Archive for the ‘Minnesota Wild’ Category

The Minnesota Wild are advancing to the second round to meet the Chicago Blackhawks thanks to Zach Parise’s grit and talent and Devan Dubnyk’s goaltending. The contrasts told the story. St. Louis was thought to have the edge in toughness and physicality. While that was true, what St. Louis lacked was a goalie, mental toughness and Zach Parise’s veteran leadership.

When Paul Stastny drew a Nino Niederreiter interference penalty 11:14 into the first period, Zach Parise went to work, scoring this shorthanded goal:

There’s no way an NHL goalie should give up a goal like that. Period. That isn’t the type of goaltending the Wild got from Devan Dubnyk.

Dubnyk was the difference maker for the Wild since Wild GM acquired him on January 14. Dubnyk had a tough night in Game 4, eventually getting pulled. Dubnyk’s mental toughness, though, led to a resurgence in Games 5 and 6. In those games, Dubnyk stopped 66 of 68 St. Louis shots on goal. That included T.J. Oshie’s’ goal with 4 seconds left in the second period. During the second intermission, Wild nation worried if that fluke goal would ignite a St. Louis rally in the third. Those fears were eliminated 1:01 into the third period, with Parise again doing the eliminating on this rush:

The Wild’s mental toughness and teamwork pulled them through yesterday’s game and last week’s series. After Dubnyk’s tough night in Game 4, he quickly put the game behind him. The result was back-to-back sterling performances where his save percentage skyrocketed to 97% for those games.

The Wild’s centers were subtle difference makers, too. Captain Mikko Koivu led the way with gritty, smart 2-way play, something St. Louis Coach (at least for a few more hours) Ken Hitchcock wishes he would’ve had. Mikael Granlund faded offensively from time to time only to reappear with a vengeance, like he did on Parise’s second goal. Charlie Coyle’s physicality, especially in the defensive zone, never let St. Louis Captain David Backes get his game going.

Justin Fontaine’s goal ended St. Louis goalie Jake Allen’s night. Brian Engblom’s interview of St. Louis Coach Hitchcock might’ve sealed Hitchcock’s termination:

That’s gotta sting. Less than a minute after Hitchcock told the reporter that he didn’t think about pulling goalie Jake Allen after Parise’s shorthanded goal, Hitchcock pulled Allen after he let in another soft goal, this one from Justin Fontaine.

The story of this series was that a) Minnesota’s stars played like stars, b) Minnesota’s depth wore St. Louis’ physical players down and c) Devan Dubnyk, though this was his first playoff hockey, played with veteran guile.

Chicago has eliminated the Wild the last two seasons, with the Wild getting more competitive each year. This year, Chicago is dealing with goaltending problems. That’s why I’m picking the Wild to eliminate Chicago in 6 games.

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Monday night, the Minnesota Wild defeated the St. Louis Blues, shutting them out 3-0. The Granlund-Parise-Pominville line scored the first 2 goals, with Granlund and Parise assisting on Pominville’s goal that opened the scoring:

Just 2:05 later, Granlund and Pominville assisted on Parise’s goal:

Parise’s goal was just sick. He’s being tied up by the Blues’ defenseman. The puck is in the defenseman’s skates. Parise’s solution? Poke the puck loose, get it onto his stick. Finish by rifling a shot over the goalie’s shoulder from point blank range.

Devan Dubnyk was strong when he needed to be, which, tonight, wasn’t that often. The story tonight was how totally unequipped the Blues are to deal with Minnesota’s speed. Wave after wave of Wild forecheckers kept the pressure on the Blues’ wings, defensemen and goalie. While the Granlund-Parise-Pominville line dominated the stat sheet, they weren’t the only Wild forwards that caused the Blues headaches. The Coyle-Niederreiter-Vanek line was relentless with its physicality and their forecheck. The Brodziak-Bergenheim-Fontaine line provided admirable energy for being the Wild’s 4th line.

