A few weeks ago, Ken Hitchcock's job was as a consultant for the Columbus Blue Jackets and as the occasional call in guest to NHL-themed radio show. Two weeks ago, the Blue Jackets, still mired as the league's worst team was about to start a little mid-season break and the rumor mill was heating up that Hitchcock could be returned as the Blue Jackets' bench boss as Scott Arniel's days were up. Hitchcock tried to dissuade those rumors by saying that "ship has already sailed and I doubt they'll want it to come back." A somewhat surprising turn of events in St. Louis, right after a Wild victory over the Blues where they dropped the axe on then Head Coach Davis Payne a day after the loss. It shocked many because the Blues were just 6-7 which is not a great record but not as bad as some of the other teams in the league. Hitchcock was installed as the new Blues Head Coach, and so far he's had the team singing a different tune (yes, I know, bad joke) as they've gone 4-0-1. Meanwhile Scott Arniel is still the Head Coach of Columbus and they're still mired in complete mediocrity. (shrugs)
Minnesota is in the 2nd game of a 6-game homestand. The Wild have done wonders with a defense that has seen lots of turnover as injuries continue to pile up. They haven't been big point producers but they haven't been a liability (knock on wood) either. The Blues will be hoping the aggressive style Hitchcock has endorsed will be enough to draw a better result against the Minnesota Wild. Minnesota's defenseman must be prepared to endure a physical onslaught as the Blues normally try to thug things up against the Wild. So will Minnesota's young patchwork defense stand up to the test or will they finally start to show their inexperience?
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1st Period Thoughts: The Blues were playing aggressively right from the start of the puck, forcing the puck deep and putting Minnesota on its heels a bit early. It wasn't turning into a plethora of shots, but they were pressing the play. Minnesota would nearly make the Blues pay a price for their aggressive posture as the top line got free for a 2-on-1 between Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu and as a Blues defenseman slid to the ice to block the shot, Heatley tried to pick a corner and ended up shooting it high and wide. A few minutes later Heatley would have another opportunity as Devin Setoguchi stole a puck on the backcheck and he'd race into the Blues' zone and he'd drop a pass back to Heatley and he hammered a low-lying slap shot that struck Jaroslav Halak's leg pad drawing a rebound but unfortunately no one was in position to pounce upon. Minnesota was showing good initiative tonight, even on the physical end of the game as Brad Staubitz lowered the boom on Ian Cole that nearly caused a great scoring chance for Warren Peters in the slot. The Blues tried to answer back as David Backes got some space and he'd unload a shot on goal that was stopped by Josh Harding but he'd give up a rebound that was picked up by T.J. Oshie who lifted a shot wide of the goal. Minnesota would be caught a bit in a line change and it turned into a breakaway for Jason Arnott and his wrist shot was denied by Harding, but just seconds later the Blues would strike as Oshie hammered a shot on goal that was stopped but he couldn't quite cover up the rebound before it was tapped in by a crashing Backes to put St. Louis up 1-0. The Wild tried to answer back with its 2nd line of Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and Cal Clutterbuck as Cullen set up Nick Schultz for a one-timer that never reached Halak. Cla Clutterbuck tried to raise the intensity of the game with a shift that saw him rock Roman Polak with one big hit and then just a few seconds later a nice check to Matt D'Agostini. The Blues had a nice chance late as Cloquet's Jamie Langenbrunner set up Arnott for a quick one timer that was steered wide by Harding. The Wild would trail St. Louis 1-0 going into the 2nd; but overall I thought it was a reasonably good period for Minnesota. They had good hustle, but they just needed to generate more shots on goal.
