A year ago, NHL fans across the world were annoyed and despondent. Some, like myself threatened and followed through to boycott part of the season if the league and NHLPA did not settle its issues. For some people, this meant losing their jobs as millionaires fought against billionaires, all sqabbling over who should get the lion's share of the fans' money. Now, the most recent lockout seems like a distant memory and despite the threats of a year ago very few actually carried through with their threat if you believe the attendance and ratings figures the NHL was quick to publish. So without the labor strife, the fans are now all going to flock back to the arenas without a care in the world except the most important issue on their minds. How well is 'my team' going to do. The Wild had one of their more mild summers in free agency unless you count the small outrage at sending hometown fave, Matt Cullen packing in free agency, trading another fan favorite in Cal Clutterbuck and then replacing him ostensibly with one of the most hated Wild 'enemies' in franchise history Matt Cooke. Yes, the summer of 2013 was quiet but it does not mean that tonight's game will not be the first step in answering some pressing questions about this team's future.
First and foremost is that future. Last season, the team fell over itself promoting its bright future of youngsters. Some of the youngsters shined, and others disappointed. To use a popular NHL meme, "Is this the year?" Is this the year that the Wild's future stars finally shine and help carry the team towards its goal of perennial strength and dominance on the ice? Or will this be another 'development' year of experimentation and endless line shuffling that leaves coaches, players, and fans frustrated? So as the Los Angeles Kings, a team who also made few modifications this summer comes to town will the Wild start to answer this pressing question or will end up with more questions than answers?
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1st Period Thoughts: Great start by the Wild, as they get things going with good intensity and hustle. I like how they were doing the simple, smart plays with the puck to pressure on the Kings early. I'll admit, I wasn't a big fan of the Wild signing Matt Cooke like a lot of Wild fans out there. However, he is an intelligent player as he notched the first goal of the 2013-14 season as he used his skate to redirect a Kyle Brodziak shot. It was reviewed, but the correct call was made as Cooke only turned his skate prior to the puck's arrival. 1-0 Wild. Minnesota kept up the pressure and the chemistry of the 2nd line of Charlie Coyle, Dany Heatley and Nino Niederreiter was obvious. They may not be the fleetest of lines but they seem to keep one another moving and hustling making them tough to play against. Unfortunately the Wild would take a foolish Delay of game penalty as Zenon Konopka sent a puck into the seats and Los Angeles would put a clinic on the power play. Smooth and efficient puck movement that had the Wild's penalty kill chasing all over before Drew Doughty beat Niklas Backstrom with a shot taken from just above the faceoff circle. 1-1 game. Los Angeles wanted to start asserting itself physically and Minnesota went on the man advantage after Colin Fraser boarded Keith Ballard. Ballard ended up being cut by a Fraser headbutt just prior to the two players dropping the gloves. The Baudette-native preferred to wrestle and wrangle to really trying to duke it out with Fraser. I thought the Wild power play struggled with the Kings' high pressure penalty kill. The bright spot on the 1st power play was the confidence of Charlie Coyle and the effort and skill of Niederreiter. Niederreiter was hustling well, winning battles along the wall, shooting the puck and setting up teammates. 'El Nino' would also be tagged with a hooking penalty even though it looked like he kept skating with Dustin Brown. The Wild penalty killers rebounded nicely, moving better to deny passing and shooting lanes and giving the Kings little to look at. Los Angeles' penchant for being physical would again give the Wild a power play opportunity as Jonas Brodin got nailed by a hit from behind by Kyle Clifford. As the Wild's PK showed improvement so did their power play as they moved the puck quicker and were creating more prime shooting opportunities. Ultimately, their persistance was rewarded as Nino Niederreiter was tripped up after winning a battle for the puck along the dasher when he dished a puck back to Brodin who was moving down the slot and he fired a laser by Jonathan Quick to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. Another great play by Niederreiter who had a great first period. Minnesota was playing with a level of focus and control in the 1st period that was not present most of last season. A very promising period indeed!
2nd Period Thoughts: Another fairly solid period for the Wild. And it really came down to their hustle each shift. The Wild were winning a lot of the races to the loose pucks and when they didn't they were still right there to deny time and space and forcing their share of turnovers. The puck possession game that Wild head coach Mike Yeo promised was evident throughout the period as Minnesota demonstrated terrific puck handling and passing in tight spaces. The Wild's control of the puck was leading to quality shots on goal. Quick was forced to come up with brilliant saves, most notably a total act of thievery on a wicked glove save on a Zach Parise rebound chance. I thought the Wild's second line continued to be the story as they were able to bottle the Kings up in their own end. I was also very impressed with the Wild's top defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin who shut down Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams. Another player who shone in the period was Kyle Brodziak who appeared closer to the pesky forward who chipped in over 20 goals rather than the player who was mostly invisible last year. The Wild didn't manage to add to their lead but the controlled the pace of play and had Los Angeles on its heels. Minnesota looked better on the power play with quick puck movement but they could stand to be a bit more selfish and take their chances to fire the biscuit. The Wild outshot the Kings 13-3 in the period, a testament to their tenacity in the period.
