The State of Hockey News
An objective and balanced view of Minnesota Hockey

Jun
28

It normally is perhaps the most crazy 24 hours for the NHL and the Minnesota Wild.  With wheeling and dealing as the league’s 30 General Managers attempt to achieve greater salary flexibility by a series of trades that often dealt troublesome contracts and picks, but at the end of the day not that many deals were done.  The bundle-ing of picks and bad salaries was not tempting to enough GM’s for them to pull the trigger on trades but no doubt there were lots and lots of phone calls and all kinds of negotiations going on.  I am going to take a bit different approach then I normally do.  As I drove back home to Minnesota, I was listening to KFAN (AM 1130) on the radio in my car and radio personality Dan Barriero.  While I would never call Dan my favorite KFAN personality he does a decent job most of the time and finds ways to be entertaining and insightful.  During Thursday’s broadcast he read an English tennis blog that attempted to describe the mixed feelings of tension and boredom of the 11 hour marathon tennis match between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.  The blog itself was hilarious, as he accurately captured those mixed emotions of the match but also just how bizarre and grueling it was for both the players and the spectators who just couldn’t stop watching it.  It was pure brilliance and its mix of wit (especially the continual zombie references) and description brought a few chuckles in the midst of a four-hour long car ride.

So I am going to try to recapture the feeling of the 1st round of the 2010 Entry draft up until the point the Wild approached the podium at Staples Center and made their selection.  I hope you enjoy it, and I promise after this prolonged sort of introduction into my feelings as the 1st round unfolded I will go into a more conventional discussion about these draftees (both from Day 1 & 2) potential and just how well I think Wild did overall and player by player.

5:15PM – After shelling out $10 for ‘event’ parking, I arrive at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub in St. Paul.  I notice a small sign noting the occasion of the NHL Entry Draft, I walked inside to a sparsely filled bar.  I scanned around towards the back room and eventually strolled up to the bar and took full advantage of the 2 for 1 drink special the NHL Draft occasion had provided me.

5:45PM – A few more Wild fans started to trickle into the establishment, and we then found out that Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub had produced “draft day information packets” and we grabbed a few and began perusing them even though I felt a bit nerdy as I had brought my 2010 International Scouting Service Draft Guide as well as my movement tracking Central Scouting Final rankings list not to mention my NHL Draft Preview issue of the Hockey News which coincidentally was the “draft information packet” Mr. Reid had so generously provided his patrons.  The feeling at the time was of nervous anticipation but also a bit cheerful as the beers started to make people feel a bit more social.

6:00PM – The staff at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub have turned all the TV’s to the NHL Network and its simulcast of the TSN broadcast of the 1st round, piping the audio through the sound system.  We hear the sound of TSN’s James Duthie‘s voice echo as he immediately begins with the drama of whether 1st Overall will be Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, a drama that in all honesty few Wild fans could really careless about.  We just want the drama to end and for the broadcasters to stop yapping about either of them.  More Wild fans move into the bar and the anxiety is slowly starting to build.

6:08PM – Human Oompa Loompa and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman walks out to the podium under his normal serenade of boo’s before immediately addressing the crowd at Staples Center and quickly getting them to cheer by gushing about the great hospitality of the people of Los Angeles and the Kings organization.  Bettman then announces that the Edmonton Oilers are on the clock and the TSN crew can’t help themselves to blather on about whether it will be Hall or Seguin.  Edmonton Oilers’ GM Steve Tambellini looks confident as he is the only general manager in the building who knows exactly who they will be picking in this draft.

6:12PM – The Oilers consortium makes their way to the draft podium, folded blue and orange jersey in hand.  TSN attempts to do whatever it can to turn this into a dramatic climax, showing the split screen of Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin.  At this point a part of me hopes the Oilers shock everyone and take Cam Fowler and make the TSN guys trip over themselves trying to explain what in the hell just happened.  Yet the big shocker was not meant to be, and the Oilers took the best kid in this draft, selecting Taylor Hall.  As TSN runs the video footage of Hall scoring goal after goal for the Windsor Spitfires and Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire shower him with all kinds of praise I begin to think of just how the Wild are going to have to face him perhaps as many as 6 times next season and its not a good thing.  Boston is on the clock but they are not going to need much time to think about who they’re going to select.

6:22PM – Boston Bruins quickly make their way to the podium and select Tyler Seguin.  TSN captures the moment well by showing a few shots on Toronto Maple Leafs GM Bryan Burke, who could’ve had Seguin if he had not traded the pick to Boston in the Phil Kessel deal.  After Seguin has his obligatory photo op with team execs and a few select scouts the 2nd Overall pick makes it over to the TSN draft table where he’s asked how he feels about going 2nd to Taylor Hall.  Seguin answers the question with class, a sign of his character and the predictable portion of the 1st round is over.  The anxiety is really starting to build.

6:34PM – The Florida Panthers make their way to the podium.  Like most people I am guessing they’re going to take Cam Fowler, the #3 ranked North American according to CSS and #5 according to ISS.  Instead they take Erik Gudbranson, and its hard to fault them at all for taking a guy who many compare to Chris Pronger.  Gudbranson is a big defenseman who plays a physical and mean game, and has a cannon of a shot.  A great pick by the Panthers and one that will help their defense greatly.  A mild surprise but one that makes a lot of sense.

6:45PM – Columbus is up next, and as I sit there thinking of just who the Blue Jackets might pick part of me hopes they shock everyone and take Kirill Kabanov which will make everyone question the sanity of their GM Scott Howson after feeling the pain of watching Nikita Filatov leave for Russia after he felt he didn’t get a fair shot, and the enigmatic Nikolai Zherdev before him.  The Blue Jackets give us the first big surprise of the 1st round by selecting Portland’s (WHL) Ryan Johansen.  Virtually none of the big hockey experts had Johansen going that early, but the Blue Jackets clearly liked the big playmaker a lot.  Many of the big mock drafts had us taking Johansen so its sort of a surprise to see him gone this early, I began to wonder what other surprises we could see.

6:56PM – The New York Islanders are up next as their entourage (literally and figuratively as Entourage star Kevin Connolly was apart from this group) and you could hear people say, what the hell is that guy from Entourage doing up there?  As Isles GM Garth Snow moves over to the podium he provided a dagger to my draft day hopes when the Islanders picked Nino Niedereitter 5th Overall.  I know a muttered more than a few colorful adjectives at this point as I still believe he was the most ideal player for the Wild to select as he combined speed, size, scoring ability and grit.  The Islanders are going to get a terrific player and now I felt as though the Wild’s forward hopes rested on the selection of Jeff Skinner but would he still be there by then?   The draft really started to seem out of control at this point, and I pointed out to those around me that this could be a nice recruiting boon for the OHL and WHL respectively as they had complete control over the first five picks of the draft.  It was right around at this moment that Stephane Veilleux arrived with a few friends.  The former Wild left winger looked to be in good physical shape.  Who says you need to go to Le Appertif to see Wild celebrities as we had Veilleux and Tom Reid, what more do you need? We didn’t have to put up with Mike Greenlay and Dan Terhaar and deal with the lameness that is Nordy either!

7:06PM – The Tampa Bay Lightning, and their much overhauled management group which includes new GM Steve Yzerman makes their way to the podium and without too much fanfare selects Prince George’s Brett Connolly.  A friend of mine at our table sort of throws his hands up in the air in frustration at this as another skilled, goal scoring forward goes off the board.  I was not too bothered by this as this kid had struggled with injuries throughout most of last season and that to me was a big red flag.  I could be wrong but at this point I did not feel this was a risk the Wild could afford to take.  The anxiety really was starting to approach ulcer level as the skilled, goal scorers seemed to be flying off the board.  The fact #3 rated man Cam Fowler was still available was a big surprise as a few teams who I really felt would be leaning towards adding to their defense (Islanders and Lightning especially) went with forwards instead.

7:15PM – The Carolina Hurricanes, another team who seems to need quality defensive prospects walks up to the podium where the provide another dagger and select Kitchener Rangers’ sniper Jeff Skinner.  Skinner looks overjoyed as he meets Hurricanes’ GM Jim Rutherford.  The Hurricanes now are fairly loaded in skilled forward prospects as they are likely going to be using Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk next season and perhaps Zac Dalpe as well.  Skinner gives them another quality finisher and the Hurricane’s gain is a giant loss for the Wild who were rather high on him.  Cam Fowler must really be going through some mental agony as he continues to slide and no doubt the Wild are scrambling and Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Michael Russo starts tweeting how the Wild are now being swamped with offers to trade down as they will likely have a chance at Fowler or Brandon Gormley when they go to make their pick.

7:26PM – With Minnesota’s best forward options now very limited the anxiety at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub is really intense as fans are now actively discussing all kinds of possible options for the Wild; especially trading down or taking one of the two blue chip defenseman that are well within reach.  A friend of mine then shrugs his shoulders and suggests Alexander Burmistrov while I offer up Emerson Etem as a possibility but trading down seems like a very realistic option to consider.  The Rangers go to the podium and select Burmistrov and the Wild’s nightmare continues.  With 8 picks before them, and 7 forwards have been taken and that does not bode well for the Wild as they are about to make their selection.  I turned to my fellow Wild fans and said we have to pick Fowler or we’re ‘screwed’ (actually something a little bit stronger than that).

7:35PM – I quickly ask one of the other fans to check her Blackberry to see if there are any tweets mentioning a possible trade in the works.  The TSN feed shows Wild GM Chuck Fletcher on the phone, while I discuss why this team either has to take Fowler or trade down.  Just as I say that, the Wild contingent stands up, folded jersey in hand and begins their walk to the podium.  The look of the Wild’s entourage is gloomy at best, Fletcher’s face looks sullen and depressed.  After giving a very muffled shout out to the Official Draft party at Le Appertif in Woodbury which draws boo’s from the Wild fans at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub, Fletcher wastes no time in announcing the team selects HIFK’s Mikael Granlund.  Even as they wait for Granlund to make his way to the stage the Wild consortium appears emotionless and Fletcher gives their newly acquired Finnish forward a weak greeting before they go to their obligatory photo op with the Minnesota green sweater.  The selection was met with virtually no real reaction at all, and as the TSN guys began to breakdown the selection talking about his tremendous “hockey sense” most people shook their heads and began scoffing at his small size and apparent skillset as a playmaker making comparison’s to currently concussed Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard.  I would later hear from a friend’s Blackberry that someone tweeted there were cheers over at Le Appertif.  On Saturday I read the Minneapolis Star Tribune account of the selection where the Wild could not make a deal to trade down and then were “very excited” to have a chance to select a player with such skill as Granlund.  Intriguing Fletcher would say he was “very excited” when he seemed unable to conjure up even a token smile as he met with this player that allegedly “excited” him.  Fletcher repeated to mention this ‘excitement’ in an interview he gave on WCCO’s Sports Huddle show with Dave Mona and Mike Max.  If that’s an ‘excited’ Chuck Fletcher then he could give Ben Stein a run for his money as a master of the deadpan.   So let’s take a look at Mikael Granlund.

1st Round (9th Overall)

CenterMikael Granlund ~ HIFK Helsinki (Sm-Liiga)

Height:  5’10″  Weight:  180lbs  Shoots:  Left

CSS Final ranking:  1st (Euro)  ISS Final ranking:  15th  The Hockey News‘ ranking:  10th

2009-10 Stats:  43GP  13G 27A = 40pts  2 PIM’s

Talent Analysis:  Mikael Granlund is a dynamic, playmaking forward who has outstanding hockey sense and on-ice vision.  ISS called Granlund the best puckhandler, best little guy, and best playmaker available in this year’s draft.  Another glowing endorsement of Granlund’s ability is his performance in the Finnish Sm-Liiga playing against men well into their 30′s which sets him apart from other prospects who are playing college hockey or major junior where was nearly a point-per-game.  This means he’ll be ready sooner than most European players who often are drafted out of European Division II or Junior leagues.  Most often compared to smallish Finnish centreman Saku Koivu, Granlund is a outstanding competitor who is not afraid to muck and grind along the boards or go into the high traffic areas on the ice.  His outstanding hands also make him a prime candidate to becoming a shootout ace, and he has good finishing ability but could stand to shoot the puck more.  The Oulu, Finland-native is very shifty making him difficult to check and he projects to be a top 3 forward.  Bottom Line: Granlund is a high end forward who is at least one full season away from really challenging for a spot with the Wild.  A great playmaking forward, who seems to have a lot of ability but tough to really get a handle on since he has limited experience playing in North America.  The Wild wanted to add skill to its group of prospect forwards and Granlund fits that realm, even though he is not what you would call a big goal producer.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See the Wild select Mikael Granlund as well as the TSN highlight package and commentary in the NHL video link listed above.  You can judge for yourself how ‘excited’ Chuck Fletcher seems to be.  In the links below tracks the other Minnesotans who heard their names selected in the 1st round of the draft.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See the Kings select Duluth, Minnesota-native Derek Forbort 15th Overall and receiving a quasi-standing ovation at Staples Center, although they certainly love the retro jersey they gave him to wear.  A bit of a surprise since the Kings have so many outstanding defenseman in their system already with two very good players in Colten Teubert and Thomas Hickey to have yet play for Los Angeles.  Forbort is a very well rounded defenseman who has great skill, excellent mobility, good size who uses it effectively and good offensive instincts.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See Blaine’s Nick Bjugstad go 19th Overall to the Florida Panthers who seem to be making a big statement in this year’s draft after already have added Erik Gudbranson.  Bjugstad is a player who I soured on after his lackluster state tournament, but its impossible not to see why scouts like him since has the bloodlines (nephew of former NHL’er Scott Bjugstad) and the physical size and strength to be a great power forward.  He has a great shot as taught to him by his famous uncle and I think he’ll do well for the Panthers.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See the Montreal Canadiens select Jerred Tinordi 22nd Overall.  At nearly 6’6″ Tinordi is a huge presence and plays a strong physical game although not quite as nasty as his father, Mark Tinordi a former defenseman and member of the Minnesota North Stars.  The Burnsville, Minnesota native continues an intriguing trend of the Canadiens in selecting Minnesota-born players as the last few drafts have featured high selections from the State of Hockey in David Fischer (20th Overall in 2006), Ryan McDonagh (12th Overall in 2007), and Danny Kristo.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See the Ducks select Emerson Etem 29th Overall.  While not a native Minnesotan, Etem has a Minnesota connection as he left his homestate to develop his game at Fairbault, Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s which has been an incredible hockey factory of the NHL’s elite players like Sidney Crosby, Zac Parise and Jonathan Toews just to name a few.  I was disappointed that the Wild did not pick him at 9th, as he combines great speed, character and a strong work ethic having as a youngster taking a 2 1/2 sojourn across the Los Angeles area to train with fitness guru T.R. Goodman where he worked out with guys like Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios.  How many 14 year old kids do you know who would do that?  The Ducks got a fantastic steal in being able to pick Cam Fowler but now have another in Etem and the locals loved it.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See the New York Islanders select Warroad’s Brock Nelson 30th Overall.  With Kevin Connolly making the pick, Nelson goes to a team that is steadily becoming loaded with good young talent.  I am not real sold on Nelson’s skating ability but his hands and offensive instincts are very impressive.  He has great size and just knows where to be on the ice in order to score goals and does not shy away from racing back to help out defensively.  He played well at the State Tournament (better than Bjugstad) the last few years and it will be interesting to see if that translates to big points at North Dakota as it did for fellow Warroad alum and former 1st rounder T.J. Oshie.

