The Minnesota Wild are back on the winning track after posting a 2-0 shutout victory over the Nashville Predators Tuesday night at the Xcel Energy Center. The win moves the Wild into a fourth place tie with the Predators in the Central Division with 11 points. Minnesota’s record improves to 4-3-3 on the season and kicks off a stretch of games with the Wild playing at home 6 of their next 7. If will be a great chance for Minnesota to pick up some wins and get some much needed practice time. The loss for the Predators breaks a streak of 5 games in which they had picked up at least a point. Wild Head Coach Yeo was pleased with the victory but said there is more work to be done, “We can’t sit here and feel too good about it. We’ve got to make sure we build off of it. The only way to do that is to come to the rink tomorrow and make sure we’ve got our heads straight.” Once again the Wild out shot their opponent heavily in the first and second periods only fall behind in the third. Tonight Minnesota posted a 13 to 3 shot advantage in the first period and an 11 to 6 total in the second. In the third period though the Predators out shot the Wild 7-5. The shot totals for the game were about average for the Wild offensively and better than average defensively. The Wild are tops in the NHL allowing opponents an average of just 21.2 shots on goal per game this season. The difference between this game and several others recently is that Minnesota’s team defense shut out the Nashville offense completely, not allowing even a greasy, lucky goal that has been their nemesis this season.
While the Wild won the game they may have lost an important piece of there defense. Sophomore sensation Jonas Brodin took a puck to the face just 2:54 into the first period that dropped him to his knees near the Wild bench. It was a seemingly innocuous dump in by Gabriel Bourque that did the damage. Brodin did get back to his feet and made his way to the bench and down the tunnel not to return to the game. During his post game comments Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said Brodin was taken to the hospital for treatment but had no further updates on his condition. I’d expect to see some sort of update on Brodin’s injury Wednesday morning at the earliest. If Brodin is injured that is a big blow to the Wilds top defensive pair. Brodin is ranked 10th out of all NHL defensemen in points scored with 6 (3g, 3a). He was also averaging 25:42 in ice time per game again ranking him in the top 10. The loss of Brodin forced the Wild to play with five defensemen the rest of the game. Ryan Suter led the way with 28:52 in ice time and the rest of the Wild “D” played between 20:29 and 24:52. Coach Yeo and his assistants did a great job of keeping the defense fresh with shorter shifts and rotating players in and out. It worked as Minnesota got the shut out, the second time the Predators have been blanked this season. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon made, perhaps the defensive play of the game. In the closing seconds a puck fired from the side of the net trickled past Harding and lay on the goal line when he Spurgeon General swooped in and knocked the puck out of harms way, preserving the slimmest of leads, 1-0 with 42 seconds remaining in the game. All five defensmen played well and even four at one point in the first period when Marco Scandella had to leave the ice after taking a Shea Weber shot off of his foot. He did return at the start of the second period and tested his leg prior to the puck dropping. He apparently felt well enough to continue and totaled 21:26 in ice time for the game.
For the Wild, “The song remains the same” to quote some Led Zepplin. Once again they controlled the puck for long periods of time with the Predators even going more than 10 minutes with a shot on goal in the second period. Nashville could only muster 16 shots for the game while the Wild put a total of 29 at Nashville net minder Pekka Rinne. Minnesota is tops in the NHL with just 21.2 shots per game on average. The Wild now average 30.5 shots a game which is a welcome sight after seasons past where they hovered around the 20 shot mark. As has been the case for many a game this season the Wild could only come up with a single goal playing 5 on 5. Justin Fontaine picked up the game winner, with his second goal of the season, which came at the 18:53 mark of the second period. The Fonz, as teammates call him, was crashing the net after a Marco Scandella shot when he corralled a juicy rebound and chipped the puck upstairs past Rinne for the goal. The Wild would add a second goal with less than a minute to play in the game and Predator’s goal tender Rinne on the bench for an extra attacker. That tally came from the stick of Jasom Pominville, his 4th of the season, with the assists going to Mikko Koivu (1g, 6a) and Zach Parise (3g, 4a). The Wild’s top line of Parise, Kouvu and either Pominville or Nino Niederreiter has now totaled 10 goals and 12 assists in 10 games this season. That works out to 47.6% of Minnesota’s goal, 32.4% of the total assists and 38% of the team’s points scored. Those totals are more than the you’d like to see a single line have, but it is not surprising since the Wild have not had even a single goal from their second line in any of the 10 games played this season. The Wild are desperate for some secondary scoring and so far this season Coach Yeo has yet to find the magic combination. Four players, Parise, Koivu, Pominville, and Niederrteiter account 38% of the offense while the remaining 18 players who have skated for the Wild this season account for 11 goals and 25 assists. That is definitely NOT the “Balanced Scoring Attack” Coach Yeo has been looking for. Furthermore defensemen have scored 5 goals and 13 assists totaling 31% of the total Minnesota offense.
