Sunday, May 16, 2010

2009-10 Playoff Previews: Conference Finals

The two series about to get underway in the Stanley Cup playoffs couldn't look more different from the outside. In the West, the two teams that were supposed to make it this far did. Meanwhile, out East, the term "supposed to" didn't really come into play, as the two remaining teams defied the odds every opportunity to find themselves both one series away from the chance to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

Eastern Conference Finals
The Eastern Conference is really a toss-up at this point. The two remaining teams split their season series against each other, and both have plenty of reasons why they weren't expected to still be around.

#7 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
This marks the first time under the current playoff format that the #7 and #8 teams have faced each other for the conference championships, and history has popped up for both Montreal and Philadelphia. The Flyers come to this series becoming only the third team in NHL history to win a game 7 after finding themselves down 3-0 in the series. They also overcame a 3-0 deficit within that game seven to pull off the 4-3 victory over the Boston Bruins. The Flyers have had some injured players return at the right moments, and the biggest question mark entering the post season, goaltending, suddenly is looking like one of their biggest strengths. Brian Boucher is out, but Michael Leighton has stepped up huge in net for the Flyers, and the return of Simon Gagne helped spur Philly on to their surprise series win.

Meanwhile, all the Montreal Canadiens have done is knock off the NHL's best regular-season record, followed by sending the current reigning Stanley Cup champions home. After surprising the Washington Capitals, Montreal took care of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the same fashion.; opportunistic goal scoring and a strong defense shut down the Penguins stars. Meanwhile, the hottest player on the ice in these playoffs has worn a Montreal jersey, as Mike Cammalleri just keeps scoring. Will the Flyers have an answer for Jaroslav Halak, one that neither Pittsburgh or Washington could find? Either way, Cinderella's slipper will be moving on to the Stanley Cup Finals, and expect to see it remain on Montreal, as the Canadiens will advance in 7 games.

Western Conference Finals
If the Eastern Conference is about teams that surprised everyone by still being around in the playoffs, then the West is about the two teams that were expected to be fighting it out for the chance to take on the Eastern champion.

#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #2 Chicago Blackhawks
The San Jose Sharks have spent previous postseasons haunted by their own ineffectiveness. This time around, unheralded players stepped up in their first round victory, and, when faced with the Detroit Red Wings, the Sharks found one of their stars stepping to the front. San Jose is being powered by two players named Joe, with a little help from Evgeni Nabokov on the back end. The Sharks are trying to prove that their are more than a regular season powerhouse, and, if they can keep putting the same product on the ice that they did against Detroit, they should make an interesting series.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks have been getting plenty of help from their stars all postseason, and in their series against the Vancouver Canucks, some of their supporting cast stepped up in a huge way. Back-to-back road hat tricks helped power Chicago past their nemesis from last season's playoffs, in a similar fashion. The Blackhawks are a team that was built to fight for the Cup this year, and anything short of the championship will be a huge disappointment. That's largely because salary problems will rip apart this Chicago team for next season, and some of the important role players will find themselves on different teams. At the end of the series, though, Marian Hossa will miss the chance to play in his third Finals series in a row, after San Jose defeats the Blackhawks in 6.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

2009-10 Playoff Previews: Conference Semifinals

Part of what makes playoff hockey so exciting is the stories that end up coming out of the games. For proof, just watch a game and see one of the cycle of "history will happen" commercials being aired. They've served as a nice reminder of the unexpected taking place, or the expected being put on a grander stage. This year's playoffs will definitely have their own fair share of history, along with some unexpected results as the remaining eight teams move ahead to the second round.

