Penalties haunt Wild in devastating 3-2 loss to the Thrashers
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 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.