2nd Round (39th Overall)

Right WingBrett Bulmer ~ Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Height:  6’2″  Weight:  175lbs  Shoots:  Right

CSS Final ranking:  65th (NA)  ISS Final ranking: 72nd  The Hockey News‘ ranking:  N/A

2009-10 Stats:  65GP  13G 27A = 40pts  95 PIM’s

Talent Analysis:  Simply put, no one else in the draft saw their stock rise as much as Brett Bulmer.  According to CSS, he rose 99 spots after being rated 164th in their Mid-term assessment.  Bulmer has a booming shot and a great frame that makes him a promising prospect to become a power forward.  Yet he needs to fill out that 6’2″ frame, so he can physically be the bull in a china shop he desperately wants to be.  Bulmer must also work on his skating but scouts note that he certainly has the character and work ethic to take the necessary steps to do so.  An intriguing project forward.  Bottom Line: This was a big reach by the Wild with their first pick of the 2nd round as they opted to pass on more proven offensive talent available at the time like Jordan Weal and Teemu Pulkkinen.  If Bulmer doesn’t pan out, you really have to question the decision to draft a project like him.

2nd Round (56th Overall)

Left WingJohan Larsson ~ Brynas (Sweden Jr. Elite)

Height:  5’10″  Weight:  200lbs  Shoots:  Left

CSS Final ranking: 34th (Euro)  ISS Final ranking:  29th  The Hockey News‘ ranking: N/A

2009-10 Stats:  40GP  15G 19A = 34pts  80 PIM’s

Talent Analysis:  Sometimes you hear broadcasters and coaches talking about the sort of players you need to win the big games; guys who will do whatever it takes to make a play, making whatever sacrifice is necessary time after time with little thought to their own well-being.  Johan Larsson is that type of player, a heart and soul type of forward who other teams hate to play against.  Rated by ISS as the best defensive forward and best faceoff man available in this year’s draft he is an intriguing guy who has the versatility of playing either wing or at center.  While Larsson could stand to add strength to his frame, he has not let that hold him back from dropping down to block shots or taking the puck to the net with a sense of purpose.  Larsson loves to dish out hits and his totals are all due to the sheer effort he gives each and every shift.  He is comfortable playing in all situations, whether on the penalty kill or crashing the crease on the power play.  Bottom Line: A small but versatile energy forward who oozes effort, and is a relentless force on the ice.

2nd Round (59th Overall)

Left WingJason Zucker ~ U.S. National Development Program (USHL)

Height:  5’10″  Weight:  174lbs  Shoots:  Left

CSS Final ranking:  51st (NA)  ISS Final ranking:  30th  The Hockey News‘ ranking:  54th

2009-10 Stats:  60GP  29G 24A = 53pts  27 PIM’s

Talent Analysis:  The Wild dealt its 3rd and 4th round picks (69th and 99th selection respectively) to the Florida Panthers to move up to pick Las Vegas, Nevada-native Jason Zucker.  Zucker moved to California at the age of 10 just for the purpose of advancing his game by playing for Los Angeles based hockey programs before eventually relocating again to Michigan to play with the National Development Program.  His best asset is his speed, which he uses effectively on the forecheck.  Despite a solid performance at this year’s World Junior Championships where helped Team USA win a gold medal, scouts are not sold on his hands and question his ability to finish his scoring chances.  Like most kids his age he needs to improve his strength but he should have a good opportunity to do so when he attends the University of Denver next fall.  A great competitor he is another young player who has tremendous work ethic who could be a very effective checking winger at the NHL level.  Bottom Line: Probably best projects to be a 3rd line checker, but his speed will be most welcome on the forecheck.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

See Minnesota move up by trading its 3rd and 4th round picks (69th and 99th respectively) to the Florida Panthers to select Las Vegas’ Jason Zucker 59th Overall.  A fast player who likes to hit, and crash the net for scoring opportunities he is a hard working player who would be a natural fit for the Wild’s system.  The Wild also dealt its 5th round pick (129th Overall) to the San Jose Sharks in the deal that brought us Brad Staubitz.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=35&id=73216

Here is an interview between Heidi Androl and Jason Zucker.  Its a bit light on insight as to what Zucker can do since it talked more about his origins and the other guys he played with as opposed what he will bring to the Wild.  Yet he seems like a kid with a good head on his shoulders.

6th Round (159th Overall)

GoaltenderJohan Gustafsson ~ Farjestad (Swedish Jr. Elite)

Height:  6’2″  Weight:  202lbs  Catches:  Left

CSS Final ranking:  5th (Euro)  ISS Final ranking:  4th  The Hockey News‘ ranking:  94th

2009-10 Stats:  ??

Talent Analysis:  A few years ago the Chicago Blackhawks uncovered a very raw talent who was moonlighting as a Zamboni driver named Antti Niemi in Finland.  In some ways Johan Gustafsson is similar to Niemi, a big but raw and unrefined goaltending talent.  Very agile, with excellent lateral movement his positioning can be suspect at times.  His glove is very quick but inconsistent yet he still managed to be called up to play in some games in the Eliteserien and did not look out of place.   Bottom Line: A bit of a long-term project goaltender who has terrific physical tools and with a little refinement could morph into a pretty special puck stopper.

7th Round (189th Overall)

Right WingDylan McKinlay ~ Chilliwack Bruins (WHL)

Height:  6’0″  Weight:  162lbs  Shoots:  Right

CSS Final ranking:  N/R  ISS Final ranking:  N/R  The Hockey News‘ ranking: N/R

2009-10 Stats:  72GP  20G 23A = 43pts  57 PIM’s

Talent Analysis:  The Wild have traditionally gone way off the board with one of their selections and that would happen once again when the team selected unranked Dylan McKinlay with its last pick in the draft.  The speedy winger has great skills but his limited body strength really hinders him in a lot of ways as he is easy to body off the puck.  The Bruins were a midling team, and McKinlay used his speed effectively at both ends of the ice.  He is the type of player that could fill out and blossom into a steal or the kind that will flatline.  Bottom Line: A kid who could turn out to be a gifted scorer if he adds strength, but must learn to be more consistent in his shifts.  Adds depth at forward as he does have some offensive ability.

So there you have it, the entire Minnesota Wild draft.  I must give the scouting staff credit they kept their focus on adding forwards that possessed both grit and skill.  Yet at the same time I think they passed on some players with more scoring ability like Pulkkinen and Jared Knight that they may regret not picking down the road.  Overall, I would rate this Wild draft class as a “B-” where they stayed focus on the correct position but I think they overvalued grit rather than scoring ability which is really what Minnesota’s prospect pool of forwards lack the most.  Colton Gillies, Cody Almond, and Carson McMillan are all big grinding type forwards and youngster Jere Sallinen is more of a checking forward yet they added a few more in Larsson and Zucker.

Feb
26

It is interesting to try to think about what it would be like for the Minnesota Wild not to have Cal Clutterbuck in its lineup.  In those years before ‘Clutter’, the Wild were a team almost completely devoid of physical players apart from a few tough guys the team carried over those years like Matt Johnson, Sylvain Blouin, Jeremy Stevenson, Jason Wiemer, Jason Marshall and Cam Stewart.  Of those players only Stewart was a classic checking forward who seemed to just love dishing out hits on a consistent basis.  The rest of those tough guys would only throw their weight round intermittently and often as an attempt to get a specific opposition player to drop the gloves.  Oddly enough, Clutterbuck is the smallest of all the players mentioned yet he has put up hit totals that easily tower above any of these aforementioned players.  Clutterbuck was such a refreshing sort of player to have on the Wild, especially when you consider that Cam Stewart’s last season ended rather soon into the 2001-02 season due to concussion symptoms that forced him out of the game that the Welland, Ontario-native quickly became a huge fan favorite.  Wild fans love watching Clutterbuck, and his sparkplug style of skating just throw his shoulder with outstanding tenacity as opposing teams become annoyed being hit over and over again.  Last season he surprised many after earning a quick call up from the minors early in the 2008-09 season to lead the league hits with 356 which was an NHL record.  While some experts have tried to pass off his hit totals as inflated, an analysis by SBNation’s, Behind the Net demonstrates that assertion was clearly erroneous although it does suggest an inflation for those players who have apparently been labeled as “big hitters” which is still a bit debateable.  Check out the article for yourself.

http://www.behindthenethockey.com/2009/10/11/1080465/cal-clutterbuck-worldwide-leader

Clutterbuck is currently the NHL leader in hits with 252, and looks to be in great shape to come close to his record from last season.  The Wild signed the young hitting machine to a 3-year, $4.2 million deal which equates to a fairly affordable $1.4 million per season.  Clutterbuck is a leader in another category, he leads the team as the most jerseys sold at the team’s 3 ‘Hockey Lodge’ stores throughout the metro area.  That is a testament to his feisty agitating type of play almost reminiscent of another smaller forward namde Dino Ciccarelli and his fearless style that ingratiates him to the State of Hockey.  While Clutterbuck will never come even remotely close to Ciccarelli as a scorer, both were known to be willing to pay a costly physical price to make a play and their ‘heart on their sleeve type’ play made them quick fan favorites.  Hopefully Clutterbuck is smart enough to avoid being caught naked on his front lawn.  The former Oshawa General is showing signs he can produce more offensively, with a career high 12 goals and is close to surpassing his career high in points (18).  Clutterbuck used to be the linemate of this year’s 1st Overall pick John Tavares, and was an adept finisher throughout his junior career while clearing space for the skilled Tavares to work with.  No matter what, the thought of having Clutterbuck around for at least another 3 seasons is good as opposed to the thought of him punishing Wild forwards himself while donning another team’s sweater.  He is the first player the team has re-signed out its plethora of future restricted and unrestricted free agents.  The team already dealt one potential unrestricted free agent in Kim Johnsson for Cam Barker.  Here is the list for the Wild’s other RFA’s and UFA’s which is pretty extensive since there are 12 of them meaning it will be a very interesting summer for the State of Hockey with a huge potential for massive changes.

Owen Nolan (UFA)

Eric Belanger (UFA)

James Sheppard (RFA)

Derek Boogaard (UFA)

Guillaume Latendresse (RFA)

Andrew Ebbett (UFA)

Marek Zidlicky (UFA)

Shane Hnidy (UFA)

John Scott (UFA)

Clayton Stoner (UFA)

Josh Harding (UFA)

Anton Khudobin (RFA)

Wade Dubielewicz (UFA)

Minnesota has a lot of big decisions to make, and while it certainly could clear out some of the age in its lineup it may not be such a bad idea to keep some of that experience around.  By all accounts, veteran Owen Nolan has been a great locker room presence and has provided some clutch scoring.  Its good to have a guy like him around your younger players.  Either way, Clutterbuck being put in the fold is very good news.

NBC drops the ball again, placing the Women’s Ice Hockey Final on MSNBC

What in the heck does NBC have against Hockey?  Why did they push the Women’s Ice Hockey final to MSNBC?  It was the gold medal game, not a qualifying round matchup and one where these women arguably dedicated themselves more than ever to try to win.  The U.S. women came up short in a 2-0 loss but it is a giant slight to see them put on a secondary network.  Not to mention its a huge opportunity lost or at least diluted the chance to promote women’s hockey in the United States.  The Women’s game still has a long way to go; especially at the international level where it really was a two-team tournament from the start.  Yet the overall competitive level has improved notably since the first time Women’s Ice hockey was included in the 1998 Nagano games.  Ice hockey is the only real large scale team sport of the Winter Olympics but it has been clearly given second billing status by NBC, the only major network to cover NHL hockey.

The Gold Medal game was excellent with outstanding hustle.  The women of both Team USA and Team Canada skate so well and execute at such a level that I think many casual sports fans would be surprised at just how high the quality of play is.  The Americans just didn’t have the firepower and when it needed to create scoring chances (in the 3rd) it seemed too tired to do anything other than to fire long passes and to hope they would connect.  While it was nice to see the U.S. Women’s team come home with a silver, it is a huge shame that NBC decided to make it a ‘secondary’ event.  USA Hockey should be furious as should the women who will now be hit with the double standard since the men’s gold medal final will be broadcast on NBC.  Is this a case of another glass ceiling or simply NBC hoping more soccer mom’s watch the silly drama of Julie Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn on the slopes?  You can decide that, but its painfully obvious that hockey is not a high priority for NBC at all.

Feb
23

In 1980, the United States boycotted the summer Olympic games (which were held in Moscow that year) due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  While it was a political gesture it still squashed the dreams of some athletes who had been training so hard since the 1976 games in Montreal.  That happened to my former Physical Education teacher and football coach Colin Anderson who was a world-class shotputter whom many felt was a medal contender saw his hopes dashed by this.  It was certainly an unfortunate situation for him as an athlete (not to mention completely beyond his control) as he was near the pinnacle of his sport.  So with that being said it may come as some surprise that I suggest the NHL boycott the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.  Why, you may ask?  I will give you my list of reasons rather soon but first a little more on what prompted me to say this.

After what was perhaps the most exciting Men’s Olympic Hockey game in the past 20 years the United States defeated host Canada 5-3 in front of a capasity crowd at ‘Canada Hockey Place.’  The game had everything any hockey fan would want; great intensity, physically punishing, fantastic saves (for the U.S. at least), and a back and forth tempo that really draws you in emotionally.  While some overblown sports writers have made erroneous comparisons to the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets; all can agree it was a tremendously exciting game and had plenty of hype and anticipation going into the contest.  Yet despite all this buzz, all of this tremendous intensity and excitement flowing around this game in the United States a decision was made to place this game on MSNBC.  From the very beginning of the coverage, NBC’s Bob Costas gave superflous testimony to the Canadians fantatical obsession over the game of hockey and how their nation’s hopes wrested on the outcome of their Men’s and Women’s teams like no other athletes they had in the games.  Team Canada’s hockey program was really where the payoff was going to be.  Just as it for the United States with Michael Phelps or their “Dream Team’s” they sent in men’s and women’s basketball.  Hockey has an enormous feeling of pride for millions of Canadians and this was to be their first showcase against what they considered to be a “worthy” opponent.  Never mind the fact that their team narrowly edged out Switzerland in a shootout; this was a game against one of its arch-rivals and it was going be its chance to make a statement as to who the real favorites of this tournament really were.  In the days before the game, Costas and others continued to mention the growing anticipation of the U.S. versus Canada showdown and how it was being plastered all over the Canadian media.  For the NHL, they had to be feeling the buzz too.  They had to be feeling the rush of more and more casual sports fans looking forward to seeing this big matchup and perhaps acquainting themselves with some of the league’s biggest stars before the big event.  How many of these fans went to turn on NBC for the game and what did they find?  Ice Dancing.  That’s right, not even true figure skating with triple axels and quadruple toe loops; it was ice dancing where its just as much about theatrics as it is about attempting to appear as though you’re dancing on your skates.  These fans did not find perhaps the most regionally relevant game of the 2010 games, instead they found Dancing with the Stars meets the Ice Capades.  How is this possible?  How could the main ‘team’ sport of the winter games, one in which the host nation was totally obsessed over be passed over by Ice Dancing?  Yahoo!’s hockey blogger Puck Daddy has a few theories as does former Wild player agent Allan Walsh.  Far be it from me to take what Walsh has to say all that seriously but he does bring up a few good points.  Check it out for yourself.

http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/NBC-explains-its-ice-dancing-over-U-S-Canada-ho?urn=nhl,219149

However, I will take Walsh’s comments a bit further.  Why should the NHL shut itself down for 2 weeks (as the playoff races heat up, as well as the buzz in its 30 markets) to accomodate the Olympics when it isn’t even going to get primetime billing over ice dancing?  After the dramatic 5-3 victory of Team USA over Team Canada, MSNBC interviewed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on the possible effect of this game on creating more fans for the NHL since it was so exciting and entertaining to watch.  You couldn’t help but notice that Bettman almost had to bite his tongue from saying, “well first of all it could have had that effect if it had been put on NBC instead being relegated to MSNBC.”  While he certainly agreed it was a great game for the NHL, you could just see by the look on his face that network, to whom his league has a television deal with did a major disservice by placing the preliminary rounds of ice dancing ahead of this Canada vs. USA matchup.  Sure, there are lots and lots of fans who love watching Bettman squirm or look bad, but in this case it doesn’t hurt Bettman nearly as much as it hurts the league as a whole.  A giant opportunity was missed and no doubt the league wished NBC would’ve had the two events switched places in terms of where they could be found on TV.  The last time Team USA had defeated Canada was during the 1960 games where the Americans also won gold, in the so-called ‘forgotten’ Miracle.  Hockey is percieved by most Americans as a “Canadian” game which some Americans just happen to play, especially those living in the Northern states who are used to frozen lakes and lots of snow.  Yet what better promotion could the league have possibly had at demonstrating just how good American hockey is by showcasing a game like this during primetime on a Sunday?