The other story tonight was how the Wild totally frustrated the Blues’ goon. Shift after shift, Steve Ott tried running Wild players. Shift after shift, Wild players would laugh at Ott before leaving the ice at the end of their shift. Finally, with the game decided, Ott tried provoking a fight, first against Marco Scandella, then against Jared Spurgeon. Still, the Wild resisted the temptation. That ultimately led to Ott getting tossed from the game with a 2-minute minor and a 10-minute misconduct.

There’s an unmistakable trend developing. St. Louis is doing its best to intimidate the Wild. That’s failing miserably. The Blues’ defensemen are having tons of difficulty containing the Wild’s speedy forwards. Devan Dubnyk is making big stops whenever they’re needed.

This series isn’t over. Still, if St. Louis doesn’t bench Ott and figure out how to contain the Wilds’ speed, it won’t take long before St. Louis will be singing the end-of-season blues.

Thursday night, the Minnesota Wild served notice that they intend on being a tough team to play against. The Wild’s top line of Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville dominated from start to finish. The Wild defensemen were solid in their own zone and dangerous in the offensive zone. Goalie Darcy Kuemper was solid all night despite getting only 16 shots fired at him. Kuemper finished with his third career shutout.

It’s wrong to take too much from the game but it isn’t wrong to think Colorado’s defensemen probably won’t be able to get Minnesota’s forwards out of their mind during tonight’s flight home. It’s just a rumor but I’m hearing they might apply for combat pay. Wild forwards were buzzing the net all night, cycling the puck seemingly at will. Each of the Wild’s line contributed to the forecheck. Nino Niederreiter, the hero of Game 7 of last year’s playoffs, scored a goal, got 7 shots and got 2 hits. Simply put, he played a rugged 200 foot game each shift. At least, he played all 200 feet of the rink when it was necessary.

Thursday night, it wasn’t necessary that often.

Offensively, the Wild finished with a team record 48 shots on goal. Afterwards, it was announced that the Wild attempted 78 shots to the Avs’ 29. That’s what happens when a team wins 58% of the faceoffs (32 of 61). Combine that with the Wild forwards’ constant drive for the net, the relentless forecheck and a great transition game.

Offensively, Granlund was the star but Parise outscored him, netting a goal and 2 assists. Pominville got the Wild’s first goal of the season. By then, the Wild had already established themselves as the better time on the night. Joining in the scoring were Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Nino Niederreiter. Ryan Suter had a goal and an assist. Granlund had a pair of helpers. Pominville had a goal and an assist, too.

Defensively, the Wild’s third line stood out. Center Erik Haula and wings Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter totally bottled up Nathan MacKinnon, the star early in last spring’s playoff series. McKinnon finished without a shot, point or impact.

The Wild’s defensemen frequently jumped into the play but they played well in their own zone, too. The Avs never got into an offensive flow. After the game, Kuemper was congratulated on the shutout. He didn’t say it was easy but he praised the “guys out in front of me.”

The fact is, I never thought the Avs looked dangerous tonight. That’s quite a statement considering how much firepower they can throw at teams.

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It’s finally here. Tonight’s the night when the Minnesota Wild open their season. Tonight, they face the team they eliminated on Nino Niederreiter’s laser beam from the win in OT. That’s right. This shot:

I’ll admit it. I still get chills watching that sick shot over Varlomov’s shoulder. Varlomov didn’t stand a chance. That wasn’t Niederreiter’s only offensive contribution that night in Denver’s Pepsi Center. Check this out:

The thing is that the Wild wouldn’t have been playing that night if not for this overtime goal:

Last year’s Wild were a dangerous team that lost to Chicago in 6 games in the conference semifinals. The year before, Chicago beat them in the first round. This year’s Wild are expecting big things. The chief reason why Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year, $98,000,000 contracts was because Minnesota was loaded with young talent just waiting to bust out. That was three years ago. This year, those talented youngsters are young veterans who’ve grown with game experience.

Three years ago, the Islanders were ready to dump Nino Niederreiter go. Super-talented, he didn’t fit into the Islanders’ plans. When the Wild offered Wild fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck to the Islanders, the Islanders jumped on it. Little did Wild fans know that that trade was totally lopsided…in the Wild’s favor. During his years playing for the Islanders, Niederreiter scored 3 points. Last year, he scored 14 goals and 36 points in the regular season before scoring 3 goals and 3 assists in 13 playoff games. Two of those goals came in Game 7 against the Avalanche, one tying the game in the third period, the other winning it in OT.