2nd Period Thoughts: St. Louis would start the period off with a quick shot on goal as Alex Steen's snap shot was held onto by Harding. Minnesota would respond with a chance of their own as Bouchard used a change of speed to speed around Kevin Shattenkirk and he'd zoom around the net where he attempted a wrap around that was denied by the leg pad of Halak. The Wild would give the Blues their first power play of the game as Cal Clutterbuck was given a charging call for leaving his feet to make a hit on Roman Polak. Clutterbuck was not happy with the call and let the official know his disdain from the penalty box. On the penalty kill; the Wild had some great hustle to work the puck deep into the St. Louis zone, and a subtle play by Justin Falk to take an extra stride and push the puck down below the goal line would pay off big time as Minnesota's Mikko Koivu who chased after the puck picked the pocket of Kevin Shattenkirk behind the Blues' goal and he skated out to the front and beat Halak with a quick wrist shot for a shorthanded goal that tied the game at 1-1. The Wild would earn the big penalty kill but St. Louis would have a bit more jump to its step. The Blues tried to re-take the lead and came very close to doing so as Alex Pietrangelo joined the rush and found himself set up on a pretty pass by Vladimir Sobotka for a break away but his backhander was stonewalled by Harding. Both clubs would attempt to work for the go-ahead marker; and almost 8 minutes after Koivu's shorthanded goal the Blues put a puck in the net as big Ryan Reaves punched a puck out of the air with his glove into the Wild goal. It was an easy 'no-goal' call that didnt' require any review whatsoever as Reaves smiled as he skated by knowing his punched goal had no chance of giving the Blues the lead. The Blues would continue to swarm in the Wild zone and a lost race to the puck nearly turned into a St. Louis goal as Chris Porter was robbed by a big glove save by Harding. Minnesota would create some great chances with its top line as Mikko Koivu made a nice play to intercept a Blues pass down low which turned into a flurry as the puck was worked out to the point where Clayton Stoner stepped into a slapper that was stopped by Halak but he gave up a big rebound that Koivu snapped a shot that was stopped by the Blues' goalie. The quality scoring chances appeared to ramp up the intensity for Minnesota as they started to throw their bodies around as Justin Falk tried to put a big shoulder into Oshie but he bounced off and Clutterbuck had a similar check when he tried to run Barrett Jackman. The Wild may have gotten a little too carried away as Kris Fredheim registered his first NHL penalty as he would sit in the sin bin for holding giving the Blues their 2nd power play of the game. Minnesota's penalty kill was rather passive as the Blues power play was pretty static as they chose to work it towards the half wall and Jamie Langenbrunner was right on the top of the crease and Harding would cover up the puck for a whistle. The Wild were patient and calculated as Mikko Koivu made a nice diving play to clear the zone, and Minnesota get another big kill. Minnesota would exhibit that puck possession that they had practiced so much on Friday as they controlled the zone setting up a variety of opportunities culminating in a few shots from the point by Jared Spurgeon. Both clubs were showing a little fire in the closing moments of the period. Another solid period for Minnesota, but they will have to dig deep if they expect to earn 2 points. Lots of great effort from all four of its forward lines.
3rd Period Thoughts: The 3rd period had a focused intensity to it; and Minnesota was showing great puck support early as they stymied a few Blues' rushes up ice. Minnesota was starting to counter punch and Matt Cullen made a nice move to enter the St. Louis zone where he dropped it back to Bouchard who blistered a slap shot that struck the left post. The Wild were hustling well and it was paying off with scoring chances as a nice backcheck was picked up by Dany Heatley who threaded a pass up to Devin Setoguchi who found himself all alone on the break away but his wrist shot was nabbed out of the air by the glove of Halak to keep the game tied at 1-1. Minnesota was winning the races to the loose pucks and the St. Louis zone started to look like a shooting gallery as the 2nd line of Clutterbuck, Bouchard and Cullen peppered Halak with a series of shots that drew an appreciative cheer from the crowd. Dany Heatley got ran by Ryan Reaves that sent the Wild sniper's face into the glass; and moments after that a broken stick by Justin Falk nearly yielded a breakaway for Reaves but some great hustle prevented the chance. The Blues would re-take the lead, 2-1, as Alex Steen made a pretty pass through a maze of skates for an easy tap in goal for Oshie. Minnesota's energy line would try to go to work for the equalizer as Nick Johnson worked the puck down low; and a few moments after that it was Darroll Powe pushing a weak backhander on goal off the rush. The Wild were showing a sense of urgency, taking every opportunity to create scoring chances. After lots of hard work in the St. Louis' zone the Wild would finally get a power play as Ian Cole held the stick of Devin Setoguchi. Minnesota's power play would have an outstanding scoring chance as Mikko Koivu made a beautiful move to around a defender to set up Clutterbuck on a bang-bang play only to be robbed by a great save by Halak. The Wild's power play continued to set up quality chances as Bouchard dished to Clutterbuck for a one-timer that was absorbed by Halak. Minnesota was creating a lot of chances off the rush but nothing that would beat Halak and they'd come up empty on the man advantage. Mikko Koivu was playing with some serious fire, as he dangled around defenders before firing a bullet of a wrist shot that was blocked aside by Halak. The Wild would forecheck more aggressively, and this would result in some more scoring chances as they were funnelling more shots on goal but at the crucial moment they were not able to pounce on the rebounds Halak was giving up. To Halak's credit he was making some great saves but his job would get tougher as the Blues' Jason Arnott was given a slashing call for chopping the hand of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. With just under 2 minutes left and the Wild going on the power play, St. Louis would call a timeout to talk things over. The talk wasn't too effective as Minnesota won the opening draw, and after a quick shot on goal the Wild would pull Harding for an extra attacker but the puck would work its way out to just underneath the left faceoff dot where Spurgeon passed it over to the right faceoff dot where Mikko Koivu sort of fanned a shot that fluttered over a sprawling Halak and just underneath the crossbar to tie the game at 2-2. Minnesota wanted to press for the go-ahead goal in the closing minute but offside calls derailed their two attempts and the game would go to overtime.