If this is the treatment NBC is going to give the NHL then it might as well not shutdown for two weeks when the Olmypics roll around in 2014.  What is there to gain from having all of your athletes playing on MSNBC?  Its worse than having the games on Versus.  Who is going to watch or notice, thus drawing them to the game?  If I go to my menu on my satelite dish; the Olympics are simply listed as the 2010 games and only if you scroll onto the listing does it tell what events they are covering that day.  It does not say Olympic Hockey, or Olympic Ice Dancing so how are these casual fans supposed to find it if they’re lucky enough to have MSNBC at all?  While local markets back home sort of have the NHL game drift to the back of their minds as college basketball heats up towards March Madness how do you expect the NHL to keep its momentum going after going on hiatus for 2 weeks?

During the aforementioned interview with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman rather delicately tried to make note to some of these factors as the league weighed the benefits / costs of NHL participation in the Olympic Games but was entirely non-committal one way or the other.  Hardly a surprise considering that NHL participation will likely be used as a bargaining chip at the negotiation of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, where it would be used as a chip the players would have to give something up for.  Some players, like Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin said he’s participating in those games no matter what the NHL does.  No doubt this would put pressure on owners, like Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis would have to ask himself if its right to go without his best player (or players if Alexander Semin and goaltender Simeon Varlamov join him) for two weeks to play in the Olympics where he could risk injury that could put him out of the lineup for even longer.  Breach of contract issues are another obvious conflict as well.  If you were Leonsis, and your team was on its way to a Stanley Cup run would you want to lose those players for two weeks (to say nothing of its possible impact on your ticket sales during their absence)?  Of course not.

So here are my reasons why the NHL should boycott the 2014 games in Sochi.

1.  The league gains little to nothing of having their athletes perform in this tournament. ~ Unlike the NBA who sends its “Dream Team” during the summer games its advantage is that the season does not need to be shutdown to accomodate the games and with the relative popularity of basketball in comparison to hockey the league never gets second billing to events such as rhythmic gymnastics or the trampoline.  If the league is going to shutdown for 2 weeks it has to make that investment of time and money worth it by having worthwhile national promotion.  Right now that certainly is not happening so the league is likely more hurt by this than anything else.  IIHF President Rene Fasel may be happy as well as the International Olympic Committee but the last time I checked they were not buying that many season ticket packages with your local teams.

2.  The 2 week hiatus kills the buzz, especially in markets that are already struggling to maintain momentum with its local fanbases. ~ While Canadian fans may loathe some of the sunbelt teams in the United States to shut down for two weeks is especially cruel.  Consider the Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche as an example.  They are both having an outstanding seasons, with lots of interest on what appears to be good chance to make the playoffs.  Yet as their teams have had an outstanding first 2/3rds of the season the league stops play for two weeks and it is difficult to find them on TV.  All of these aformentioned markets are also NBA towns so the decision to aire those games on MSNBC likely pushes them to perhaps watch basketball instead as it will be far easier to find.  Besides, it will be even tougher in Sochi when you consider the 8-hour time difference.  How many less viewers do you think the hockey games will have when they’re being shown live at 3AM on MSNBC?  (yea I know that was a bit mean but its well deserved)

3.  League teams have uneven Olympic participation and it certainly could have an effect on energy down the stretch as well as injuries. ~ This reason could be used for the current games let alone those to take place in 2014, but Olympic participation is rather uneven throughout the league.  The San Jose Sharks for example have 8 Olympians on their roster while the Wild have 5 and some teams have two or less.  You think Los Angeles is glad that Slovenian Anze Kopitar will be well rested for the homestretch?  Certainly.  How do the Sharks feel about having their roster getting beat up in what has been a very physical Olympic tournament so far?  No doubt in 2014 it will continue to be uneven so how can you have competitive balance when some teams are going to end up so much better rested than others?  Afterall, for NHL owners its all about the wins that take place in their arenas not in the Olympics and if your team can’t win the games down the stretch the lost revenue could be in the millions of dollars.  Just ask Detroit how Olympic participation affected their chances in 2006.  Playoff games are huge bonuses for owners, especially those in markets that do not get sellouts each and every game as it provides a great opportunity to make up for some of the losses they’ve had financially throughout the season.

Yes I realize this has been discussed in other areas such as the Hockey News and on Puck Daddy, but honestly the league would be simply looking out for its own best interest by simply boycotting the 2014 games.  Forget Ovechkin’s threat to go no matter what, its all about what’s good for the league and what is fair to its fans and teams back in North America that really matter.  The NHL has tried putting out olive branches to Europe by hosting regular season games in various hockey producing countries the last few seasons and will continue to do so next year as well so it as not as if the league has offered Europe no opportunities to see its native-born NHL talent on their home soil from time to time.  If the NHL is going to get MSNBC type respect its time they drop the gloves and let the 4th place network (NBC) know they’re not going to allow that to happen without a fight.  You would think any person wishing to promote a unique product like the NHL; which NBC is the only major network to carry it would want to take every opportunity to help make that an asset instead of a burden.  Yet hey, I doubt this lack of respect would have surprised Conan O’Brien at this point.

Imagine the outrage that sports fans would have for NBC if they placed a synchronized swimming event instead of watching Michael Phelps race for gold.  If you can imagine that, only then will you truly understand how insulting this was for hockey fans in the United States and all the more reason for the NHL to boycott the 2014 games in Sochi.

Feb
22

If you’re like me, and you’ve tuned into NBC Nightly News or the Today Show recently, you know just how hyped up tonight’s match-up between the United States and Canada has become.  This evening for example, it almost felt like the lead story with all the mentions of this game.  Any person with half a brain in their head would expect that the game would be on NBC, but alas that is not the case.

If you plan on tuning into NBC, what you’ll get is the dubious sport of ice dancing.  Where is hockey you ask?  It’s on the cable channel of MSNBC.  Hockey fans south of the 49th parallel who have nothing more than a digital converter box and an antenna will be completely shut out from witnessing this match-up.  In fact, depending on how the rest of the tournament pans out, this could end up being the only meeting between these two teams.  Then to add insult to injury, if you’re a subscriber to Dish Network, MSNBC’s coverage is not in high-definition.

What is even sadder about this mess is that tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, in which a young, amateur American team lead by legendary coach Herb Brooks beat the powerhouse Soviet team.  While there are no more amateurs in Olympic hockey, the American team is young, against a powerhouse Canadian team.  If the American team wins tonight’s game, millions of fans will have not witnessed the event, and not due to a major time difference.

With the National Hockey League desperately trying to increase their fan-base and television exposure, it seems odd that one of their broadcasting partners would have put this of all games on a station that millions cannot watch.  I wonder if the NHL even noticed this broadcast faux pas.  Too bad someone didn’t notice earlier and didn’t point out the issue to NBC.

If you’re reading this, and you’re disgruntled, I suggest you start sending e-mails to NBC.  Tell your friends to send them as well.  I’ll even make it easier for you to do so, as I will provide their e-mail addresses for you:

nbcolympicsfeedback@nbcuni.com
nbcsports@nbcuni.com

As the old saying goes, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  If you’re sick and tired of being a second rate sport with fourth rate coverage, you have to speak up.  The fact that hockey is being shoved aside by ice dancing of all things is a sad testament.

Feb
20

A few weeks ago I attended the last meeting between the Aeros and the Milwaukee Admirals and it really was a tale of two different Houston teams.  In the first game, you could say the Aeros had their “B” squad in place due to a suspension by Colton Gillies, as well as leading scorer and power play quarterback Maxim Noreau and perhaps more notably the absence of starting goaltenders Wade Dubielewicz and Anton Khudobin (who were up with the Wild as they were without Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding due to sickness and injury respectively) which prompted a one-off start for Ryan Nie who was playing in just the 2nd AHL game of his professional career.  This forced the Aeros to commit itself to playing a very conservative brand of hockey to try to protect their inexperienced goalie and despite allowing only 19 shots, Nie gave up 5 goals and Houston never really had a chance in a 5-3 loss.  Fast forward two weeks later where Gillies, Noreau and Dubielewicz are back as is Robbie Earl who had a nice extended stint with the Wild.  It should make for a different game right?  Well the answer to that is both yes and no.

Colton Gillies stretching out during pre-game warmups.

It was obvious from the drop of the puck the Aeros had considerably more speed in the lineup than last time as well as looking much more comfortable defensively with their best puck mover, Maxim Noreau back on the blueline.  The Aeros showed good hustle and speed early in the game, as they were able to establish the forecheck, cycling the puck with good efficiency but despite the tremendous puck control it was not yielding many scoring chances which would become a theme for this game.  After dominating much of the play for the first 8 minutes of the game a defensive breakdown in the neutral zone as Nick Spaling skated in and delivered a cross-ice pass to Andreas Thuresson who beat Barry Brust.  The goal really deflated the Aeros in what was a feisty game, where both teams were taking their chances to deliver big hits as well as more than its fair share of fights.  Brust was playing well, making a number of good saves and staying fairly square to the shooter which was a noted difference from the erratic movement of Ryan Nie during their last game.  As the Aeros faded, the Admirals would step up their intensity and they began to look to advance their lead as they were swarming in the Houston end.  After a nice save by Barry Brust, tempers would flare and J.P. Testwuide would drop the gloves with Colin Wilson and after a few initial punches thrown by Testwuide it was Wilson who managed to get the Aeros defenseman’s jersey over his head and much to the home crowd’s chagrin the officials moved in and broke up the fight just as Wilson was about to let him have it.  The Aeros thought they evened the score when a blast from the point by Noreau was redirected in by Petr Kalus but the goal was immediately waived off A few minutes later, former Colorado Avalanche energy winger Ben Guite caught Wild prospect blueline Justin Falk not looking and he leveled him behind the Aeros goal with a leaping body check.  Falk would immediately pop back to his feet and before he could go after Guite he was being jumped by Maxim Noreau who came to the defense of his teammate.  With the Aeros trailing by one you could see the energy and confidence level was shaken.

Wade Dubielewicz does his best to help out from the bench

Wade Dubielewicz tries to help his team by noting defenders and open men on the ice

In the 2nd period, it was all about missed opportunities for the Aeros. The Aeros had two power plays, the first on an unsportsmanlike penalty by Milwaukee’s Chris Mueller that only resulted in a few chances from long range that did not really test Mark Dekanich.  Houston would seem to have another fantastic opportunity when Robbie Earl managed to walk around Robert Dietrich and was in position for a tremendous scoring chance but he would fan on the shot and return to his bench clearly frustrated.  Moments after this missed opportunity it was Chad Rau showing great stickhandling, made a nice move around Teemu Laakso and then dished a cross-ice pass to Brandon Buck who could not lift a shot over the Admirals goaltender.  A few minutes later the Aeros would have nearly a minute-long 5-on-3 power play after a holding call on Scott Ford and then an absent-minded clearing attempt by Wacey Rabbit ended up in the stands.  Yet on the 5-on-3 the Aeros were far too passive and no one seemed willing to just take their chances and fire a shot on goal and then crash the crease and the Admirals got the huge penalty kill.  In fact, the Aeros did not even register a single shot on this extended penalty and it seemed to mark a change in momentum.  You could tell the Aeros’ players knew it too as Danny Irmen tried to re-light the fire under his team when he challenged Milwaukee’s Mark Matheson to drop the gloves.  Unfortunately the Aeros just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net and would end the period still down by a goal.

Danny Irmen vs. Mark Matheson

J.P. Testwuide drops the gloves for the Aeros

In the 3rd period the Aeros would again try to assert themselves offensively, but the Admirals were forcing Houston to the perimeter of the ice and preventing the Wild’s AHL affiliate from having time in the scoring areas of the ice.  The Admirals would add to their lead on another defensive breakdown as Peter Olvecky worked the puck down low beneath the goal line and then fed a pass out to Jessiman who slid a cross-ice pass to a crashing Scott Ford who was just able to sneak a shot underneath a diving Brust to give Milwaukee a 2-0 lead.  Dekanich was taking every opportunity to freeze the puck and this deprived Houston of the 2nd chance opportunities and the Admirals would hold on for a 2-0 victory.

You can’t fault Barry Brust for the outcome of his game, he gave the Aeros a chance to win giving up 2 goals on 27 shots faced.  Brust was making big stops all game long as the Admirals were swarming near his crease and while defensive support was ok at times, its breakdowns proved to be costly.  Yet the real story of this game was the fact the Aeros were a bit too patient with the puck and did not take advantage of the scoring opportunities the Admirals’ gave them.

Here is my assessment of some of the Aeros’ players in this game:

Robbie Earl discusses strategy with Justin Falk

Justin Falk – While Falk will certainly be annoyed at finishing -1 in this game, he demonstrated great mobility carrying the puck up the ice in an effort to create offense late in the game as well as good strength in battles for the puck along the boards.  Falk moves very well for a player of his size but could still use to be a bit nastier in delivering hits.  A solid stay at home defenseman who is showing good poise and looks to be a viable NHL prospect.

Cody Almond – Oddly enough, he was a player who looked more assertive in the first Aeros game I saw him play in two weeks ago.  In that game Almond was taking every opportunity to shoot the puck and a big reason why he earned a cup of coffee with the big club during those two weeks.  Yet in this game he was much more passive and while he demonstrated he is good at stickhandling through traffic he was not taking his chances to shoot.  Almond possesses a decent shot and the Aeros certainly could’ve used it that game.  He also got himself involved in a fight, in what would best be described as more of a wrestling match with Chris Mueller.

