keeps getting better and better with each and every game. His strength is absolutely fantastic (I’ve never seen a player that can manhandle a player in the corner with a single arm) and he has a great mind for the game. The scariest part is that he’s still young and still learning. Once he gets completely used to the speed and flow of the game, he’s going to be one hell of a defender.
  • If I had to take one positive away from tonight’s game, it would be that Guillaume Latendresse had another fantastic game for the Wild. Latendresse was physical, he drove to the net and, essentially, did everything that he is expected to do yet, for some reason, there were just five players on the Wild with less ice time than him. For whatever reason, he seems to be remaining in Richards’ doghouse, despite being tied for third on the team in points, not to mention having the best shooting percentage. At this point, it seems to be a mystery as to what he needs to do to get more ice time because, from my vantage point, he seems to be doing everything right.
  • Clayton Stoner had a relatively good game tonight – or, at least as good of a game that he could have with just 10 minutes of ice time. The most impressive part of his game, though, was his fight in the first period. He might not always be the best player on the ice, but he knows how to throw ‘em, that’s for sure.

Gameday Thread – Game 6 – Minnesota @ Edmonton

This is potentially a dangerous game for the Wild.

The Wild roll into Edmonton with much of a different attitude than they had the last time they played the Oilers.

Coming into the home opener, there was a sense of trepidation surrounding the team. The sense that, at any moment, this season could turn and the Wild could set the record for least points in an NHL season.

But now, following their 6-2 trouncing of the Canucks, this is a team that has a sense of optimism surrounding them. For 59 minutes, against the hated Canucks, they dominated play. They controlled the tempo of the game and they attacked, attacked, attacked. And even when they didn’t attack, they were able to keep the Canucks to the perimeter and not allow them to get to the net and create havoc.

For the Wild, this was the best and most complete game I’ve seen them play under the Richards regime.

So, this is a dangerous game.

Why?

Because of the letdown.

First of all, this is a Wild team that has become notorious for its inconsistency. They’ll come out one period and look like the best team in the world and the next they’ll look like they couldn’t find the net with a GPS tracker.

But the second reason why this game is such a big game for this team is the fact that, if they can keep their performance from Tuesday going, they’re going to have a load of momentum on their side heading back into Vancouver, and momentum can be a dangerous thing both ways. This could be both a momentum builder or a momentum killer.

Either way, it’s a pivotal game for the Wild.

The Skinny

Minnesota Wild

@

Edmonton Oilers

2-2-1 (5 pts)

W-L-T

2-2-0 (4 pts)

3.2

GF/G

3.0

2.4

GA/G

2.75

45.8%

PP%

15.8%

85.2%

PK%

73.7%

55.6%

FO%

40.2%

There’s no question that this is a pivotal match up. The Wild are going into a building where both Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore struggle and they need a big performance out of their goalie.

Their powerplay is clicking, their defense is working well – now they just need to start scoring more at even strength and they’ll be in business.

Either way, they’re going to have to deal with the Oilers’ young trio again, which they did quite well in their last meeting. If the Wild can limit their chances like they did against Vancouver, it’s going to be a good game for the man in nets.

If they can’t, it could be a long, long night in Edmonton.

Line-Up(s)
The biggest news coming out of this is that it sounds like Taylor Hall will be moved to the third line, playing with Gilbert Brule and Dustin Penner to try to relieve some of the pressure from him. Replacing him on the team’s first line will be fellow rookie Magnus Paajarvi.

For the Wild, I’d expect the same line up tonight as against Vancouver unless there’s someone that absolutely can’t play.

It has been confirmed that it will be Nicklas Backstrom in nets for the Wild, so it will be Jose Theodore tomorrow in Vancouver.

Key(s) to the Game
Limiting Edmonton’s chances in this one, especially early, is going to be key.

Backstrom struggles in Edmonton and they’re going to need to give him confidence in both himself and his defense. If they can limit the Oilers’ chances, especially second and third chances, it will go a long way towards giving Backs that confidence and keep him on his game.

But defense isn’t going to be the only key to this one.

In Minnesota, the Wild got on the board early and they’ll need to do it again. The more action that Khabibulin gets before the Wild get on the board, the more difficult it will be.

Khabibulin thrives on momentum and once he gets going, he’s even more difficult to beat. If the Wild can drive to the net, get some powerplays early and keep driving towards him, it will be a long game for him.

If not, it’s going to be a difficult one for the Wild.