Overtime thoughts: Minnesota would have the first shot of overtime as some good hustle by Pierre-Marc Bouchard would cause a Blues turnover and Matt Cullen and Bouchard would go on the attack and Cullen got off a weak wrist shot that was an easy stop for Halak. The Blues tried to create a scoring chance of their own but in the process Matt D'Agostini would fall over Hrading to no call. The Blues were winning some of the small races to the loose puck, and this caused the Wild to be scrambling a bit but some smart defensive plays prevented St. Louis from creating anything truly dangerous as a nice backchecking play by Heatley denied what could've been a bang-bang play. With no goals to decide overtime the game would go to a shootout.
Shootout Overview: Minnesota elected to shoot first, and the Wild's first shooter was Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He took a very wide right approach, where he tried a small shoulder deke that Halak wasn't buying and his backhander was stopped easily. St. Louis' first shooter was Alex Steen would race up the ice and he'd try to fake a wrister and then try to dangle a backhand that Harding stopped with the leg pad. Minnesota's next shooter was Mikko Koivu and he moved in used his patented forehand to backhand deke, and he roofed a shot by Halak to put the Wild up 1-0. The Blues next shooter was T.J. Oshie who took a very slow meandering approach and he ripped a wrist shot through the wickets of Harding to tie the shootout at 1-1. Minnesota's next shooter was Matt Cullen who skated in and slowed down and he fired a wrister of his own that snuck through 5-hole to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. This meant Kevin Shattenkirk had to score to keep the Blues' hopes alive and he skated in and tried lifting a forehand that was knocked down by Harding and Minnesota would earn a 3-2 shootout victory.
Harding was again very solid, making 25 saves in the victory. While Harding did not have as many dramatic stops as Halak, he kept Minnesota in the game and gave them the opportunity to claw out a shootout victory. He didn't look the slightest bit rusty after sitting for a few games. Defensively I thought Minnesota was pretty solid at keeping the Blues' forecheck from being too much of a factor. I also thought they looked much improved in their puck support and they were able to break out of the zone with ease. Another great defensive effort.
Offensively the Wild got a herculean effort from its captain, Mikko Koivu who played like a dominant leader all game long both defensively but most importantly in the offensive zone. He was shooting, he was asserting himself and creating chances for his teammates. I thought it was easily his strongest game of this season and hopefully if he can take off offensively this team really can get going. The top line was very strong tonight, and they were consistently able to create some offensive pressure. As Koivu heats up it will no doubt open up the ice a bit more for Setoguchi and Heatley and it will hopefully lead for more scoring opportunities for them as well. The 2nd line of Cullen, Bouchard and Clutterbuck was pesky and also had a tremendous game even though it wasn't registering a lot of points (Clutterbuck had the lone assist for the line).