Maxim Noreau – Noreau is your typical offensive defenseman who has good on-ice vision who is an exceptional puck mover and stickhandler.  He was the Aeros most dangerous offensive player and while he did not register a shot that was do large in part to the Admirals who were shadowing him closely all game long.  Noreau has a heavy point shot and was robbed of an assist when Kalus’ goal was waived off.

Colton Gillies – It was a frustrating game for Gillies who just seemed to struggle all game long.  The puck never seemed to settle for him and on more than a few occasions he juggled the puck away and you could see the frustration on his face.  He was forechecking well enough, and throwing his body around and while it helped Houston to have his speed in the lineup he did not look overly fast for a player who has been so strongly regarded for his skating ability.  Offensively he needs to discover his niche and I believe there are lots to question about his game and his future as an NHL’er.  At this point I think he will be a long-term project for the Wild.

Aeros Notes:

~ The roster for last night’s game was: Jon DiSalvatore, Jean-Michel Daoust, Chad Rau, Matt Kassian, Cody Almond, Brandon Buck, Nathan Smith, Danny Irmen, Peter Kalus, Colton Gillies, Duncan Milroy, Robbie Earl, Brandon Rogers, Ryan Gunderson, J.P. Testwuide, Jaime Sifers, Maxim Noreau and Justin Falk.  Wade Dubeilewicz backed up Barry Brust.  Jamie Fraser and Carson McMillan were healthy scratches.

~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Mark Dekanich, 2nd Star Scott Ford, 3rd Star Nick Spaling

~ The State of Hockey News would also like to thank Aeros Equipment Manager Doug Tretiak for bringing a huge smile to the face of a few Wild fans when he was generous enough to give a quick tape job to a broken goalie stick of Barry Brust’s and give that souvenir to them for traveling to support the team.  It wasn’t needed or even expected but it are actions like that show just how great the people are that are involved in the game.  Doug Tretiak, you certainly are a credit to a first-class organization like the Houston Aeros.

~ In the 4th installment of our “Where are they now?” segment tracks the career of former Wild prospect and winger Peter Olvecky.  The Slovak-born winger is a top line winger for the Milwaukee Admirals who had an assist in this game and is having a solid season with 11 goals and 31 points in 55 games.

~ On a side note, the American Hockey League and the Syracuse Crunch should be congratulated for pulling off a terrific event in the Mirabito Outdoor Hockey Classic.  The rink, which was the same one used a few weeks early for the Camp Randall outdoor game between Michigan and the Wisconsin Badgers was a bit battered shape for the boards but the ice conditions were absolutely perfect for the game between the host Syracuse Crunch and their in-state rival Binghamton Senators.  There were a few Minnesota representatives in this game including Crunch Assistant coach and former North Dakota and Apple Valley High School star Karl Goehring as well as former Blaine Bengal and Colorado College star Trevor Frischmon and Binghamton’s defenseman and former Mr. Hockey, Brian Lee as well as former Golden Gopher; Maplewood, Minnesota-native James O’Brien.

Feb
19

‘Choking’, ‘not living up to the hype’, ‘disappointing’, and ‘failing to meet expectations’ are all euphemisms for teams or individuals that suffer embarrassment or humiliation due to a gaffe or costly mistake at the absolute worst time.  With the Olympics in Vancouver in full-swing the games have already had a few memorable moments of choking, whether it be the U.S. Men’s Curling team who was a bronze medal winner at Turin in 2006 now 0-4 after a crushing loss to Denmark 7-6.  Or how about Turin medal winner in snowboarder Lindsay Jacobellis who earned silver after trying to show off hoping for redemption (although she claims she only cares about having fun) this time getting a little out of control on a jump to lose control and failed to go around a gate during the semi-finals earning her immediate disqualification.  Or perhaps the most bizarre and perhaps the most embarrassing Olympic moment I can ever recall was turned in by French female downhill skier Marion Roland.  Just moments after American (and Minnesotan) Lindsey Vonn tore off a fantastic run, the French downhiller who was 5th in the World’s suffered the worst embarrassment of her career when she fell less than 10 seconds after leaving the starting gate allegedly injuring herself in the process.  When you consider the fact for Roland this run was to culminate her Olympic dreams and many years of hard work its incredibly sad, but I think its almost impossible not to laugh because its just that strange to see an athlete of that calibre fail in such a way that one would normally expect of a person who was spending their first day on skis at your local bunny hill.  Check it out for yourself.

http://video.mpora.com/watch/ifXIR7uS2/

Yet the Olympics are not all about athletes and teams who fail to meet expectations.  They can also be places where the teams and athletes who have been the focus of the media coverage live up to the hype.  Lindsay Vonn, despite all the media coverage about her being able or unable to perform because of a shin injury performed excellently in the downhill and took home a gold medal (while she didn’t medal in the women’s downhill combined), and the always impressive Shaun White was unreal as he clearly was a man amongst boys as he produced incredible air and an assortment of moves that was in a class by itself as he cruised to a gold.  Lastly, Shani Davis was able to turn on the jets at the right time to win the 1,500 meter speedskating gold.  So where does this leave the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team?

So far the Men’s team is 2-0 after defeating a surprisingly physical and gritty Switzerland squad 3-1 and then Norway 6-1 this afternoon.  So outscoring their opponents 9-2 over two games means Team USA is ready to take it to the next level and upset tournament favorite Canada in group play on Saturday night?  I am not convinced at all.  That isn’t just a concession that Canada is a deeper and more talented team who will benefit from a very raucous and intense home crowd but rather because the American victories have not come without their share of red flags.  Here are those flags in no particular order.

1.  Defensive coverage is inconsistent – Team USA has both had some tremendous breakdowns against he Swiss and Norwegians where they gave up odd-man or quality scoring chances off the rush.  The Americans defense was lucky Ryan Miller has been as sharp as he has been but also that the Norwegians and Swiss’ shooters failed to bury those opportunities something that will be lethal against teams like Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic.  Making matters worse, some of the turnovers are being committed some of Team USA’s blueliners who are getting greedy and looking for the home-run pass.  Former Golden Gopher Erik Johnson has been especially guilty of this.  To put it another way, if Team USA had played against better competition those mistakes were happening often enough to cost them wins.

2.  Offense has not faced a physical defense yet – This is not something that is Team USA’s fault, but they have not tested their offense against a tough physical defense like Team Canada will be.  Switzerland and Norway did their best to be physical but they do not have the strength to really stand up America’s speedy forwards the way Brent Seabrook, Chris Pronger, and Shea Weber will.  Team USA’s forwards are quick but they will find taking the puck to the crease far more difficult.  That will take away a significant portion of the Americans attack as they are not blessed with lots of skilled scorers and they do their best offense right near the crease.

Those are not a lot of red flags but they are big enough to cost them a spot on the medal podium.  Team USA is going to use youth, speed and grit to win games and it must be sharp defensively to avoid giving up so many high quality scoring chances the other way.  Yet, perhaps that is enough as Switzerland and Canada are tied 2-2 after 2 periods of play as I write this article.  Switzerland has bought into a similar strategy of being physical and initiating the attack whenever possible.

I could be wrong, and perhaps Team USA’s foibles were just a team working out its issues against its pool and will be ready to bring it all against Canada.  Canada is certainly showing some vulnerabilities (cough faceoffs cough) and without question Team USA will be hoping to deliver some pain to the hometown favorites.  Yet some key people will have to step up their game in a big way to help Team USA deliver an upset in what will easily be a very hostile crowd.

1.  Patrick Kane – Arguably Team USA’s most dynamic skater, he will be the set up man for the rest of the Americans’ forwards and he must find ways to create space and draw the defense towards him so the team can exploit those opportunities.  Kane could also help his cause by taking his chances to shoot the puck with greater frequency which will only force Canada and others to collapse around him more quickly.

2.  Zach Parise – Parise is the workhorse that Head Coach Ron Wilson will look to be the go-to scorer for Team USA.  The still relatively young forward from Minneapolis is a tireless worker at both ends of the ice but is an elite finisher who can find the back of the net in clutch situations.

3.  Dustin Brown – Brown is a player who can really cause the opposition a lot of headaches with his speed, and willingness to dish out hits.  He must be involved to punish the opposing forwards and then using his feet to drive the puck to the net and draw penalties.  Team USA would be wise to use Brown on one of the top two lines where his physical play can help create space for snipers like Phil Kessel.  In that same realm, a confident and assertive David Backes could have much the same effect.

4.  Brian Rafalski – If there is stabilizing presence on the backend for the Americans and is one of the few blueliners that seems to be effective on the power play after netting two goals against Norway.  While Rafalski will no doubt be relied upon to move the puck quickly up the ice he might be just as important in a role to settle down his fellow defenseman, many of whom who are inexperienced in Olympic play.

5.  Ryan Miller – Yet the most important player on the ice for Team USA will be the former Michigan State netminder.  Miller must be absolutely outstanding as his team may not possess the firepower to make up for a few soft goals.  Without question, his solid play will embolden Team USA’s offense as well as keeping his team confident against a hostile crowd.  He has looked very focused so far but his next test will be a lot tougher.

That choking sound you heard was Team Canada until it coughed and managed to sneak a 3-2 shootout victory over mighty team Switzerland!

Feb
14

Some people are calling it the “mini deadline” as NHL teams look to make some deals before the Olympic break which puts a freeze on all player movement.  NHL teams cannot even meet with their players or hold practices during the two-week hiatus.  Yet that won’t stop NHL General Managers from talking to one another about their plans before the NHL’s official trade deadline on March 3rd.  For some teams, they’ve already begun making their moves guessing it will give their team more time to adjust to new players and systems.  The Wild did precisely that as they dealt soon to be an unrestricted free agent veteran defenseman Kim Johnsson as well as 2010 1st round pick (16th Overall) Nick Leddy to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Cam Barker who was originally selected 3rd Overall in 2004.  Barker should make his Wild debut this afternoon, while Johnsson is already paying dividends for his new team as he scored a goal as the Blackhawks edged the Atlanta Thrashers 5-4 in a shootout.  So will this be a trade that Wild fans shake their heads at in shame or will this be the addition of a key piece to the organizations blueline?  Only time will tell.

At the start of this 5-game homestand the Wild gave some reasons for hope as they earned two victories over Edmonton and Philadelphia respectively with two gutsy efforts by Josh Harding and Anton Khudobin respectively.  It seemed as though the team’s chances of making the most of this homestand would be better if Niklas Backstrom returned.  He has returned and instead of being a source of strength one has to question his play the last two games.  With every point being so crucial, the decision as to who to start between the pipes has now become a tough one with Backstrom’s play being sub-par and plucky young Russian who seems both confident and fun loving.  Who will get the nod?  More importantly, will the Wild finish out this homestand with a win over its hated rival, or will the Canucks give the people of Vancouver one more reason to celebrate?

Minnesota had a tough near miss to start the period, as Kyle Brodziak just dished a pass from beneath the goal line to a wide open Guillaume Latendresse that was off the mark.  The Wild was really moving well, and their hustle would continue to allow them to create some scoring chances as Owen Nolan would take the puck deep in the Vancouver zone and then backhand a centering pass to Brent Burns who lifted a shot up and over the Canucks’ goal.  The top line would win a battle along the boards for the puck as Andrew Brunette passed it to Antti Miettinen who carried the puck into the Vancouver zone and he’d wind up and fire a shot that was blocked right back out to Miettinen who reset and ripped a shot that was gloved by Roberto Luongo.  There was a little chippiness as Shane O’Brien exchanged a few words along with a few shoves after taking a hit by Nick Schultz.  The Wild were doing a good job at keeping Vancouver to the perimeter but that would change as Vancouver’s top line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Alexandre Burrows had a great chance near the crease.  It started with some good cycling work down low between Henrik and Daniel as Daniel flipped a pass that was nearly tapped out of the air by Henrik Sedin but Niklas Backstrom was able to knock it down and Burrows was unable to get a good stick on the loose biscuit.  A few minutes later Brent Burns would showcase his athleticism as he attempted a point shot that was initially blocked but somehow he managed to hold the zone and then move in and fire a shot that was held onto by Luongo.  Vancouver tried to counter attack, and as Mason Raymond unleashed a shot from the right wall he was sent tumbling as he took a hit from Derek Boogaard.  Minnesota’s top line of Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen and Mikko Koivu would forecheck well as the assertiveness of Miettinen to take the body near the net led to a bad pass that Miettinen would track down and fire a quick shot that was stopped by Luongo.  The Wild kept swarming as Brunette fed a little pass to Mikko Koivu who found some space as he charged towards the slot as he ripped a wrist shot that beat Luongo but struck the right post and out.  The pace of the game was tremendous with both teams trading rushes and it was Vancouver’s turn as Mason Raymond managed to get around a Wild defender where he fed Mikael Samuelsson in the high slot and he gunned a shot that Backstrom was just able to get a piece of and deflect up into the netting above the glass.  Minnesota would get a bit of a break as Daniel Sedin would earn a hooking call in the Wild’s zone giving the State of Hockey its first power play of the game.  It took about 30 seconds for the Wild to get their power play set up and they worked the puck down low near the dasher where they looked for the quick cross-ice bang-bang type of play but Vancouver would collapse forcing Mikko Koivu to settle for a shot taken near the right faceoff dot that was gloved by Luongo.  Minnesota was persistent as Cam Barker pushed the puck up to Owen Nolan who carried it down low where he dished the puck to Eric Belanger who fired a shot that was stopped by Luongo but Guillaume Latendresse was there to pounce on the rebound as he beat him wide to give the Wild a 1-0 lead.  The Wild’s top line would have an outstanding shift where they showed great strength along the boards, moving the puck well but perhaps a bit too well as no one seemed to want to shoot the puck.  After some good support by Greg  Zanon, it was Zanon who just stepped up and blistered a slap shot that was gloved by Luongo.  The pace of the game would intensify as both teams started to trade rushes again, with the Wild having a great chance off some good work by Latendresse to set up Andrew Ebbett just out in front of the crease but he couldn’t get loose from a Vancouver defender to get a shot off.  Vancouver had one last great opportunity late as Pavol Demitra gave a perfect saucer pass to a pinching Nolan Baumgartner but his backhander was easily steered aside by Backstrom and the Wild carried a 1-0 lead going into the 2nd period.