The Bottom Line
The Wild put it together on Tuesday and, if they can keep it up they’re going to be one difficult team to beat.

It’s still early in the season, but stringing wins together is one of the things that the great teams do. Not just one or two, but strings of three and four. That’s what’s going to get this team into the playoffs and that’s what’s going to make this team successful.

This might not necessarily be a must-win for the Wild, but it’s as close as an early-season game gets.

Wild Down Canucks in a Big Way

On Sunday, the message was sent. On Tuesday, it was apparent that it was received.

58 seconds into the game, the Vancouver Canucks awoke the sleeping beast that was the Minnesota Wild following the bag skate to end all bag skates and the Wild, for the remainder of the first and the entirety of the second were a dominant team – one that desperately needed to show up for this one.

The defense tightened up around Niklas Backstrom after a shaky start that saw Marek Zidlicky make a huge error, leaving Daniel Sedin wide open on the back door when Backstrom had to come out to challenge the shooter, and the offense responded well as it was all Wild from then on out.

Zidlicky made up for his early gaffe and tied the game then, just over one minute later Guillaume Latendresse responded to Todd Richards’ challenge scoring one and then, near the end of the period, assisting on Clutterbuck’s second of the season.

The Wild kept pouring it on in the second with three goals in six minutes with goals from John Madden, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen to put the Wild up big heading into the third.

In the third, the Canucks got one late goal off of a nice shot from Daniel Sedin, but it was a fast-paced period and one that was surprisingly subdued after the fireworks that were taking place as tensions boiled over in the second.

But everyone was on the same page in this one and the team did exactly what the buzzwords wanted them to – they competed. They were scrappy, they hit, they got to the net; the bottom line is they did everything they needed to do to win and, surprise, surprise, they won.

Random Thoughts

- Once again, the Wild came through on the defensive end. Backstrom played great in net again and, once again, got help in front of him; which always helps. As I mentioned before, the part of the game that Backs really struggles with is the athletic and, when the defense is on, they clear the second and third chances away from the front of the net that are a thorn in Backstrom’s side – tonight, they did that in a big way and Backs reward them with another strong performance.

- Latendresse responded in a big way tonight. He still isn’t at the same level he was last season, but you could tell that he not only felt more comfortable but felt more confident as well. His play isn’t measured in the number of shots he gets, but in the plays he creates. His size and skill are all that he needs to create chances both for himself and for his linemates. He did just that today, using his speed and size to give him the space to get to the back door and get the puck through to Luongo and using his vision to set up Clutterbuck’s goal as well.

- How stupid does Rick Rypien have to be? Not only does he punch Brad Staubitz after he is being held down by a linesman, he gets physical with a linesman and then with a fan in the crowd. Now, there’s been speculation of a suspension of anywhere between 5 and 30 games. So, you be the judge:

My guess? The suspension will be closer to 10 games than 30 – this was no Ron Artest situation – but all of the speculation should be true. Rypien will be sitting for a long period of time.

- Part of me knows that the production won’t continue, but Matt Cullen had another multi-point night and continues to be the Wild’s best player. Cullen is not only their powerplay quarterback, he’s the pivot on the line that could make or break the team. Now, there’s no doubt that he’s not a 90+ point producer, or probably not even an 80+ point producer and that he’s going to have to come back down to earth eventually, but if he keeps getting this sort of time with the man advantage, there’s no doubt that he will rack up a career high in points by the time the season is over.

Gameday Thread – Game 3 – Oilers @ Wild

The Wild are finally are ready for their first game stateside this season, and it’s shaping up to be a doozy against the Edmonton Oilers.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Wild have a tough test against the Edmonton Oilers tonight if they want to keep their home opener unbeaten streak alive. The Oilers are much improved this season already, with a healthy Nikolai Khabibulin and Ales Hemsky, as well as their young trio of players in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi.

Last season, the Wild was 3-2-1 against a miserable Oilers team, so I’d look for this one to be a very close, interesting match up between these two teams.

The Wild return home from Finland with a lone point to their credit, and already fans are frothing at the mouth at the thought of a third straight loss – even so far as some fans to say that Richards needs to be replaced if the Wild lose this game.

Mike Russo put out a great blog yesterday giving some perspective to the Wild’s “slow” start, saying basically that it’s two games and that Richards should still have some semblance of job security.

Now, I agree with that to an extent. I really don’t like the way that this team plays under Richards, but I won’t go so far as to say that he should be fired if the team loses tonight.