I really felt Minnesota had an outstanding effort and with the way Jaroslav Halak was playing the Blues probably feel as though the points were stolen from them. Minnesota continues to find ways to win games; and while you don't really want to give up extra points to opponents in your conference, you sort of let that slide when you're the team coming away with 2 points. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo couldn't help himself from gushing about Mikko Koivu's best performance of the season calling him, "a complete team first game and all he wants to do is win games and you can expect him to be a great example even if you're not getting goals every night." As for the team's effort, Yeo summed it up by saying, "We have a lot of guys coming to the rink prepared to play a game and when you invest a lot you fight a lot harder." As a coach that's a great way to put it and the results speak for themselves. With the Blackhawks losing to the Edmonton Oilers, that Wild are tied in points for the lead in the Western Conference.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Warren Peters, Colton Gillies, Brad Staubitz, Kyle Brodziak, Nick Johnson, Darroll Powe, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser, Kris Fredheim and Jared Spurgeon. Niklas Backstrom backed up Josh Harding. Marek Zidlicky and Mike Lundin were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Mikko Koivu, 2nd Star Matt Cullen, 3rd Star Jaroslav Halak
~ The attendance was 17,259 at Xcel Energy Center.
Wild Prospect Report:
C - Zack Phillips (Saint John, QMJHL) ~ The Fredericton, New Brunswick-native extends his scoring streak to 14 games with an assist on a power play goal by Tomas Jurco. Phillips currently holds the longest scoring streak in the "Q" right now as he helped his team to a 2-1 win over Prince Edward Island.
G - Steven Michalek (Harvard, ECHC) ~ The Freshman had a strong start against Clarkson Friday night, making 21 saves in the 3-2 victory. Michalek holds a 2-1-1 record, 2.47 goals against average and a solid .918% save percentage.
C - Charlie Coyle (Boston U., H-East) ~ The big bodied forward continues to score at a point-per-game pace as he scored an unassisted power play goal in a 4-3 win over the Vermont Catamounts Friday night. Coyle currently has 2 goals and 11 points in 10 games.
Wild Tryout Report:
RW - Kyle Thomas (Norwich, ECAC-Div.III) ~ Thomas continues his hot start by adding another a goal; his 4th in just his 4th game of the season. The Massachusetts-native with a tireless motor and blazing speed that made him stand out at the Wild's summer prospect training camp is making the Cadets an early contender for the Div. III title.
Houston Aeros Report:
Record: (9-3-0-3) 21pts 3rd West
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #14 Jon DiSalvatore ~ 7G 9A = 16pts
2. #17 Casey Wellman ~ 10G 5A = 15pts
3. #22 Jeff Taffe ~ 4G 10A = 14pts
4. #37 Justin Fontaine ~ 4G 7A = 11pts
5. #26 David McIntyre ~ 7G 3A = 10pts
Top 3 PIM's:
1. #26 David McIntyre ~ 25 PIM's
2. #4 Drew Bagnall ~ 15 PIM's
3. #39 Chay Genoway ~ 11 PIM's
1. #31 Matthew Hackett (7-1-2) 2.42GAA .920%SP
2. #34 Dennis Endras (2-2-1) 2.76GAA .904%SP
Recent Score: Houston 2, Texas 3 OT
The Houston Aeros' have been feeling the pressure as they have been leaned upon for players to fill out the Wild's roster as injuries have started to take their toll. To the Aeros credit, those call ups have helped Minnesota keep its momentum going (knock on wood), but those roster moves have helped stall a promising start by the Wild's AHL affiliate. Right now the Aeros are missing one of its key versatile forwards in Warren Peters currently serving as Minnesota's 4th line center; where he's done reasonably well. Matthew Hackett has been a huge source of strength for Houston as the carousel of defenseman continues to change in front of him as Aeros blueliner after blueliner gets a chance to play for the Wild. Now the Wild are giving back a bit as Apple Valley-native Mike Lundin gets sent down on a conditioning stint; and in his first game he was showing a little rust as he was an 'even' rating with no shots on goal. In the pivotal play against Texas, a stick was slashed out of his hand and that gave the Stars the opportunity to get the tap in goal for the overtime victory. UPDATE: Aeros won their rematch with the Texas Stars in a game played in Austin as they roll to a 5-1 victory. Carson McMillan got things going for the Aeros, but the Stars answered back as Tomas Vincour scored his 10th of the season. After that it was all Aeros as Cody Almond scored his first of the season, with just 49 seconds left in the 1st period. Jeff Penner, Casey Wellman and Chad Rau lit the lamp for the Aeros down the stretch while Dennis Endras made 24 saves in the victory.
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