Minnesota was moving well to start he period as they were attempting to continue what they started after a strong 1st period as Cal Clutterbuck delivered a nice hit to Vancouver’s Aaron Rome.  The Wild found a little time and space and you could see how aggressive they were trying to be as all 5 players were joining the rush and a centering feed by Andrew Ebbett would go to two Wild players, Guillaume Latendresse and Shane Hnidy and neither knew who the pass was intended for and all they could manage was a weak snap shot that was stopped by Luongo.  A few minutes later, the Wild kept moving their feet and Cam Barker pushed a pass up to Guillaume Latendresse who had a 2-on-1 with Eric Belanger as Latendresse tried to slow down to allow Belanger to get into the play but he’d run out of time and was compelled to flip a backhander that was held onto by Luongo.  Tempers would start to flare as the Wild were swarming near the Vancouver crease as they continued poking at the puck as Luongo was doing his best snow angel impression as a few different Wild players; Sheppard, Ebbett, Havlat all had great opportunities but came up short.  On the very next faceoff, Eric Belanger would slash Kyle Wellwood who returned the favor and it was Wellwood going to the penalty box for slashing.  Tensions were still high, as the Wild moved the puck with great efficiency but were unable to find much to shoot at as the Canucks confined themselves to a tight box near the crease but as they finally fired a shot on goal as Minnesota crashed the crease the hostility would boil over.  Several Wild players would engage Canucks in some shoving and ultimately it was just Antti Miettinen and Alexandre Burrows going to the box for roughing.  On the remainder of the power play, the Wild were attempting to use slap passes with the hope of redirecting them on goal that failed to click and Minnesota came up empty on the man advantage.  Minnesota’s hustle would finally be rewarded that was partially set up by the presence of Derek Boogaard who forced Roberto Luongo to think and then try to zing a puck along the glass and his pass would take a strange carom right to Cal Clutterbuck who slid a quick pass to Kyle Brodziak in the slot and he fired a shot that beat Luongo, 2-0 Wild.  On the very next faceoff, Aaron Rome would drop the gloves with James Sheppard.  Sheppard would seemingly get an early advantage as he managed to pull the jersey over Rome’s head but despite this impediment he just kept pummeling Sheppard but the Wild forward would throw a few weak right handed jabs and the officials would move in.  Rome would earn an additional roughing penalty on top of the 5-minute major for fighting.  The extra penalty would prove to be costly as the Wild would light the lamp again.  The Wild moved the puck very well from down low and back out to the points where Mikko Koivu stepped into a shot that was partially blocked right to Andrew Brunette who hesitated slightly, freezing the Canucks defense and Brunette threaded a perfect cross-ice pass to a crashing Marek Zidlicky for a pretty tap in goal, 3-0 Minnesota.  Minnesota could sense a chance to crush Vancouver’s will and they were moving their feet well as Owen Nolan centered a pass towards a crashing Andrew Ebbett who was pitchforked by Alexander Edler for an interference penalty.  On the man advantage the Wild were outstanding, moving the puck with great efficiency as they set up a series of close in chances but Luongo and the Canucks were able to scramble and keep the puck out of the back of their net making Minnesota come up empty again.  Minnesota would get lucky as Niklas Backstrom made the save and was sprawling and out of position as Greg Zanon moved into the crease and made a big save on Steve Bernier and the Wild were able to sweep the puck out of harm’s way.  As if on cue, the Wild would give Vancouver its first penalty when Mikko Koivu was busted for slashing Mason Raymond.  Minnesota’s penalty killers did a nice job to keep Vancouver to the wall and keeping their sticks active to deny the cross-ice passes.  Niklas Backstrom was solid, making a key stop as the Sedin brothers set up in the slot and Minnesota got the key late period kill.  Cal Clutterbuck made his presence felt delivering a big hit on Christian Ehrhoff, and this set up a long wrist shot by Kyle Brodziak who’s bid was stopped by a leg pad save of Luongo.  Minnesota continued to hustle as they controlled the final few minutes of the 2nd to take a 3-0 lead into the 3rd period.

The Vancouver Canucks would have a fantastic scoring chance early to start the 3rd as Daniel Sedin skated in and showed great patience as Niklas Backstrom sprawled to deny the angle and instead of shooting Daniel would try to sweep in the wrap around only to be shut down by Greg Zanon who again dove into the crease to bail out his goaltender.  Tempers would also flare after a big hit by Derek Boogaard on Ryan Kesler and Darcy Hordichuk raced over to his teammates defense and he horsecollared Boogaard to the ice and the Wild enforcer would rally back and throw some punches to Hordichuk’s body and then the two pugilists would tumble to the ice where Boogaard jumped on top of him.  Hordichuk would complain to the official claiming that Boogaard tried to gouge his eye out but to no avail as he received an instigator and a game misconduct on top of the fighting major.  Minnesota would go back on the power play and the Wild had some great scoring chances as Owen Nolan moved out towards the slot where he would fire a shot that was knocked down by Luongo and the puck was swept out of the zone before Andrew Brunette could pounce on the loose biscuit.  Minnesota would come up short on the power play, and Vancouver would take advantage of it as Christian Ehrhoff would blast a slap shot from the point that created a big rebound that Mason Raymond picked up and he rifled a wicked wrister by Backstrom to cut he Wild lead to two, 3-1.  The Canucks would get the Wild scrambling a bit in their own end as they looked to cut the Minnesota lead to one, and they had a few close chances shortly after Raymond’s goal.  The Wild were clearly attempting to lock the game down a bit defensively as they were content to work the puck deep, and go for a quick line change.  The Wild were still hustling and their effort would yield an interference call as Kyle Brodziak kept moving his feet as he was held up by Alexander Edler.  Minnesota did not waste much time on the power play as an initial faceoff win was worked down low to Andrew Brunette who feinted at a shot before firing a backhander by a surprised Luongo lifting the Wild to a 4-1 lead.  Moments later, a great individual effort by Kyle Brodziak to walk around Aaron Rome to move in for a breakaway where he fired a wrist shot high that caromed off the glass and back out into the slot where Clutterbuck swept in and beat Luongo with a backhand to give Minnesota a 5-1 lead to raucous applause by the 19,342 in attendance.  Vancouver Head Coach Alain Vigneault had seen enough and he would pull Luongo in favor of Andrew Raycroft.  Raycroft would be tested early as Guillaume Latendresse would find some space behind the Canucks defense where he would move in on a breakaway but Raycroft absorbed his wrist shot.  The Canucks would cut the lead back to 3 a few minutes later as Mikael Samuelsson would race in off the rush and fling a wrist shot that ramped up the stick of Schultz and beating Backstrom high stick side, 5-2 Wild.  Vancouver kept attacking and Henrik Sedin fired a sharp angle shot that reached Backstrom but the rebound was picked up by Daniel Sedin who backhanded a shot that Backstrom would cover for a whistle.  The Canucks continued pressing as they carried the puck down low drawing Minnesota’s defense towards their crease and then dishing the puck out to the point where Ehrhoff rifled a blast from the point that was held onto by Backstrom.  Cam Barker would show some good strength as he’d aggressively move after Kyle Wellwood, knocking him down and then chipping a puck around along the boards and out of danger.  With about 4 minutes left, Rick Rypien would exchange some words near the benches with Derek Boogaard but he did want to fight Boogaard.  Guillaume Latendresse would get his feet moving and he’d race into the Vancouver zone and wind up and blast a slapper that was held onto by Raycroft.  The Canucks kept pressing near the Wild crease as some scrambling play by Backstrom and the Wild’s defense would keep the puck out of the Minnesota goal.  Eric Belanger would draw another slashing call after giving Ryan Kesler a big hit.  On the power play, it was Derek Boogaard getting some rare power play time as the Wild tried to set up the Wild enforcer for a goal as Owen Nolan fired a wrist shot between the legs of Boogaard that reached Raycroft who held the post as Boogaard tried to chip a shot through him.  On the ensuing faceoff the puck would be drawn back, to Cam Barker who would wind up and cannonade a shot through a forest of legs that beat Raycroft to lift the Wild to a 6-2 lead.  The Wild would receive a prolonged standing ovation over the last minute as Minnesota let the last few seconds expire in a 6-2 victory.

Niklas Backstrom was solid between the pipes this afternoon, making 26 saves in the victory.  Yet Backstrom certainly owes some of his success and perhaps a nice steak dinner to Greg Zanon who bailed him out on multiple occasions.  Zanon made some clutch stops which served to prevent the Canucks from building any momentum in this game and Minnesota did a great job of making the Sedins a non-factor.  Cam Barker looked reasonably solid in his first game and while at times he could’ve been a bit more assertive that will come with more time with the team.  The other x-factor defensively was Minnesota’s hustle, which really gave the Canucks little room to utilize their lethal cycling game.

Offensively, it really all comes down to the power play.  Minnesota was a very potent 4-for-7 on the man advantage which served to not only boost the Wild to a commanding lead but also to deflate the Canucks psychologically.  The power play was effective because Minnesota was being less picky with their scoring opportunities as they were not settling for the low-percentage point shots that they have been guilty of in the past.  Also working for the Wild was their forecheck which put Vancouver on its heels and the hustle that helped so much defensively also resulted in goals as well as the Latendresse and Clutterbuck goals were perfect proof of.

Now the Wild, at least those not participating in the Olympics have two weeks off to rest and rejuvenate before powering up in what will be a brutal stretch of 21 games.  With 3 wins during this 5 game homestand are nice, but I have a bad feeling the loss against Atlanta could come back to haunt the Wild.  No doubt Wild fans will have plenty to discuss and argue about during the two week hiatus.  Meanwhile, the State of Hockey News will provide Olympic updates as well as focus on covering some of the team’s prospects and its American Hockey affiliate the Houston Aeros.

Wild Notes:

~ This afternoon’s roster was:  Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Eric Belanger, Antti Miettinen, Kyle Brodziak, James Sheppard, Derek Boogaard, Cal Clutterbuck, Andrew Ebbett, Guillaume Latendresse, Cam Barker, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy.  Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom.  Cody Almond and John Scott were the healthy scratches.  Clayton Stoner is going to need surgery to mend his groin injury.  Chuck Kobasew is near to returning from his sprained ACL/MCL, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard still looks to be out for the season dealing with post-concussion syndrome.

~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey are: 1st Star Marek Zidlicky, 2nd Star Andrew Brunette, 3rd Star Guillaume Latendresse

~ Cam Barker wore #45 for the Minnesota Wild this afternoon, no one has ever worn that number for the Wild.

Houston Aeros Report:

Houston 2, Grand Rapids 7

The best way to describe the Aeros’ Friday night tilt against the Grand Rapids Griffins is simply to say its “one of those days” and not in a good way.  The game started out innocently enough, as the Aeros drew a tripping penalty on the Griffins’ Kris Newbury.  What looked like an opportunity to get off to a good start instead blew up in the Aeros’ faces as former Peterborough Petes star Jamie Tardif stole a puck and rushed into the Houston zone before wiring a long wrist shot by Wade Dubielewicz to give the Griffins a 1-0 lead on the shorthanded tally.  Tempers would flare as Jaime Sifers would get into a shoving match with Grand Rapids’ Jakub Kindl and Kindl did not seem to want to stop and the shoves started to become punches which caused Danny Irmen to move in to defend his teammate.   Kindl would drop the gloves and Irmen would oblige in a nasty tangle as the smaller Aeros player would hold on before they both fell to the ice.  A few minutes later the Aeros felt some more pain as the Griffins added to their lead as Tomas Tartar took a pass from Evan McGrath and he flung a wrister that beat Dubielewicz with ease.  Aeros’ Head Coach Kevin Constantine had seen enough and he pulled Dubielewicz and sent Barry Brust between the pipes in attempt to stabilize the game.  The Aeros would appear to respond, as J.P. Testwuide would drop the gloves with Jan Mursak, and Testwuide would take control throwing some haymakers which were making Mursak wither.  Houston would finally cut into the Griffins lead when Petr Kalus ripped a one-timer after a great cross-ice pass by Duncan Milroy and his shot beat Daniel Larsson high stick side making it a 2-1 Grand Rapids lead going into the 2nd period.   Houston would attempt to rally back with the help of an early power play to start the period but the Griffins had collapsed well around their goaltender and they would shut down the Aeros’ favorite play, the one timer.  Barry Brust was doing well, but he’d hurt his own cause when he tripped up Evan McGrath as he hustled for a puck near the Aeros goal earning a tripping penalty.  The power play was just what the Griffins needed and just 43 seconds later, it was Kris Newbury finding some space in the slot to fire a shot underneath the arm of Brust to give Grand Rapids a 3-1 lead.  The Griffins would really put the boots to the Aeros a few minutes later when Justin Abdelkader would control the puck near the boards before sliding a pass out to the point where Andy Delmore wound up and stepped into a slap shot that beat Brust to lift the Griffins to a 4-1 lead.  Houston was only able to manage a few weak shots from the perimeter that never really tested Larsson.  In the 3rd period, the Griffins would take a page out of the playbook of their NHL parent club, the Detroit Red Wings and simply work to control the pace of the game with good puck control.  Grand Rapids would extend their lead to four when Cory Emmerton took the puck down behind the Houston net and he’d feed a pass out to John Vigilante who banged a shot by Brust who looked at his defenseman as if to say, “will someone help me here please?” as the Aeros now trailed 5-1.  The Aeros would finally strike back as Jean-Michel Daoust skated the puck down to the dasher and then turned towards the net before threading a centering pass to a crashing Colton Gillies who lifted a puck over the shoulder of Larsson to cut the Griffins lead to 5-2.  Grand Rapids would bury two more goals, to seal a lopsided and humbling 7-2 victory.  Brust gave up 5 goals on just 19 shots and Dubielewicz 2 goals on just 3 shots so needless to say the Aeros must have better performances between the pipes.

Houston 1, Grand Rapids 0 OT

After getting destroyed by the Griffins the night before both teams would settle in for a defensive battle in the 2nd game in as many nights.  Yet the defensive-mindedness approached the level of being timid.  The Griffins were feeling confident after dominating the Aeros the night before and they were carrying the pace of the game early.  Yet as much pressure as the Griffins initially were able to create, Barry Brust was a rock between the pipes making save after save and keeping the game scoreless by the end of the first period.  The Aeros started the 2nd with much better energy and were skating with purpose and the result was that Houston was dominating play.  One player who was having plenty of opportunities was defenseman Maxim Noreau who was winding up and blasting slap shots that kept Daniel Larsson on his toes.  A few power plays allowed the Aeros to build up some momentum and get the Toyota Center crowd behind them.  Where the first half of the period had the Aeros earning the power plays, but coming up empty the second half was all Grand Rapids as they were given 3 power plays of their own including a brief 5-0n-3 but Houston was able to hold off the Griffins attack and they would enter the 3rd still scoreless.  The Aeros would again pour it on in the 3rd as Grand Rapids seemed content to play rope-a-dope and wait for a Houston mistake.  Houston was steadily ramping up the pressure and they tried crashing the crease and using some traffic to make things tough for Larsson who was playing great for Grand Rapids.  Jon DiSalvatore really started to take his chances but the Griffins were doing everything they could to help out as they were dropping to block shots.  In overtime the Aeros kept swarming and it was Maxim Noreau faking a slap shot and using the slap pass to Jean-Michel Daoust who shoveled it by Larsson for the game winner.  Brust was perfect making 22 saves in the shutout.

WCHA Men’s Hockey Report:

~ St. Cloud State would hold off a furious North Dakota onslaught in the 3rd period where the Fighting Sioux outshot the Huskies 16 to 4 and the Huskies would prevail 4-3 as Dan Dunn made 40 saves in the 1st game of the series at National Sports Center.  In game two, the Fighting Sioux would answer back in a big way.  It started out quietly with both teams battling to a scoreless first period, but then North Dakota exploded for six goals in the 2nd period as they rolled to an 8-1 rout.  Former Moorhead Spuds star and Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Chris Vande Velde had a goal and 3 assists in the victory.