3rd Period Thoughts: The Wild were guilty of taking their foot off the gas just a bit. The Wild were given another power play on a tripping call that put Clifford in the box instead of the actual perpetrator Colin Fraser. The Wild's first power play unit was guilty of overhandling the puck and not enough on ice movement which made it easy for Los Angeles to keep Minnesota to the perimeter. I am not sure if that's a result of a lack of game action from the pre-season but the top line guys seemed to be a bit slow for most of the night. Other than in the faceoff circle where Mikko Koivu was uber dominant, the line struggled and seemed to be chasing the puck more than it was creating scoring chances. The 2nd power play unit of Mikael Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter, Brodin and Jared Spurgeon moved the puck faster and were doing a better job at getting pucks to the net. Even this group was a bit too passive at this point in the game. The Wild were still hustling, but they were directing shots on goal and the Kings would raise their assertiveness and the result was all too predictable. They'd tie the game on a goal by Jeff Carter who backhanded home a rebound after a sequence started by a Robyn Regehr shot. Minnesota tried to answer back, but the puck seemed to elude the sticks of Wild forwards as Minnesota started to swarm the net. The 3rd line thought they had a goal after a nice effort by Brodziak to get a shot on goal and Cooke pounces on the rebound only to be denied by a stop by Trevor Lewis who bailed out Quick in his crease. A gutty play by the Kings' forward and it would send the game to overtime.
Overtime Thoughts: Overtime would carry the same staunch defense that personified the latter parts of the 3rd period. Players blocking shots, stick into passing and shooting lanes and almost no clean plays. The Wild started the extra session with Mikko Koivu who was good on the draw but his lack of wheels made him unable to pounce on a few pucks that could've turned into an odd-man chance. Charlie Coyle would take charge and make a nice move into the offensive zone where he tried to set up Jason Pominville for an easy tap in goal but he was foiled by a nice defensive play by Drew Doughty. Neither team was able to create any other prime chances in overtime, as both clubs seemed to be content to send the game to a shootout.
Shootout summary: In the shootout the Wild would elect to shoot first. The Wild's first shooter was Zach Parise. Parise would move in rather slowly and move the puck from forehand to backhand but seemed to run out of space as he was thwarted by a quick little poke check by Quick. Los Angeles' first shooter was Kopitar who moved in, moving the puck from backhand to forehand and dropping the shoulder slightly before firing a quick shot low, stick-side for the goal, to give the Kings a 1-0 shootout edge. Minnesota's next shooter was Mikko Koivu and the Wild captain seemed to want to go to his money move, as he tried to move the puck from forehand to backhand but as he did so it was Quick again with the poke check to take it away and to give Jeff Carter a chance to win the game. He would cash in as he pulled off Koivu's forehand to backhand move as he lifted a puck over the shoudler of Backstrom to seal a 3-2 shootout victory for Los Angeles.
Niklas Backstrom was reasonable, making 16 saves in the loss. Neither goal was really the result of poor play and the shootout chances were quality shots. Unfortunately for him, he just didn't get that always tough 3rd goal which has been the x-factor for this team since its inception. Defensively I thought the Wild got pretty good play from its defenseman. Especially the top paring of Suter and Brodin were especially dominant, but Ballard, Scandella, Spurgeon and Stoner all played fairly well.
Offensively, the Wild again left fans and the team wanting more. Initially the Wild looked to be in good shape, outshooting Los Angeles in a big way but they just couldn't finish down the stretch when they really needed it. Quick did come up with some big saves but championship teams find a way to bury those chances to put their opponents away. The 2nd line in my opinion was the Wild's best line as Heatley, Coyle, Niederreiter looked the most polished and effective at controlling the play. They seemed to be able to dig out the pucks along the wall and create scoring chances. The Wild's 1st line of Koivu, Parise and Jason Pominville who just signed a 5-year contract extension looked a little out of synch. Lots of time was spent just chasing around the puck and beyond a few plays by Parise not much was being directed on goal. Parise had shots, while Koivu and Pominville registered just one each. That can't happen. They need to be more active at getting pucks on goal.
It was a season opener that showed promise, but also many of the same frustrations as so many past seasons for the Wild. Some positive signs from its group of younger players, but ultimately a lack of goals cost the team a point in the standings. This was a game the Wild should have won, it outplayed the Kings for two periods but it was unable to finish off an opponent who appeared a bit sluggish tonight. When a quality team like Los Angeles isn't at their best, you better bury them. Because that's what championship teams do.
~ The Wild roster tonight was as follows: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Mikael Granlund, Zenon Konopka, Justin Fontaine, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner. Josh Harding backed up Niklas Backstrom. Mike Rupp, Mathew Dumba and Nate Prosser were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game as selected by the fans were: 1st Star Jonas Brodin, 2nd Star Charlie Coyle, 3rd Star Kyle Brodziak
~ Attendance was 18,511 at Xcel Energy Center.
~ Matt Cooke wore #24 joining Derek Boogaard, Martin Havlat and Antti Laaksonen to have worn that number. Justin Fontaine wore #14 joining Darby Hendrickson, Martin Havlat, and Darroll Powe who have worn the number. Keith Ballard wore #2 joining Erik Reitz, Willie Mitchell and Mike Lundin. Charlie Coyle wore #3 joining Ladislav Benysek, Keith Carney and Marek Zidlicky. Lastly, Nino Niederreiter wore #22 joining Cal Clutterbuck and Stacy Roest to having worn the number.