The Minnesota Wild BEAT the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 Thursday night in front of their biggest crowd of the season, totaling some 19,226, in the Xcel Energy Center in frigid St. Paul Minnesota. It’s cold outside but the Wild are hot against the Blackhawks, posting their third win in four games against the Stanley Cup Champions this season. The return of Zach Parise shook up the forward lines but Head Coach Mike Yeo found the right combinations as Minnesota struck for two first period goals. That combined with another great game in net by Darcy Kuemper and the Wild won their 8th game in 11 tries this month. This was a great bounce back game for the Wild after one of if not their worst performance of the season vs Dallas on Tuesday. Minnesota needed this win, not only for the two points in the standings, but for their confidence as they head into a very tough road trip against some of the best teams in the Western Conference. Before the game I said the Wild needed to do three things to win this game and for the most part they did all three, they started strong ,scored first, and finished the game well defensively.
Jason Pominville scored the game’s first goal, his 20th of the season, on a beautiful passing play with Mikael Granlund (18 assists) and Dany Heatley (10 assists) getting the assists. The play Started with Heatley putting a slick pass right on the tape of Granlund who was flying up the wing. The play concluded with Granlund sliding a no-look pass from the corner of the crease, back and up ice to Pominville cruising into the left circle. The Wild’s leading goal scorer made no mistake burying the puck in the back of a wide open net, past Blackhawks net minder Raanta who had slid over anticipating a Granlund shot that never came. That was also the Wild’s first shot on goal of the game, 8:08 into the period. First shot on goal NOT attempted shot, of which the Wild had several that were either blocked, missed the net, or were directed wide intentionally looking for a redirection of deflection. Both teams were very stingy defensively for the first half of the opening period. With 10:30 elapsed in the 1st period the shot totals stood at 3 for Chicago and 1 for the Wild. This was shaping up to be a defensive battle between two teams that have made defense a hallmark of their success this season. Then at the 12:45 mark the Wild would be handed a great power play opportunity. We’ll discuss those in a bit.
Matt Cooke would give the Wild a 2 goal cushion with a crafty goal at the 15:31 point of the period. Cooke was on the receiving end off a nice semi-diving poke at the puck type pass from rookie Justin Fontaine. Kyle Brodziak started the play sending the puck to Fontaine as he entered the zone. Cooke was cruising down the left side gathered in the puck, settled it down, and in less than a second put a shot at Chicago’s Raanta that flew between the goalies leg and glove for the score. The goal was Cooke’s 7th of the season the assists were Fontaine’s 6th and Brodziak’s 12th. Minnesota could have easily been up 3-0 but Zach Parise caught a rolling puck on a brilliant cross ice pass by Nino Niederreiter and sent the puck wide of it’s target. In his post game comments Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said, “Zach gets that opportunity again off the rush, next game or the games after, that’s gonna be in the net for sure.” Yeo added, “Fonzy (Fontaine) hit the post in the 2nd, Marco (Scandella) hit the post. Certainly those are times where if you can grab another goal you have the opportunity to really step on their throat.” At the conclusion to the first period the home team Wild lead on the scoreboard 2-0 and were up 10-6 in shots on goal. The Wild would also take their ONLY penalty of the game toward the end of the period as Matt Cooke was sent to the box for a tripping call. Minnesota would kill the penalty allowing just two shots while a man down. This would be the most exciting period of the game as the home team clamped down defensively and just couldn’t quite put another biscuit in the basket against the ‘Hawks.