~ The Denver Pioneers were methodical as Marc Cheverie kept the Gophers at bay in what turned out to be a goaltender dual with both teams held scoreless going into the 3rd period.  In the 3rd the floodgates opened for Denver, as their offensive workhorses Tyler Ruegsegger, Joe Colborne and Rhett Rakhshani found the back of the net and only a late period goal by Patrick White allowed the Gophers to avoid being shutout.  Yet it was another frustrating outing for Minnesota who again came up short despite outshooting Denver 45 to 31.  Game two of the series was arguably even more dominant for the Pioneers as the Gophers just found themselves bottled up in their zone as Denver’s Colborne would earn a hat trick.  In the 3rd period it was as if the Pioneers were playing against a JV team as the Gophers chased Denver all over the ice, only a late goal by Colorado Avalanche prospect Mike Carman prevented being shutout as Minnesota suffered another demoralizing 5-1 loss.  The loss also made for a perfect two series sweep of the Gophers this season, a first for Denver who also earned its first two series sweep of North Dakota this season as well.

~ In a feisty contest, the Wisconsin Badgers would hold on to earn an important first game victory over Minnesota State.  After a scoreless 1st period, the Mavericks would find the back of the net as Mike Louwerse would lift a shot over Scott Gudmandson, but the Minnesota State lead would not last long.  Some undisciplined play really would hurt the Mavericks as the Badgers scored 3 quick goals on the power play giving Wisconsin a commanding 3-1 lead going into the 3rd.  Minnesota State would try to rally back but a missed call on former Cretin-Durham Hall star Ryan McDonaugh would lead to a 2-on-1 rush between Blake Geoffrion and Andy Bendickson and it was Bendickson lifting a shot over Phil Cook to extend the Badgers lead to 4-1.  Minnesota State would add two goals late in the 3rd period to make things interesting, including a penalty shot goal by Kael Mouillierat but Wisconsin would hold on to win 4-3.  Where the Badgers just barely edged out a victory over the Mavericks they cruised in the second game scoring six goals through the first two periods to blitz Minnesota State 8-4 and sweep the weekend series.  Nashville Predators prospect Blake Geoffrion had another solid game for the Badgers with 2 goals and an assist.

Feb
13

I must admit, it with a heavy heart that I mention the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as the sporting world was shocked with the tragic death of 21-year old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili as he was practicing on what some have said is the fastest luge track ever.  The death will certainly cast a very serious pall over an event which is supposed to bring the best winter athletes together and the opening night also will remind NHL fans that the league will go on hiatus as it does its best to be respectful of the many players taking part in the games.  With the exceptions of Czech’s Marek Zidlicky and Martin Havlat and Finns Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, and Niklas Backstrom the rest of the Wild will hopefully use the time to rest and rejuvenate but not before playing two more pivotal games.  Now to the game in hand…

In some ways, Atlanta and Minnesota share some common themes in their respective histories.  In 1864, a sizable portion of Minnesotans participated in Union General William Tecumseh Sherman‘s “March to the Sea” which culminated in the destruction of Atlanta.  Perhaps not the most pleasant connection but one with an ironic hockey twist.  It was this historical event that inspired the name of the original Atlanta NHL franchise, the Flames which of course was a reference to the city being mostly destroyed by fires set by Sherman’s soldiers who were following a policy of scorched earth.  The Flames struggled both on the ice and at the gate and thus the franchise relocated to Calgary where it remains to this day.  Meanwhile, Minnesota too would have a team struggle a bit at the gate and a spiteful owner in Norm Green relocated the North Stars to Dallas.  In the better economic times of the late 1990′s the league decided to attempt some more expansion and Atlanta and Minnesota were rewarded with new NHL franchises.   Like Minnesota, the Thrashers had to part ways with the best franchise scorer it ever drafted in Ilya Kovalchuk.  Yet this is where the similarities part ways.

Unlike Minnesota, the Thrashers didn’t lose their franchise star for nothing like the Wild did when they let Marian Gaborik walk away with nothing to show for it.  The Thrashers started in 1999, but success has been fleeting for the organization having only qualified for the post season once in its 10 NHL seasons.  Atlanta has also struggled mightily at the gate, with the worst attendance in the league last season.  The Wild have 395 plus consecutive sellouts and the NHL’s return has been a monumental success.  While attendance has waned slightly this season, it has still remained fairly strong despite a team being in transition.  The Thrashers like the Wild find themselves in a heavily concentrated pack of teams vying for the last few playoff spots in their respective conferences.  Minnesota has done very well against the Thrashers throughout the Wild’s 9 season history, will they earn another crucial 2 points in the standings or will the Thrashers give Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher another reason to be a seller at the trade deadline?  Perhaps the moves are already starting as the Wild dispatched defenseman Kim Johnsson and this year’s 1st round pick (16th Overall) Nick Leddy to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Cam Barker. Could this mean more moves are in the mix?

The game would have a quick pace as the Thrashers fired the first quality shot of the game as rookie Evander Kane pulled the trigger on a wrist shot that was deflected aside by Niklas Backstrom.  Atlanta kept its feet moving and they’d have another great chance The speed of the Thrashers was dictating the pace of the play early, and they set up a point blast by Pavel Kubina that missed just wide of the mark.  Minnesota tried to catch the Thrashers pinching as Cal Clutterbuck attempted to find Owen Nolan on a perfect saucer pass but it was just a bit too late as Nolan was called offsides.  A few minutes later, the Wild would take a foolish penalty as Derek Boogaard gave a little slash to the back of Maxim Afinogenov who played it up rather nicely.  The Wild penalty kill was aggressive and challenging the Thrashers puck carriers and they did a terrific job of pushing the puck deep, even if they had to pay the price as Andrew Ebbett did as he was crunched by Zach Bogosian.  Mikko Koivu would lead a shorthanded rush after stealing a puck in the neutral zone and he’d dangle around a Thrashers defender before firing a wrist shot that was stopped by Johan Hedberg, and he would follow it up with a few more saves on Eric Belanger and Nick Schultz respectively.  About halfway through, the Wild would take another penalty as Antti Miettinen tripped up Bryan Little who fell rather easy giving Atlanta a nearly minute-long 5-on-3.  The Wild’s penalty kill was collapsing into a tight box to give Atlanta’s point men, Pavel Kubina and Ron Hainsey little to shoot at.  Minnesota was able to kill off the 5-on-3 thanks to some good play by Backstrom to absorb the initial shot giving the Thrashers no second chances to work with.  As Boogaard’s penalty expired, he attempted to make up for his mistake by clearing away an errant pass by Afinogenov to relieve some pressure.  The Wild got the big penalty kill and the home crowd gave an appreciative cheer.  Yet the good feelings would be short-lived as the Thrashers’ Colby Armstrong led a rush into the Wild zone before dishing it off to Evander Kane and the youngster ripped a wicked wrister that beat Backstrom high glove side and gave Atlanta a 1-0 lead.  The Wild seemed to be a bit down over the next few minutes, but Atlanta would make a costly mistake of their own, as former Michigan State star Jim Slater.  Minnesota’s power play would not take long to strike as they moved the puck efficiently from the wall out to the points and it was a sort of a slap pass from Martin Havlat to a waiting Andrew Brunette camping near the high slot and he’d settle the puck and fire a backhander by Hedberg to tie the game at 1-1.  The goal would get the Wild’s feet moving, as they started to turn on the intensity and physicality as Guillaume Latendresse showed great strength along the boards before attempting to feed Havlat and Kyle Brodziak near the crease but it just failed to click.  A few minutes later it was good hustle that created their 2nd goal as Cal Clutterbuck fired a shot that yielded a big rebound from Hedberg and Andrew Ebbett pounced on the rebound burying it into the back of the net to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead.  The Wild were now dictating the pace of the game and putting Atlanta on their heels.  As the Thrashers tried to go on the rush, Chris Thorburn would pass the puck to a charging Eric Boulton who was leveled by a big hit by John Scott yet as he took the check he would get his stick into the face of Scott.  Boulton would earn a double-minor for high sticking.  The power play did not start out well as the Wild struggled to get set up and Marek Zidlicky would help the opposition’s cause by taking a high sticking penalty of his own making it 4-on-4.  It would go from bad to worse a about a minute later as Shane Hnidy would earn a holding penalty giving the Thrashers a 4-on-3 power play.  This would be devastating and deflating as Atlanta would light the lamp late on a blast from the point by Kubina that took full advantage of a screen by the 6’6″ Nik Antropov with just 13.9 seconds left in the period.  There were a few boo’s as the Wild left the ice tied instead of leading by one.

There would still be another 1:20 seconds of 4-on-4 play to start the 2nd period and the Wild seemed to struggle a bit with the open ice as they were making questionable passes as they wanted to work for the go-ahead goal.  Towards the end of the 4-on-4 the Wild had a good shift as Mikko Koivu used his body to shield the puck as he skated in deep in the Thrashers’ zone and he slid a pass back to Martin Havlat who would make a nice move toward the slot and he’d drop a pass back to Mikko Koivu who unloaded a shot that Hedberg was just able to deflect aside.  The Thrashers would answer back a few minutes later as Evander Kane would take a pass from Armstrong in the slot and he’d chip a shot on goal that Backstrom would hold onto for a whistle.  Minnesota would answer back with a rush of its own from its top line as Andrew Brunette pushed a pass up to Mikko Koivu who found a little space and he’d rifled a slap shot that was gloved by Hedberg.  Minnesota would continue to apply pressure as Mikko Koivu chipped a shot deep behind the net that was tracked down by Andrew Brunette who fed a quick pass to Marek Zidlicky who pinched in blistered a shot that was deflected up into the netting behind the goal.  The Wild continued to swarm and some great pressure by a modified top line of Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen and Cody Almond getting a rare shift and the kid looked not too bad as he moved near the crease and just couldn’t get his stick on it and he’d push the puck wide of the net but Minnesota continued to hustle.  It was Koivu who fired a shot that Hedberg stopped and Almond moved in and tried to jam a shot by the Swedish goalie who was lying on his back as the whistle was blown.  On the next shift, Minnesota got a little to carried away and Eric Belanger would trip up Todd White giving Atlanta a power play.  On the man advantage the Wild did a nice job of taking away time and space from the Thrashers, which kept Atlanta at a distance.  Minnesota would make their job tougher as Ron Hainsey did a nice job to weave by the Wild defense drawing a hook by Owen Nolan giving Atlanta a 5-on-3 power play.  The Wild again were solid in the 5-on-3 staying tight in their defensive box and collapsing well to get the quick clear and Belanger would join the penalty kill and make his presence felt as he immediately cleared away a loose puck.  Minnesota would earn the big kill, and this was potentially a big momentum shift.  The Wild nearly felt that momentum shift as a long range chance by Nick Schultz trickled through Hedberg and sat harmlessly in the crease before being escorted out of danger by Johnny Oduya.  The Thrashers tried to take the lead with a great shift by its energy line of Marty Reasoner, Chris Thorburn, and Eric Boulton as Reasoner had a few close in chances that Backstrom was just able to direct out of harm’s way.  The pace of the game would slow down bit as both teams seemed cautious of making a big mistake.  Atlanta would try to start some offense off the rush but Minnesota would retreat and disrupt the Thrashers’ attack.  The Thrashers gave the Wild another scare as Niclas Bergfors moved in and dangled around a Wild defenseman and flinging a wrister that was stopped by Backstrom as he went falling to the ice and Backstrom made another stop on the rebound.  Minnesota would get a bit lucky on another Atlanta rush as Bergfors would again get his feet moving and racing into the Wild zone before delivering a drop pass to Antropov who uncorked a slapper that rang off the post and out.  The Wild tried to respond and it was Andrew Ebbett sparking some sustained offensive pressure as he moved in and fired a long range stop that was gloved by Hedberg, on the ensuing faceoff it was the hustle of Ebbett which kept the play alive along the boards and he’d chip a pass to Martin Havlat near the Thrashers crease and he had Hedberg sprawling but was just unable to reach the loose biscuit.  Minnesota started to control the play as they began to win some draws in the offensive zone and they would fire a few blasts from the point that Hedberg was able to snare with the glove.  The Wild had another terrific chance as Owen Nolan would create some havoc on the forecheck in forcing a turnover and as Cal Clutterbuck fired a long shot from the boards it was stopped by Hedberg and Nolan was right there to try to stuff in the rebound but he pushed it just wide of the mark.  Minnesota would make some careless plays late in the offensive zone that turned into a rush up the ice for Evander Kane and he nearly was able to drag a puck around Nick Schultz, but at the end of the play it was an interference penalty on Miettinen giving Atlanta a power play to start the 3rd period.

The Thrashers started the period on the man advantage and Minnesota was moving its feet well denying time and space, and the Wild would get a bit of a break literally and figuratively as Niclas Bergfors would break a stick giving the Wild a little relief and they were able to clear the zone.  The Wild’s penalty killers was playing well, using passive pressure to keep Atlanta to the perimeter.  The hustle also created a terrific shorthanded chance as Eric Belanger pushed a pass up to Kyle Brodziak who got behind the Thrashers’ defense for a breakaway but he had a defender right behind him and he wasn’t able to beat Hedberg on the backhander before careening into the Atlanta goal.  Minnesota would earn the penalty kill and then attempt to press the attack themselves.  Andrew Ebbett was again a sparkplug of energy as he was all over the ice making good plays to dig out the puck along the boards and then starting the rush.  The coaching point between periods was obvious, “shoot, and shoot often” as both teams were taking their shots whenever an opportunity presented itself.  The Thrashers came very close to taking the lead when Maxim Afinogenov made a pretty toe drag move around a Wild defender before getting off a quick wrist shot that was knocked down by Backstrom but he gave up a nice rebound and it looked to be a sure goal for Rich Peverly but was swept to the corner by an alert Marek Zidlicky.  Minnesota would answer back with a rush of its own as Eric Belanger fired a shot on goal and Owen Nolan was pitchforked to the ice by Arturs Kulda to no call.  You could sense the anxiety in the home crowd as they attempted to rally their team but it was a mistake near the Atlanta blueline that nearly cost the Wild as they counter attacked with a 3-on-1.  Peverly would move in and dish a pass to Bergfors where he initially took the pass in the skate before firing a shot that Backstrom stopped and he’d gather up the rebound as Backstrom sprawled to challenge and the Wild goaltender was out of position and he was bailed out by a nice play by Havlat to steal it away and carry it out of danger.  Minnesota would counter with some good pressure from its 3rd line as Owen Nolan turned and flung a sharp angle chance that was picked up by Cal Clutterbuck who attempted a wrap around but Hedberg masterfully got across his crease and shut the door as Clutterbuck tried to jam it through but to no avail.  The Wild would try to press for the go-ahead goal but Nick Schultz was too passive at the Thrashers blueline and the puck would reach Niclas Bergfors who would race in and fire a shot off the rush that beat Backstrom high stick side giving Atlanta a 3-2 lead.  Minnesota would nearly get a quick answer after a strong power move by Guillaume Latendresse who used his 6’2″ 230lbs frame to protect the puck as he skated the puck down behind the Thrashers goal and back out toward the left faceoff circle and he passed it out to Nick Schultz who wound up and fired a slap shot that fooled Hedberg and the shot hit the left post square and went out.  You could sense the urgency in the Wild’s game as the top line had a great shift as they battled for the puck down as they tried to create a few scoring chances near the Atlanta crease.  Minnesota would continue to swarm in the Atlanta zone, but the Thrashers were also moving well and they were content to just dump the puck deep and force the Wild to kill valuable time bringing the puck back up the full length of the ice.  The Wild were getting frustrated and Minnesota started to ratchet up the physical play as the Thrashers moved the puck into the Wild’s zone it would culminate in Evander Kane would knock over Niklas Backstrom as the puck was pushed out to the point where Ron Hainsey blasted a shot from the point that found the twine but it was waived off.  With the crowd booing and anxious cheers the officials would explain their ruling to Ron Hainsey as Evander Kane would go to the penalty box for goaltender interference giving the Wild a power play.  The man advantage would be short-lived as Martin Havlat got a terribly weak cross-checking penalty as Chris Thorburn would embellish the hit as the officials heard the boo’s from the Xcel Energy Center crowd.  This forced the Wild to pull Backstrom for an extra attacker with about a minute left and all they would manage is a few long range deflection plays that just failed to connect and Minnesota would fall 3-2 to the Thrashers.