One area of the Wild’s game that has been a study in contrast’s is the power play and penalty kill. Tuesday night the Power play was 0 for 2 for both teams. There were only 4 minor penalties called all game which included a penalty free second period. The Minnesota power play is currently ranked 5th in the league scoring at a 25% rate. The penalty kill on the other hand is ranked 27 out of 30 teams killing penalties at a rate of just 74.4%. During the man advantage chances for Minnesota tonight the power play units looked strong with good puck movement, several shots and scoring chances. The Predators penalty kill is ranked 14th in the league at 82.9% but it more like luck than skill that killed off Minnesota’s power play chances Tuesday night. Nashville’s power play is in the bottom third of the NHL scoring at just a 15.2% clip.
The single player who made a single goal stand up and be the game winner was Josh Harding. The Wild net minder played in his 8th game and was perfect on the evening turning away all 16 Nashville shots. The Predators didn’t exactly pepper Harding with shots managing just 3 in the first period, 6 in the second, and 7 in the third. Harding biggest challenge all game was more than likely boredom. Harding improved his already sterling statistics and now leads all NHL goal tenders (with at least 4 games played) with a .96 goals against average. His save percentage improved to 95.3% which is third best in the league. His shutout tonight is the 8th of his career and first of the season. When Niklas Backstrom went down with a sprained knee many people inside and outside of the Wild organization wondered if Harding would be up to the task of playing nearly every game. I’d say that question has been answered with a strong YES at this juncture in the 2013-14 season. Wild coach Mike Yeo praised his goalie saying, “These aren’t easy games to play. There’s not a lot of real quality chances, not a lot of pucks to the net.” “For him (Harding) to stay focused and ready I was real impressed with his game.” Backstrom is getting closer to his knee sprain being fully healed. At that point Minnesota’s coaching staff will have the task of deciding when to get Backstrom back into the action. Having two healthy number 1 goal tenders is a rare luxury few teams in the NHL get to enjoy these days.
The Wild paid tribute to Matt Cullen during the game, welcoming him back to the Xcel Energy Center with a thank you message on the scoreboard. Players on both teams tapped their sticks as Cullen looked up at the score board message announcement with the same humble expression Wild fans grew to know over the 200+ games he played in a Wild sweater. Former Wild player Eric Nystrom also returned to the “X” but his reception was a bit bumpier, as he put a hard check on Nate Prosser, the Wild D-man took exception and the former team mates dropped the gloves and engaged in a pretty good fight. Both players were throwing big punches and several found their target as offense seemed to outweigh the defensive efforts of both fighters. The home town crowd and HockeyFights.com both gave Prosser the win in this non-staged, heat of the moment fisticuffs. Speaking of fighting, the Wild’s Zenon Konopka dropped the gloves with Rich “The Goon” Clune less than 3 minutes into the first period after Clune attempted to smear diminutive defenseman Jared Spurgeon all over the boards in front of the Minnesota bench. Spurgeon barely side stepped the boarding attempt, probably saving Clune a suspension, and Konopka moved in to “discuss” things with Clune. Both of the fisticuffs were of the “heat of the moment” variety and not the staged theatrics that so often accompany fights in the NHL today.
This was a good win to start this home stand for the Wild against a divisional opponent and secured 2 valuable points. Once again though, the Wild couldn’t secure the victory until the final seconds. The first game back home after a disappointing road trip didn’t produce more than one 5 on 5 goal and saw the all to familiar bevy of chances not converted into goals. Minnesota gets another chance on Thursday when the Carolina Hurricanes come calling. The Canes sit in second place in the Metropolitan division with a 4-2-3 record and 11 points. I’ll be back on Thursday morning with a preview of the Wild vs Hurricanes action. That is also Harding’s Hope Night with various activities and giveaways surrounding Josh Harding’s Charity that raises awareness and helps to support people living with Multiple Sclerosis. More about that on Thursday. Until then this is Scott Drain sleepily shouting, “Let’s Go Wild!”