I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other young veterans on the team. Jonas Brodin is just 21 years old but he’s played like a veteran since his first game. Erik Haula will be the Wild’s third line center, where he’ll use his blazing speed to pressure teams in their zone when he isn’t using that speed to score breakaway goals. Charley Coyle is the ‘other’ Wild man-child. (Niederreiter is the other beast.) Playing with 2 separated shoulders throughout the playoffs, Coyle persevered, scoring 3 goals and 4 assists in the playoffs.

The Wild play in the toughest division in the NHL, competing against the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche and the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ll have to play well to get into the playoffs. The good news is that I expect them to be there when the puck drops to start the playoffs.

Many Wild fans were upset when the Wild gave away a 2-goal lead in the third period of Game 1 of their series with the Avalanche. When the Wild collapsed defensively in Game 2 of the series, many Wild fans, myself included, started thinking about the upcoming NFL draft or switching our attention towards the upsetart Minnesota Twins.

What a difference 2 home games, a goalie switch and an energized Mikael Granlund makes.

Thursday night, the Wild dominated the Avalanche for the second straight night. The recipe had a little different twist but dominate the Avalanche they did. The Wild started the game with the same intense forecheck that they used in Game 3, finally scoring on a wicked one-timer from Jared Spurgeon:

The Wild went up 2-0 on a lucky-bounce power play goal by Charlie Coyle, his third goal of the series:

In Game 3, Granlund and goalie Darcy Kuemper dominated. Granlund, a giant of a center iceman at 5’10” and 183 lbs., rose to the occasion even though the Avalanche tried hitting him whenever he had the puck. Instead of knocking him off his game, the Avalanche’s plan simply caused Granlund to elevate his play to a higher level. Granlund scored the only goal in Game 3 in overtime with an incredible move:

In Game 3, the Wild peppered Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov with 46 shots, beating him just once. In Game 4, the Wild had the better of the territorial play, launching 32 shots at Varlomov.

The difference between Monday night’s victory and Thursday night’s victory is that the Wild totally shut down the Avalanche attack, limiting the Avs to 12 shots on goal for the game.

This series has been a tale of two series. In Colorado’s 2 wins at home, the Av’s speedy first line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny dominated, scoring 7 of the Av’s 9 goals while tallying 10 assists. That talented trio was shut out in Minnesota.

The difference between the first two games and the last two games is that the Wild’s defensemen haven’t given Landeskog, MacKinnon and Stastny the open ice, instead opting to pinch them while the line of Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine and Nino Niederreiter backchecked furiously.

Simply put, the Wild’s third line didn’t give the Av’s scoring line room to operate.

If the Wild hadn’t turned the puck over twice in the third period of Game 1, the Wild might be leading this series 3-1. If the Wild continue to pressure the Avs like they did in Games 3 and 4, the Wild will be tough to beat this series. That said, the Avalanche will be back in front of their home crowd so there’s no reason to think this will be anything but all-out warfare the rest of the series.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to talk about how well the Wild’s young players have played. Haula, Fontaine and Niederreiter have bottled up the Av’s top line. Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund have been threats every time they’ve touched the puck in the offensive zone. Darcy Kuemper gave up a soft goal to give the Avs a bit of momentum but he’s stopped them cold the rest of the time.

The Wild had the right recipe at home. If they can execute their game plan in Colorado like they did in Minnesota, Game 6 in St. Paul might turn into a Wild night next Monday.

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Officially, Wild backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper got the first star of last night’s Wild victory over the LA Kings, with Wild wing Nino Niederreiter getting the game’s second star. In reality, they both should’ve shared star of the game billing because they were the reason the Wild won.

Kuemper stopped 39 of the 40 shots he faced in regulation and overtime before shutting out the Kings in the shootout. After the Kings scored their only goal of the night, Nino Niederreiter tied the game with a pretty goal from Jason Pominville and Mikhael Granlund:

Kumper shut the Kings out the rest of the way, showing supreme confidence in the shootout while stopping the Kings’ 4 shooters cold. Jonathan Quick was magnificent between the pipes for LA, too. Unfortunately for the Kings, he just couldn’t stop Niederreiter when it mattered most.