Backstrom has been better, looking particularly vulnerable up high as of late after returning from a short battle with the flu as he made just 21 saves in the loss.  Defensively the Wild did not give up a lot of shots but at times their play was a bit sloppy and it was a lack of discipline that deprived Minnesota from being able to create momentum early.  While some questionable calls played into that, it is up to the Wild to adjust and stay out of the penalty box. Backstrom was bailed out a few times by his defenseman and forwards and just does not seem to be the same and makes yearn for Josh Harding‘s return.

Offensively the Wild struggled to find time and space against the speedy Thrashers and it was the team’s inability to keep some of their late power play opportunities that really compromised Minnesota’s chance to win this game.  This was best personified by the undisciplined play that squandered a potential 4:00 power play in the 2nd period.  38 shots were nice but most were from the perimeter and the Wild was only able to create a handful of quality scoring chances.  Andrew Ebbett did not earn a star tonight, but he had the best hustle of any Wild player at either end of the ice.  Cody Almond did not get any shifts in the 3rd period, and looked a bit star struck at times but it was nice to see him get his first NHL cup of coffee.

This was a disastrous turn of events against a team the Wild had to beat.  A two-game losing streak may not sound terrible but at this point in the season it really puts the Wild in a desperate spot as they will hope to at least finish out their 5-game homestand with a victory over Vancouver in a mid-afternoon tilt.  You hate to use cliches like “must win” but its entirely appropriate.

Wild Notes:

~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Antti Miettinen, Andrew Ebbett, Cal Clutterbuck, Derek Boogaard, Eric Belanger, Kyle Brodziak, Guillaume Latendresse, Cody Almond, John Scott, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky and Shane Hnidy.  Anton Khudobin backed up Niklas Backstrom.  James Sheppard and Cam Barker were the healthy scratches.  Clayton Stoner is going to require surgery for his groin issues and Chuck Kobasew is back skating again and seems to be near a return to the lineup.  Josh Harding is out with a hip injury and will not return until after the Olympic break and Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still not skating as he deals with the effects of post-concussion syndrome.

~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were:  1st Star Johan Hedberg, 2nd Star Mikko Koivu, 3rd Star Niclas Bergfors

~ Cody Almond wore #23 for the Wild in his NHL debut.

~ The Ottawa Senators traded defenseman Alexandre Picard and a 2nd round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for Moorhead, Minnesota-native Matt Cullen.

High School Boys Hockey Report:

The finalists for the coveted title of “Mr. Hockey” which is given to who is considered to be the best high school player in the state, has been announced and should be a tight race.  The title of Mr. Hockey was first given to Minneapolis Southwest’s Tom Chorske in 1985 and a majority of the players selected have gone on to play in the NHL including such luminaries as Elk River’s Paul Martin and Hastings’ Jeff Taffe.  Here is your list of Mr. Hockey finalists for the 2009-10 High School season (as well as where they are committed for college at this point).

D Mark Alt, Cretin-Derham Hall (Minnesota)
F Joey Benik, Saint Francis (St. Cloud State)
F Nick Bjugstad, Blaine (Minnesota)
F Cal Decowski, Andover (undecided)
F Max Gardiner, Minnetonka (Wisconsin)
F Caleb Herbert, Bloomington Jefferson (Minnesota Duluth)
D Justin Holl, Minnetonka (Minnesota)
F Christian Isackson, St. Thomas Academy (Minnesota)
F Adam Krause, Hermantown (Minnesota Duluth)
F Brock Nelson, Warroad (North Dakota)

Elk River/ Zimmerman Elks – (13-6-2) ~ recent score: 5-3 loss to Blaine

It was the big Saturday Night showdown between #10 ranked (2A) Elk River/Zimmerman Elks and their conference rival, the #5 ranked (2A) Blaine Bengals on a brisk winter evening at Elk River Arena.  Predictably both teams were physically punishing one another right from the drop of the puck, but it was Blaine lighting the lamp first as Gavin Tufte banged home a rebound.  With the Bengals holding a 1-0 lead it was penalties that would haunt the Elks as Blaine took full advantage on the power play.  Blaine would add to its lead on the power play when #12 rated North American skater (according to Central Scouting) and Mr. Hockey finalist, Nick Bjugstad would rip a wrister by Anders Franke who found himself completely under siege throughout the 2nd period.  The Bengals would strike again as senior winger Taylor Richart lifted a backhand over the shoulder of Franke to give Blaine a commanding 3-0 lead.  Elk River would try to answer back, as leading scorer Ben Jaremko found a little space and blistered a shot by Danny Harper to cut the Blaine lead to two, 3-1.  However the hopes of an Elk River comeback were quickly thwarted as penalties again cost the Elks who found themselves on their heels all too often against the bigger Bengals squad.  The Bengals would surge on the man advantage as Nick Bjugstad made a pretty move and then ripped a quick wrist shot that snuck underneath the arm of Franke to extend the lead back to three, 4-1.  Just minutes later the Bengals would find the twine on its 3rd power play goal of the game as Gavin Tufte crashed the crease chipped a puck underneath the crossbar quieting the hostile Elk River crowd.  Senior Chad Hennum would score two goals in the 3rd to make the game look a little respectable, but it was a decisive victory for Blaine.  The Elks are in the midst of a tough 3-game stretch where they take on the toughest teams in the conference, next the Elks play another arch rival, the #9 ranked (2A) Centennial Cougars.  The Elks were ranked #10 (2A) as of their loss but they are still in good shape to make a good showing in the playoffs.  Elk River is still led in scoring by senior Ben Jaremko who is one of the best goal scorers in the state, in 16 games he has 29 goals and 42 points.

Hill-Murray Pioneers ~ (19-2-1) recent score: 4-0 win over Tartan

It is getting close to primetime for the Hill-Murray Pioneers who again look poised to make a long run through the post-season.  Playing a schedule which is about as battle tested as it gets, where the Pioneers have faced against 12 ranked teams from both class 1A and 2A Hill-Murray can proudly say it often ended up being victorious in those contests.  While a recent 3-1 loss to #2 (1A) St. Thomas Academy stings a bit the Pioneers still look to be a favorite to qualify for this year’s State Tournament.  Hill-Murray does really possess the scary gamebreaker but they are a team that has good depth and 3 quality scoring lines which makes it very difficult for the opposition to matchup against.  Senior forward Willie Faust leads the team in both goals (14) and points (30), but the team boasts no less than 8 players that have produced at near a point per game.  Between the pipes, Bill Lechner‘s squad boasts one of the best goaltenders in the metro area in junior Tim Shaughnessy who carries an impressive 16-2-1 record, a 1.87GAA and a .924% save percentage.  Shaughnessy even had the opportunity to participate in the Wild skills competition where he faced Wild players as they attempted their shootout moves, including an impressive showdown against Mikko Koivu as he managed to make the stop on his signature forehand to backhand shelf move.  If Shaughnessy can face a quality NHL’er like Koivu and keep a level head and come up with a save then you have to like the Pioneer’s chances this season.

Feb
12

Minnesota Wild (29-26-4)     62pts     4th in Northwest Division
2.70 Goals per Game (15th in NHL)
2.86 Goals Against per Game (21st in NHL)
17.5% Power Play (19th in NHL)
81.7% Penalty Kill (16th in NHL)

Top 5 Scorers:
1. #9 Mikko Koivu ~ 16G 36A = 52pts
2.  #15 Andrew Brunette ~ 15G 29A = 44pts
3.  #14 Martin Havlat ~ 14G 27A = 41pts
4.  #25 Eric Belanger ~ 13G 21A = 34pts
5.  #3 Marek Zidlicky ~ 4G 30A = 34pts

Top 3 Penalty Minutes:
1.  #24 Derek Boogaard ~ 79PIM’s
2.  #34 Shane Hnidy ~ 62PIM’s
3.  #36 John Scott ~ 57PIM’s

Goaltenders:
1.  #32 Niklas Backstrom ~ (22-17-4)   2.75GAA   .901SV%
2.  #37 Josh Harding ~ (5-8-0)   2.79GAA   .905SV%
3.  #35 Anton Khudobin ~ (2-0-0)   0.87GAA   .979SV%
4.  #31 Wade Dubielewicz ~ (0-1-0)   4.14GAA   .778SV%

vs

Atlanta Thrashers (25-24-9)     59pts     3rd in Southeast Division
2.95 Goals per Game (6th in NHL)
3.16 Goals Against per Game (28th in NHL)
17.0% Power Play (22nd in NHL)
81.7% Penalty Kill (17th in NHL)

Top 5 Scorers:
1.  #80 Nik Antropov ~ 14G 33A = 47pts
2.  #61 Maxim Afinogenov ~ 18G 27A = 45pts
3.  #47 Rich Peverley ~ 18G 26A = 44pts
4.  #39 Tobias Enstrom ~ 5G 36A = 41pts
5.  #77 Pavel Kubina ~ 5G 25A = 30pts

Top 3 Penalty Minutes:
1.  #36 Eric Boulton ~ 84PIM’s
2.  #27 Chris Thorburn ~ 72PIM’s
3.  #16 Christoph Schubert ~ 63PIM’s

Goaltenders:
1.  #1 Johan Hedberg ~ (13-9-5)   2.58GAA   .915SV%
2.  #31 Ondrej Pavelec ~ (12-15-4)   3.45GAA   .902SV%

With seven games on the NHL’s slate this evening, many fans will most likely be setting their DVR’s in order to catch both their respective game as well as the Opening Ceremony in Vancouver.  At least that is the case in my own home.  While the host officials in Vancouver have said not to expect the extravagance of Beijing, it will most likely still be a sight to behold.  Two things can be expected in the theme; elements of the First Nation tribes and most likely hockey.  The identity of tonight’s Olympic torch lighter is still under wraps, but it would not be shocking to any hockey fan if it turns out to be none other than “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky.  In fact, I would be shocked if it wasn’t Gretzky or another high-caliber hockey great of Canada’s past.

For the Wild, this is game four of the current 5-game home-stand prior to the official Olympic break.  One can only hope this game four turns out better than Wednesday night’s game fourth and final regular season game against Phoenix.  The way the Wild started out on Wednesday held great promise, however they were unable to sustain it for the full sixty minutes.  It wasn’t the worst game of the season by any means, but it wasn’t the best either.  Between the trap of the Coyotes and the occasionally indifferent play of the Wild, I turned off the television and felt blah.

It was during the Phoenix game that I really noticed an annoying trend, that prior to it, I hadn’t been able to put my finger on the problem.  The issue is the lack of urgency of getting to loose pucks, especially to hold the puck in the zone.  To me, the biggest offender of this issue is none other than Martin Havlat.  This is unforgivable.  On a team that it not particularly speedy, one should expect that the player with a decent amount of speed would be willing to race towards the puck.  But alas, that is not the case.  While he’s not exactly “floating” he’s not completely present out on the ice either.

It has also been announced that goaltender Josh Harding won’t see the Wild bench until after the Olympic break.  Teams are unable to hold practice until February 24th.  Head coach Todd Richards and goaltending coach Bob Mason are hoping the break will give Harding the time to fully heal.  In fact the forced break should prevent him from returning prematurely.  In the meantime, Anton Khudobin will be sharing the duties tonight and then on Sunday’s final game against Vancouver.  Whether or not Khudobin starts a game has yet to be seen.  At the very least, it is a relief to know that he can come into a game at any point, and get the job done.

Enjoy the festivities, whether you’re watching tonight’s game or the celebrations in Vancouver.

Feb
11

“Do you really want to hurt me, do you really want to make me cry,” are the most memorable lyrics from the Culture Club hit song, Do you really want to Hurt Me.  It might be only fitting that two teams battling it out for playoff position, the Minnesota Wild and the Phoenix Coyotes are now facing some of its most difficult injury issues just before the Olympic break.  While neither team has a character quite as colorful as Boy George on its roster, its all about business and finding ways to keep the wins rolling while attempting to fill some key holes on their rosters.  The one huge advantage the Coyotes have going for them is that they’re comfortably in the playoff picture, sitting in 4th place in the Western Conference with 77 points.  Yet, even the Coyotes know a bad week could have them dangerously close to the bottom of the playoff window.  The Wild on the otherhand are still trying to climb the ladder, sitting in 12th place with 62 points.  It might seem from an outside perspective the Wild are way out of it but a closer look again shows a relative log jam near final spot (7th & 8th place) with no less than 7 teams within 6 points of one another.

7.  Nashville Predators – 67 points (58GP)

8.  Calgary Flames – 67 points (60GP)

9.  Detroit Red Wings – 65 points (59GP)

10. Dallas Stars – 64 points (59GP)

11. Anaheim Ducks – 63 points (59GP)

12. Minnesota Wild – 62 points (58GP)

13. St. Louis Blues – 63 points (60GP)

The Coyotes will likey be without its team’s heart and soul, captain Shane Doan who is out with an upper body injury said to be in the rib area.  It is being termed as ‘questionable’ but Doan being the warrior that he has been throughout his career don’t be surprised if he tries to inspire his team by playing tonight even if its not at 100%.  Also out are two former Predators who always seem to have haunted the Wild in Vernon Fiddler (also listed as questionable) and Scottie Upshall.   On the Wild end of this injury situation is the fact Minnesota will likely be without its top two goaltenders in Niklas Backstrom who is still not at 100% after battling the flu and Josh Harding due to a hip injury.  This could very well mean that Anton Khudobin (then again, perhaps not) will get another start and after helping the Wild win a 2-1 game against the Flyers and making 38 saves in the process perhaps he’s just the player to allow the Wild to earn a victory.  Will it again be home sweet home with a win over Phoenix or will the Coyotes again make the Wild howl from bringing them another loss?

