After being tripped up by Los Angeles Kings franchise defenseman Drew Doughty, Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter, helped by Mikael Granlund, successfully won a battle for the puck along the right wing boards, saw 2013 NHL All-Rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin charging up the slot and dished it to him for a quick snap-shot that would beat Jonathan Quick top shelf glove side for the go-ahead goal on the man advantage late in the first period of last night’s opening night showdown at the Xcel Energy Center. Try saying all that in one breath.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, 23, is the elder statesman on a Wild second power play unit that features 2010 first rounders Niederreiter (5th overall), Granlund (9th overall) and Charlie Coyle (28th overall) and 2011 10th overall pick Brodin. At times last night, the unit some Wild fans on Twitter have quickly dubbed “The Baby-Face Brigade”, looked even more dominant than the No. 1 unit of NHL All-Stars Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville. While the Kings would mount a comeback and win in the shootout, there were a lot of really good signs in the game overall–and the Baby-face Brigade is certainly not the least.
Here are a few things I noticed last night:
1. Similarities in style began to pop up between the Wild and the Detroit Red Wings, which I had just watched the night previous. Minnesota wasn’t playing like a team with two set scoring lines and two set grinding lines–they were rollin’, rollin’, rollin’. You hear people say a team is four lines deep and instantly think Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins. Detroit is the same way. They play better than the sum of their parts. They play as a team. Quite frankly, every time I watch Detroit play, I can’t help but feel like I’m watching the Soviets in their golden age. Minnesota began to look that way last night.
Through most of the first two periods, the Wild kept the Kings on their heels. Head Coach Mike Yeo has been preaching a new philosophy of “puck possession”, and we finally saw what that looks like last night. Minnesota was shooting, creating havoc in L.A.’s end and maintaining control of the puck. In fact, there were times where you hardly had to look at how goaltender Niklas Backstrom was doing because the puck was never in Minnesota’s end. Simply put, Minnesota was dictating the game up until the third period collapse. If they can keep up what they were doing for a full 60 minutes for most of the season, this team isn’t just a playoff team–it’s a serious Cup contender.
2. A huge part of that dominance was No. 2 center Charlie Coyle. Yes–he made a few mistakes, and is arguably responsible for the Kings’ game-tying goal–but the kid is just a moose! You cannot knock him off the puck. L.A. found out very early on last night that you couldn’t expect to push around Minnesota’s second line of Niederreiter, Coyle and Heatley. Much like the former second line of Jason Zucker, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi in parts of the postseason last year, this new second line is one opposing teams will find very difficult to contain.
3. Keith Ballard looks good. He’s playing for his hometown team, looks hungry to prove himself and played an outstandingly physical game with five penalty minutes, a shot, two hits and a blocked shot in his limited ice-time of 14:07. A guy like this will be the perfect compliment to a young kid like Mathew Dumba when he finally makes his NHL debut.
4. The power play looks much, much improved from last season. With a top right-shot point man in Pominville on the other side of Suter, Minnesota’s formerly all-left No. 1 power play looks deadly. Guys were making crisp passes and cycled the puck well last night. A tweak here or there, and they’ll be one of the best power play units in the league.
5. Nino Niederreiter is as advertised. In 15:33 of ice-time last night, he would notch two penalty minutes, three shots (all in the first period), one hit and a beautiful backhand primary assist on Brodin’s power play goal. He was big, physical and nearly impossible for L.A. to rein in. Who does he think he is? Charlie Coyle? It’s safe to say the kid has made a good first impression in his Wild debut.
6. Granlund looked spectacular last night. The kid seems to have finally developed into a 200-foot player. In 14:54 of ice-time last night, Granlund would notch two assists, a plus-1 rating, a shot, hit and two blocked shots in (temporarily) becoming the team’s leading scorer this season. He looks bigger, faster and didn’t seem to quit on any play. It certainly explains why he was chosen over Zucker for Minnesota’s opening night lineup.
Yes, Minnesota lost last night. But there’s a lot to look forward to from the club this season. If this is the new team culture we’re seeing, expectations should be high–this team looks good.
Follow Dakota Case at Twitter.com/Dakota_case