Niederreiter’s game-winning goal in the shootout was magnificent, too. Niederreiter brought the puck in methodically before forcing Quick to commit one way or the other. When Quick committed, Niederreiter shifted the puck to his forehand before lifting the puck into the empty net. Quick knew he was beat as he desperately flailed in his attempt to stop Niederreiter’s shot.

While the Kings outshot the Wild, the Wild played a physical, fast-paced game. Mainly relying on totally restructured forward lines thanks to injuries to Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Losing the team’s 2 leaders for extended periods of time simultaneously might’ve given the Wild an excuse to collapse.

To their credit, the Wild instead played hard though they were clearly outmanned. Getting outshot 30-9 through the first 2 periods isn’t the ideal recipe for winning on the road against a top opponent. To their credit, though, the Wild competed with the Kings for every loose puck, whether the puck was in their zone, at center ice or in their offensive zone.

Finally, it needs to be highlighted that the Wild used their young legs and athleticism to keep the pressure on Quick and the Kings. What they lacked in offensive talent, they made up for with physical play, aggressiveness and fantastic goaltending. Last night, that was the perfect recipe for a Wild win.

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Before Matt Cullen and Dany Heatley went out with major injuries, with Heatley’s injury ending his season, the Wild were playing inspired, winning hockey. They had won 7 of their last 8 games, scoring 4 goals or more in most of those games. When Cullen and Heatley were injured, Wild coach Mike Yeo had to do some juggling of his lines, which required some juggling of the Wild’s lines.

As a result of those injuries, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher traded forward Johan Larsson and goalie Matt Hackett and a pair of high draft picks to Buffalo for Sabres captain Jason Pominville.

With all the lines getting re-shuffled, the Wild went into a tailspin, losing 6 of their next 9 games. During that stretch, they were shutout 3 times. Saying that they didn’t play with the swagger they had during their winning streak is understatement.

It wasn’t that Pominville didn’t contribute. He’s been great since joining the Wild. It wasn’t that the entire lineup was in a funk, either. Rookie right wing Charlie Coyle has been a beast, playing with confidence both offensively and defensively.

When Matt Cullen rejoined the lineup in Calgary Monday night, though, Coach Yeo was able to put his lines together again. Coyle teamed with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise on the first line. Cullen centered Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Suddenly, Pominville found himself on a line with Devin Setoguchi with Kyle Brodziak as their center.

It didn’t take long for the Wild’s swagger to return once Cullen returned. While it’s wrong to give all the credit to Matt Cullen, it’s accurate to say that he’s been the catalyst that triggered the Wild’s latest winning streak. That said, the Wild played well during their recent homestand, with Pominville, Parise and Charlie Coyle all playing well.

In fact, that trio of players will be key in the Wild’s playoff push. If they play at the level they’ve played at recently, they’ll cause tons of problems for the Wild’s opponents.

Now that the team is back together, expect the Wild to finish with a flourish and to make some noise in the playoffs.

The Minnesota Wild continued their surge in the Western Conference standings with a convincing 2-0 shutout of the San Jose Sharks. Niklas Bakstrom stopped all 33 shots for his first shutout of the season. Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu assisted on a pair of power play goals and they didn’t let their foot off the gas pedal in the third period. Here’s Zach Parise’s power play goal from Koivu and Suter:

What a great pass from Koivu. That’s the type of pass that doesn’t connect unless the chemistry between Koivu and Parise is good. It’s the type of play only confident players make. The fact that they made it look that easy says that they’re playing with lots of confidence and that they’ve got great chemistry together. The other impressive part of that goal is that Niemi, the Sharks’ goalie, didn’t have a chance on the play. That was a sniper’s goal, one that only the most talented players have a chance of making.

Jared Spurgeon’s goal isn’t posted yet but Niemi didn’t have a chance on that shot either. Koivu won a battle in the corner, then saucered the puck out to Suter. Suter collected himself, then sent a touch pass to Spurgeon for a one-timer from the top of the left face-off circle. Though Spurgeon’s shot was a one-timer, that doesn’t mean it was a wrist shot. Spurgeon’s shot was a booming slapper, where he wound up as the puck was going from Suter to Spurgeon.