Minnesota did not waste anytime by having a good physical shift right from the drop of the puck as the energy line of Owen Nolan, Cal Clutterbuck and Eric Belanger and it was Clutterbuck managing to find some space as Belanger found him open in the slot but the pass would hit him in the skates.  Nolan would direct the puck on goal and Ilya Bryzgalov would push it back out to the slot where Clutterbuck fired a quick wrist shot that was directed to the corner by the Coyotes goaltender.  Phoenix would answer back with a good physical forecheck of their own as Daniel Winnik would harass Shane Hnidy and feed a pass back out to the point where Ed Jovanovski was waiting to unload a slap shot that would be slowed down by some sticks prior to reaching Niklas Backstrom.  Minnesota was really moving well, even the 4th line of Andrew Ebbett, Robbie Earl and Derek Boogaard were buzzing around the Coyotes’ end of the ice, and it was Earl using his speed to take the puck deep behind the Phoenix net and fire a quick shot and follow up his rebound with another before being man handled by Lauri Korpikoski.  A few minutes later, the Wild’s top line would showcase some great strength on the puck as Andrew Brunette, Mikko Koivu, and Antti Miettinen cycled the puck effectively, creating some pressure which drew a hooking call on Vernon Fiddler.  Minnesota would cash in on the power play as they took control right from the initial faceoff moving the puck from the half wall to the points where the 2nd unit of Nolan, Guillaume Latendresse, Belanger, Martin Havlat, and Marek Zidlicky moved the puck well never allowing the Coyotes to get real set in their defensive box.  Ultimately it was a shot by Havlat that went on goal and Latendresse followed it up by poking at the still loose puck and into the back of the net giving Minnesota an early 1-0 lead.  Phoenix would try to answer back with its top line as Shane Doan, who clearly was not at 100%, behind the Wild net where he attempt to feed a pass out front to Matthew Lombardi who chipped a shot on goal that Backstrom held onto.  A few minutes later, some more forechecking pressure by the Coyotes that had Petr Prucha attempting to set up a screen as Taylor Pyatt ripped a long range wrist shot that seemed to surprise Backstrom but he was able to make the stop.  The Wild would counter with a great shift from its energy line as they bottled Phoenix up in its own zone as Owen Nolan and Eric Belanger was able to rip a few shots on goal that were steered aside by Bryzgalov.  The Coyotes too would work the puck deep and they’d earn the equalizer off a nice pass by Petr Prucha from beneath the goal line out to Martin Hanzal who ripped a quick shot by Backstrom to near stunned silence at Xcel Energy Center.  Both teams would trade rushes with one another over the next few minutes.  Minnesota would take a needless penalty when Mikko Koivu hooked Robert Lang as the Coyotes attempted to go on the rush giving Phoenix its first power play of the game.  On the man advantage, the Wild challenged the puck carrier effectively and made it difficult for Phoenix to get set up in the Minnesota zone.  Minnesota was making the necessary sacrifices as Cal Clutterbuck stepped in front to block a slapper that was tee’d up by Ed Jovanovski.  The Coyotes were persistent as they moved the puck effectively which tired out the Wild’s penalty kill and they began to stop moving their feet and this nearly cost Minnesota as Shane Doan snuck in to rifle a one timer that Backstrom got just enough of to direct it to the left post and out.  Minnesota had to feel a little lucky still tied at 1-1 as the Coyotes had taken over the pace of the game throughout the 2nd half of the 1st period.

The Wild had another great shift from its energy line to start the 2nd period as small turnover in the neutral zone by Cal Clutterbuck who dished it off to Owen Nolan who turned on the speed and walked around Zbynek Michalek and then fired a backhander which was just directed aside by the toe save of Bryzgalov.  Moments later, the Wild had another great chance as Mikko Koivu chipped a shot wide of the net and gathered up the loose puck and pass it from beneath the goal line to a waiting Andrew Brunette got off a quick snap shot that Bryzgalov was just able to get a piece of to direct it out of harm’s way.  The Coyotes would respond back with a good shift of their own as Shane Doan turned near the Wild goal line and passed it back to Matthew Lombardi who blazed a one timer over the shoulder glove-side of Backstrom to give Phoenix a 2-1 lead.  Minnesota would try to answer back but in their zest to score quickly the Wild were attempting one too many passes as best evidenced by Guillaume Latendresse who was set up beautifully in the high slot and he’d skate in all alone and instead of shooting he dished a backhand pass to Kyle Brodziak who was unprepared and his pass was spirited away by the Coyotes’ defense.  Niklas Backstrom was also doing his best to keep the Wild in the game as he would make a good stop and then dive to make a highlight reel save with the paddle on Radim Vrbata.  Minnesota would apply more pressure and they drew a hooking penalty on Robert Lang.  The power play did not start out well as Martin Havlat would cough up the puck near the blueline sending Daniel Winnik and Vernon Fiddler on a shorthanded rush and Winnik fed a quick cross-ice pass to Fiddler who hammered a shot that was absorbed by Backstrom.  Minnesota’s power play would struggle to get set up as the Coyotes were challenging the Wild’s puck carriers effectively and were able to disrupt Minnesota’s entry attempts.  The Wild finally got set up and Minnesota moved the puck well from the half wall and then a diagonal feed out to the point where Marek Zidlicky uncorked a slapper that missed just wide and the State of Hockey would come up empty on the man advantage.  The play would get a bit sloppy as Minnesota was guilty of some lazy passes, but Greg Zanon would try to wake up his team with a big check on Matthew Lombardi.  A few moments later the Wild would give the Coyotes its 2nd power play of the game as Nick Schultz was busted for hooking as he battled with Taylor Pyatt.  On the power play the Coyotes moved the puck well on the cycle down low near the dasher and then moved towards the goal where they’d fire a few sharp angle shots that Backstrom was able to keep out.  Minnesota’s penalty kill was fairly passive but they were able to get the big clears when they needed to.  Niklas Backstrom would preserve the one-goal deficit as he made another great initial save on Robert Lang and then rob him on the rebound with a great leg pad stop.  The Wild tried to earn the equalizer as moved the puck towards the goal where Andrew Brunette chipped a shot on goal that Bryzgalov denied and on the rebound Mikko Koivu would snap wide of the Phoenix goal.  Minnesota continued to try to press the attack as Eric Belanger found a little room as he skated into the Phoenix zone and he ripped a shot that was deflected back to the glass behind the goal but the Wild would not get that 2nd goal and they’d trail 2-1 going into the 3rd period.

Minnesota tried to spark some offense early in the 3rd period as Kyle Brodziak was a one-man shot creation machine as he found a little space and he ripped a shot that was deflected away by Bryzgalov.  The Coyotes were playing the 1-2-2 and just hoping to play keep away and force Minnesota to take shots from long range as Bryzgalov was taking every opportunity to freeze the puck and slow the game down.  Even when Phoenix was in the Wild zone they seemed more concerned with using up the clock by maintaining puck possession and making smart safe plays than really adding to its lead.  Minnesota was playing into Phoenix’s hands by getting caught chasing and overskating the puck and the Coyotes lulled the Wild to sleep and they were going to add to their lead.  With the Wild chasing the Coyotes, Radim Vrbata would fire a shot virtually parallel to the goal line that went off the side of the net and off of Backstrom and into the goal for another tally that created a virtually silent Xcel Energy Center as Minnesota found itself trailing 3-1.  With the crowd as quiet as can be the Wild.  The Wild was forced to take some chances as Mikko Koivu would attempt a sharp angle chance that created a rebound but they were just not able to reach it before it was swept away by the Coyotes defense.  The Wild were now just putting whatever shots they could on goal forcing Bryzgalov to make saves and hoping to get lucky by pouncing on a rebound.  It seemed to be working as Nolan backhanded a shot on goal that he stopped but struggled to freeze as Minnesota swarmed him but the officials blew the whistle.  Minnesota continued to just keep firing shots on goal, many of the low percentage variety and Phoenix was more than satisfied in just dumping the puck the length of the ice even if it meant taking an icing call.  The Wild’s persistence was getting closer and closer to finding the back of the net as some hustle by Owen Nolan led to a centering pass to Andrew Ebbett who snapped off a quick shot that was stopped by Bryzgalov but his rebound would just be out of reach of Ebbett.  Moments later it was Mikko Koivu race in off the rush before firing a wrist shot to the shortside from an angle that Bryzgalov struggled with before covering the loose biscuit.  A faceoff win turned into a quick shot by Antti Miettinen which would reach Bryzgalov who would simply hold on.  The Wild were attempting to get some traffic in front of the Phoenix goaltender but it did not seem to make much of a difference as the big bodied Bryzgalov positioning made the save almost a given.  The Coyotes continued to kill precious seconds off the clock, even as the Wild opted to use four forwards on their normal lines in a desperate attempt to create offense.  With the game winding down, the Wild would get a late spark just over two minutes left as Martin Havlat took the faceoff and he walked around Vernon Fiddler before rifling a wicked wrist shot by Bryzgalov to cut the Phoenix lead to one, 3-2.  With the crowd into the game for the first time since the 1st period, the Wild looked to add the equalizer.  The Coyotes were in complete rope-a-dope mode just hoping to muck and grind along the boards and whittle away the final two minutes of play.  With 1:27 left, Wild Head Coach Todd Richards would call a timeout to talk things over.  Niklas Backstrom would be pulled for the extra attacker but Phoenix was outstanding at just getting their sticks in the way and throwing the puck the length of the ice and Minnesota never ever got a quality chance and the Wild would fall 3-2.

Niklas Backstrom made 28 saves in the loss but I think you have to question the quality of the goals he gave up which came from sharp angles where the goaltender has a distinct advantage.  Backstrom certainly was showing some rust and the goals served to kill the crowd which was as quiet as I’ve ever heard at the Xcel Energy Center.  Its not all bad for Backstrom as he did come up with some outstanding saves in the 2nd period to keep his team in the game.   Defensively the Wild really did not play that poorly, but at times they did get caught moving its feet and they allowed Phoenix to operate without much pressure behind its own goal. The flukey goal turned out to be the backbreaker, but Minnesota had more than enough chances to win this game.

Offensively the Wild were too fancy at times and it squandered potential scoring chances.  Especially in the 2nd period, the Wild were overthinking the play and the best example of this was Guillaume Latendresse who has been successful mainly due to his willingness to shoot making an ill-advised pass when he was wide open skating down the slot.  The Wild eventually found some success by just firing any shot they could on goal and Bryzgalov was giving up rebounds.  The 1-2-2 of the Coyotes was not going to allow the Wild to do much off the rush, it was going to force the Wild to move the puck quickly and taking the shots quickly to not allow Phoenix to get their sticks and bodies into the shooting lanes.

The biggest tragedy is the fact the Wild did not earn any points and have gone o-for-4 against the Coyotes this season giving Phoenix its first single-season sweep of Minnesota in their franchise history.  Minnesota used to own the Coyotes, but the 1-2-2 just locks the Wild down and give credit to Phoenix they did take advantage of their few quality opportunities.  Hopefully the Wild can turn it around against the lowly Atlanta Thrashers when they come to town on Friday.

Wild Notes:

~ Wild roster tonight is as follows: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Eric Belanger, Antti Miettinen, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Andrew Ebbett, Derek Boogaard, Robbie Earl, Guillaume Latendresse, Kim Johnsson, Greg Zanon, Shane Hnidy, Nick Schultz, Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky.  Anton Khudobin backed up Niklas Backstrom.  James Sheppard and John Scott were the healthy scratches.  Clayton Stoner is still out with groin issues and Chuck Kobasew is still rehabbing his strained ACL/MCL.  Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still a long way away from coming back from his post-concussion symptoms.

~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by Let’s Play Hockey were: 1st Star Martin Hanzal, 2nd Star Radim Vrbata, 3rd Star Kyle Brodziak

~ The Minnesota Wild have announced they will open the 2010-11 season with two regular season games in Finland against the Carolina Hurricanes on games on October 7th and 8th respectively.  The Wild have one of the more notable contingents of Finnish-born players in team captain Mikko Koivu, goaltender Niklas Backstrom and speedy forward Antti Miettinen.  The Wild will also play an exhibition game against Sm-Liiga’s (Finnish Elite League) TPS Turku squad which used to be Koivu’s team when he played their before making the trip across the pond to North America.

~ In our 3rd installment of ‘Where Are they Now?’ we focus on former Wild and Bloomington Jefferson star Mark Parrish.  Parrish just signed a one-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The former St. Cloud State Huskie has been playing for the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals and has 11 goals, and 25 points in 42 games.  Mark Parrish is still making his mark with the Wild so to speak in regards to his yearly cap hit that will last thru the 2013-14 season after the team bought out the remaining 3 years of his contract in 2008-09.

Houston Aeros Report:

2009-10 Record: 26-20-6-1 ~ 59pts – 5th in AHL’s West Division

Next Game: Friday at Home (Toyota Center) Vs. Grand Rapids

Top 5 Scorers:

1. #14 Jon DiSalvatore – 18G 22A = 40pts

2. #62 Jean-Michel Daoust – 16G 24A = 40pts

3. #26 Maxim Noreau – 14G 26A = 40pts

4. #20 Chad Rau – 13G 15A = 28pts

5. #8 Nathan Smith – 10G 16A = 26pts

Top PIM’s:

1. #42 Matt Kassian ~ 101 PIM’s

2. #11 J.P. Testwuide ~ 64 PIM’s

3. #8 Nathan Smith ~ 59 PIM’s

Top Goaltenders:

1. #33 Barry Brust (4-1-0) 2.03 GAA .919%SP

2. #31 Wade Dubielewicz (12-10-0) 2.36 GAA .910%SP

3. #30 Anton Khudobin (10-14-1) 2.42 GAA .904%SP

4. #35 Ryan Nie (0-1-0) 5.25GAA .737%SP

The Houston Aeros are a mirror image of the Wild in more ways than one. In the most superficial sense there is the common look of their uniforms and the fact that both Wild Head Coach Todd Richards (Crystal, MN) and Aeros bench boss Kevin Constantine (International Falls, MN) are from Minnesota. Yet in the standings the Aeros find themselves in a very tight race in the AHL’s very competitive West Division. Houston is currently 6 points behind the two-headed leaders, the Texas Stars and Rockford Ice Hogs who are both tied with 65 points each. And its current position of 5th is not for a lack of trying as the Aeros are 7-3 in their last 10 games. Like the Wild, the Aeros are a team that scores by committee and there is not one scorer that just jumps off the page in terms of production. The Aeros employ a two-man forecheck that is very similar to the Wild, although they do have their center and defenseman stationed closer to the red line than supporting near the opposition’s blueline as the Wild does.

The Aeros have done an effective job at supporting the Wild with call ups that have been reasonably effective. Call ups like Nathan Smith, Danny Irmen, Jaime Sifers as well as promoted farm-hands Clayton Stoner, Robbie Earl and Anton Khudobin have filled in nicely for Minnesota in their NHL stints. Only Wade Dubielewicz has proven to be a complete failure at helping the team win.  For any NHL team, having a farm club be able to provide serviceable talent that can immediately fill a position without being a liability is what any organization wants.  Yet at the same time, the farm team wants to be sucessful regardless of the roster changes it is forced to endure due to the needs of its NHL affiliate.  Its a delicate balance but one that minor league teams are more or less forced to accept.  The Wild have provided enough older AHL veterans to mix well with a small cadre of Wild drafted prospects like Colton Gillies, Matt Kassian, Justin Falk, Carson McMillan, Cody Almond and Danny Irmen as well as unsigned free agents Maxim Noreau, Brandon Buck, Chad Rau, and J.P. Testwuide.  So far, Kevin Constantine and assistants Troy Ward and Mark LaRose have done an excellent job at keeping both Houston and Minnesota happy and competitive.

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