In their second game in Finland, the Wild made some significant strides – strides that they simply could not make last season. If they continue to make these strides this team could turn into a solid competitor.

Now, eight of the Wild’s next ten games are at home. Last season, the Wild was 25-12-4 at home. The Wild is, essentially, coming home from a two-game road trip in which they got one out of four points – something that was pretty par for the course last season on the road.

Richards’ job shouldn’t be in danger yet. If ten games from now, this squad hasn’t won more than three games? Then yes, Richards probably should start preparing to see a pink slip hanging from his office door.

Until then, though, Wild fans need to back away from the ledge just a tad.

The Skinny

Edmonton Oilers

@

Minnesota Wild

2-0-0 (4 Pts)

W-L-OT

0-1-1 (1 Pt)

3.5

GF/G

2.0

1.0

GA/G

2.5

25%

PP%

30%

100%

PK%

80%

43.5%

FO%

63.8%

The bottom line with this match up is this.

The Wild are facing a team that they, typically, play very well against. Niklas Backstrom against the Oilers in Minnesota has been, for the most part, a solid bet. But, this team is also facing off against the new-look Edmonton Oilers – a team that is very fast and very skilled. If Minnesota can’t get their legs going early, this could be a very painful game to watch for Wild fans.

Khabibulin is playing great for the Oilers in net and their young players are doing exactly what they hoped their young players would do – excel. This is a team that is very exciting to watch and one that plays a highly skilled game.

Meanwhile, Minnesota is coming off of a performance that was better than most gave it credit for. Yes, they lacked intensity for two-thirds of the game but what they lacked in intensity, they made up for in a very cerebral game.

Backstrom was well protected; the team picked their spots and got lots of good scoring chances – overall, a solid game despite the outcome. Now, that may be of little solace to most, but the game was definitely one that the team could build on and, were it not for a spectacular game from Cam Ward, the outcome could have been much different.

Line-Up(s)
Both Andrew Brunette and Marek Zidlicky will be in the lineup tonight for the Wild, so the only healthy scratch for the team will be Clayton Stoner, which is really no surprise.

Jose Theodore will be the back up goaltender tonight for his first game in a Wild sweater. Barring an injury, he probably won’t see the ice tonight, but he’ll probably get his first look on the Wild’s brief road trip this month, as they play on back-to-back nights in Edmonton, then Vancouver.

Key(s) to the Game
First and foremost, the biggest key to this game is going to be to protect Backstrom.

If the Wild can do exactly what they did against Carolina in the second of the two games in Finland and clear free pucks from the front of the net and keep the front of the net and the slot locked down, they’re going to be in this game the entire way.

Once defensive breakdowns start, however, it’s typically a slippery slope for this team and this could go downhill in a hurry.

That being said, the team is coming off of a very solid performance and is going to be pushing hard to build off of that.

My second key to this game is that the Wild need to get on the board early. Nikolai Khabibulin has given up just one goal this season thus far and the Wild need to beat him early if they want to have any shot at this game.

This means that they are going to have to do whatever they can to get the best matchups on the ice and, if that’s the case, they’re going to eventually need to look at moving Cal Clutterbuck off of their second line and replacing him with Guillaume Latendresse.

The team has, reportedly, not been happy with G-Lat’s fitness level early on this season, but he has been one of the team’s best players in the last two games despite limited ice time and has created some great scoring chances. If he can continue to create these chances on the fourth line, he may leave Richards no choice but to put him back up with Matt Cullen and Martin Havlat.

Finally, the Wild need to bring the fire that we saw in the first period in their last game.

This was a team that came out with fire in their bellies and, because of that, dominated the Carolina Hurricanes for the entire first period. Then, the buzzer rang and they came out in the second flat and uninspired.

Quite simply, they can’t get into that habit. They need to come out with fire and intensity and they need to sustain that for the entire game. They have a big and fast team – they have the ability to dominate teams physically and, if they can do that on a regular basis, this could be a scary team to play against.

The Bottom Line
This is a key game to the Wild’s season, if only because a victory could silence a lot of the naysayers in their own fan base.

If the Wild can protect Backstrom and come out with a hard, sustained effort, there’s no reason to think that a solid victory is out of their grasp in this one.

It will be interesting to see which Wild team comes out tonight, but I have to believe that the Wild are capable of putting together a second-straight solid performance, whether they win or not.

Minnesota Prepares for Home Opener; Will the Streak Continue?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The idea is simple. Protect Niklas Backstrom.

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean for the team?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can they do it?

We’ll have to wait and see.

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