Still, it’s impossible to say that Niklas Bakstrom wasn’t the first star of the game. He was tracking the puck exceptionally well. He stopped a penalty shot early in the game when the outcome was anything but certain. He handled all the first shots with ease, then directing the puck to his defensemen.

Early in the season, the Wild played well for a period, occasionally playing well for two periods before letting down in the third period. They haven’t gotten rid of that bad habit during their current 5-game winning streak, though today was about as strong as they’ve played all season. It was a 60-minute, complete-game performance.

Charlie Coyle continues his impressive play. He isn’t scoring tons of points but his play along the wall and in the corners is impressive, especially for a rookie. He certainly doesn’t look like the game’s too big for him. The same must be said for Jonas Brodin, who is leading NHL rookies in ice time.

Even though they didn’t figure in the scoring tonight, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley played strong games. Each played good physical games, throwing their weight around when they got opportunities and establishing a strong forecheck from the opening face-off to the final buzzer.

The Wild continue to be the hottest team in the Western Conference the last three weeks. Their defense is playing with confidence. Niklas Backstrom is a human vacuum cleaner between the pipes. They’ve got 4 lines that are each filling their niche. The Mitchell-Clutterbuck-Brodziak line had a strong game on the forecheck. Torrey Mitchell got under his former team’s skin much of the game, with the highlight being this fight with Tommy Wingels:

As they’ve gained more confidence, the Wild have started putting more pressure on in the offensive zone. They still have yet to play their perfect game, though today’s game was easily their strongest game this season.

The playoffs are still a ways off. Still, if the wild continue playing at this level, something I think they’re capable of doing, they’ll be a nightmare for most teams in April and beyond.

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This has been a fun night for me because, in addition to the Gophers signing Tubby Smith as their new head basketball coach, the Wild trounced the St. Louis Blues 5-1 at the Xcel Energy Center tonight. Pavol Demitra score the Wild’s first goal on a breakaway, with Marian Gaborik giving him a perfect feed to send him in alone. Brian Rolston scored the Wild’s second goal, his thirtieth of the season, which turned out to be the gamewinner. Gaborik got the next 2 goals, his 27th & 28th goals of the season, both power play goals before Mikko Koivu scored his eighteenth goal of the season to finish the scoring.

This has been a magical season thus far for Wild fans. After suffering through some disappointing seasons, GM Doug Risebrough finally put some talent around Gaborik this offseason. He started by trading for Gaborik’s Czech friend Pavol Demitra on draft day. That paved the way for their resigning Gaborik, a true superstar, to a three year extension.

The chemistry between ‘Gabby’ & ‘Pav’ has been positively electric. Gaborik is a jet blur when he wants to be. He also has as nasty of a quick-release wrist shot as I’ve ever seen. Tonight, they worked together at as high a rate as Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic did back in their heyday.

It’d be a mistake, though, to think of Gaborik & Demitra as the team’s only stars. Nothing could be further from the truth. Another key move this past offseason was keeping Brian Rolston. While Gaborik has been Minnesota’s most electric player this season, Rolston’s been Minnesota’s most consistent player this season.

There’s been some magic involved, too, in this season’s run. Another key offseason move was signing Niklas Backstrom from Europe. The thought was that they’d use him as an emergency goalie this season, a backup to backup Josh Harding, if you will. When Harding got injured in training camp, Backstrom became Manny Fernandez’ backup. When Fernandez got injured, Backstrom became the starter, with Harding returning to be Backstrom’s backup. Things couldn’t have worked out better.

Finally, it’d be a huge mistake to not mention the job Jacques Lemaire has done in molding this team into the legitimate Stanley Cup threat that they are. Lemaire has always been one of the best coaches in the NHL. Now that he’s got big league talent on all his lines, he’s opening up the offense to play to the team’s strength, which are its forwards.

How far the Wild will go this offseason is anybody’s guess. What’s certain is that nobody’s anxious to meet them in the first couple of round of the playoffs.

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