In the second period the Wild would be outshot 11-6 in what can only be be described as a non descript boring period of hockey. The Wild defended very well and Darcy Kuemper was outstanding. Minnesota General Manager Chuck Fletcher looks to have really done well with his 6th round, 161st overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Kuemper’s record now stands at 5-3-0 with a goals against average of 2.22 and a save % of .924, pretty heady numbers for a 23-year old goalie with just 44 games of AHL and 15 games (and counting) of NHL experience. He doesn’t seem overwhelmed or starstruck but very composed and in control. This was his first game against Chicago and his Head Coach, Mike Yeo, once again praised his play in his post game comments saying, “He looks just real confident. There’s times when you can almost feel the tension rising on the bench. The next thing you know, he makes a play and settles it down. It’s amazing what he does to settle the rest of the group.” Kuemper faced a total of just 17 shots over the first two periods combined. That total would double by the end of the game with the Blackhawks out shooting the Wild 17 to 3 in the third period. The Minnesota net minder would stop 16 of those coming within 31.2 second of his second shutout of his career. Patrick Kane would score with Chicago’s goalie Raanta pulled for an extra attacker but that would be the only goal of the night for the visitors to St. Paul. Kuemper’s numbers for the night read 33 saves on 34 shots, giving him a save % of .971 for the game. Of those 33 shots 31 were at even strength, 2 were shorthanded on the penalty kill, and one was during a Wild power play.
The Wild’s offense would basically disappear in the third period generating just three shots on goal while Chicago would double their output. Minnesota was in more of a defensive mode protecting their lead but they did have some great scoring chances, just none that moved the twine. Defenseman Marco Scandella would have a great look at the 9:55 mark but his slap shot from 50 feet out clanged solidly off the iron and stayed out. The Wild would also come very close to an empty net goal three times in the last 2:18 with Blackhawks goalie Raanta on the bench. One puck slowly slid toward the net as a Chicago player tried in vain to chase it down, the puck glided through the crease and softly bumped the upright staying out of the net eliciting a large groan from the crowd. Two other chances slid just wide of the cage resulting in icing calls against the Wild.
Then came the power plays. A good thing right? Not for the Minnesota Wild who have struggled mightily with the man advantage and are just downright bad when two men up. This night the Wild had 3 full power plays, they scored on none, dropping their success rate to just 17.6% on the season. That ranks them 21st in the NHL. This was also against one of the worst penalty killing teams in the league. The Blackhawks kill off just 78.3% of their penalties, the 4th worst rate in the league. They actually improved that number a bit on Thursday. You could tell it was going to be “one of those nights” for the Wild when Chicago took two penalties on the same play. Brent Seabrook was whistled for a cross check on Nino Niederreiter and Patrick Sharp was nailed for the same infraction on Dany Heatley. TWO FULL MINUTES OF 5 on 3 HOCKEY!! For most teams that’s a good thing, for the Wild this season that is the kiss of death. They have scored exactly one goal when playing 5 on 3 this season. Tonight they once again suffered from perfect play syndrome. They kept passing, passing, skating, passing, looking and looking for that perfect play, that unstoppable opportunity that never came. They totaled just two shots on goal for the entire 2 minutes of 5 on 3 hockey. Minnesota also had a pair of 5 on 4 power plays in the second period that of course generated the same results with the same type of play.
Marian Hossa took a slashing penalty against Charlie Coyle and Brandon Bollig was called for a high stick on Jonas Brodin. These two opportunities generated just three shots total. For those of you counting that is 5 shots on goal during 4 minor penalties over 6 minutes of game time. If I sound frustrated with those numbers imagine how the Wild’s coaching staff and players feel. They all see the problem but to date have not been able to fix it. You can feel the tension rise in the Xcel Energy Center when the Wild go on a power play. The shouts of SHOOOT! and groans from the crowd rise in volume as each opportunity on the man advantage falters ending more often than not with Boo’s from scattered places all around the arena. This power play is something the Minnesota Wild are going to have to find a solution to if they are going to make any headway in the Central Division and make any kind of a serious playoff run in the spring.
Your Minnesota Wild now begin one of their toughest road trips of the season as they first face the San Jose Sharks who are second in the Pacific Division with 72 points and a home record of 18-2-3. Next up are the Pacific leading Anaheim Ducks with 81 points and a home record of 21-1-2. Rounding out the trip is a Central Division battle with the 3rd place Colorado Avalanche who are currently 6 points ahead of the 4th place Wild. I’ll be back with a preview of Wild vs Sharks on Saturday morning. Until then this is Scott Drain ensconced in my warm little abode triumphantly shout out to all in the State of Hockey and beyond, “Let’s Go Wild, LET’S GO WILD!!!”