Eastern Conference
Who would have expected that, after the first round, none of the division winners would still be playing? And yet, in the Eastern Conference, that's exactly what happened, with only Pittsburgh avoiding an upset, dispatching the #5 seeded Ottawa Senators. The shake-up in the East means that the early favorite to win it all is now out of the way, and it could make things more interesting.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
The Penguins did exactly what everyone expected they would do. True, Ottawa took a couple games away from them on their home ice, but the Penguins showed why they're the defending champs, and their star power shined brightly in the first round. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were huge on the ice for the Penguins, and Marc-Andre Fleury held his team in when he needed to. Ultimately, it was Pittsburgh's offense that drove them on to the second round, where they remain the highest seed remaining in the East.

Their reward? They get to face the Montreal Canadiens. That may not be much of a reward overall, though, as the Canadiens became the first #8 seed to win a series after being down 3-1 after four games. Montreal may not have done much in their 100th season, but they're looking to get the next hundred years off to a good start. They may have gotten the benefit of a couple calls, including a no-goal call in Game 7, but they simply shut down the top team in the NHL, starting with game five. Looking for a reason why Montreal moved on, look no further than Jaroslav Halak. Unremarkable in the beginning of the series, he was pulled in favor of Carey Price, returned in Game 5, and just closed the door on Washington the rest of the way. Halak was absolutely brilliant in net, including a 53-save performance in Game 6 before turning aside 40+ shots in Game 7. The Canadiens will be looking to their defense to stop the high-powered Penguins offense, but Pittsburgh comes in a little more rested. Cinderella's shoe might fit right now, but it will need a new home after Pittsburgh wins in 6 games.

#6 Boston Bruins vs #7 Philadelphia Flyers
Boston may have had some scary moments while facing the Buffalo Sabres, but, in the end, they did to Buffalo exactly what they did all season, and that's make the bigger plays when it counts. None may have been bigger than the plays made by Miroslav Satan, a former Sabre and a winner of the Stanley Cup last season with Pittsburgh. Satan was left floating as a free agent until January, when the Bruins snapped him up to fill in for some injured players. He's only turned around to be a consistent scoring threat. Boston is also about to get a boost when Marc Savard returns to play, having recovered from the concussion that kept him off the ice for the first round. Meanwhile, Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara should be getting ready for a physical series, because the Bruins drew a classic battle for the second round.

That classic battle will be against the Philadelphia Flyers. The last team to make it into the playoffs, and only because of a last minute win, the Flyers became the first team to advance to the second round when they stunned Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. The Flyers are a rough-and-tumble team, but they have offensive prowess. They also showed a sturdy penalty kill, which is good for Philadelphia, as they have a tendency to march to the penalty box. Brian Boucher needs to continue playing the great hockey he has, and the Flyers need Scott Hartnell to find his game. At the end of this rough series, though, the Bruins will be advancing, winning in 7 games.

Western Conference
Over in the West, it could be argued that there wasn't a single upset. True, the number four team didn't advance, but it's hard to call the Detroit Red Wings an underdog, especially with their success over the years and the way they played in the tail part of the season. Still, the West made its own history, and that should continue with an exciting second round.

#1 San Jose Sharks vs #5 Detroit Red Wings
In the beginning of their series against the Colorado Avalanche, it looked like the San Jose Sharks were on their way to another postseason collapse. After three games, they were staring down a 2-1 deficit, and had actually scored an own goal to dig themselves into that hole. All they did after that was rattle off three impressive wins, led by Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Ryan Clowe. Evgeni Nabokov also stood tall, putting together an amazing GAA despite a huge Colorado Game 2. The Sharks look to be serious contenders this year, but they desperately need their "Big Three" of Heatley, Thornton, and Marleau to step up their level of play.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings were taken to a seventh game by the upstart Phoenix Coyotes, but all Detroit did was allow their stars to take over. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg stepped up at the exact right times, and the Detroit defense was able to keep Phoenix from playing too much of their own style. In the final game of the series, the Red Wings punched their ticket to the second round with an exclamation point, decimating the Coyotes to the tune of 6-1. That should continue for the Red Wings, as Detroit will knock off San Jose in 7.

#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs #3 Vancouver Canucks
The Chicago Blackhawks survived a bit of a scare from the Nashville Predators, falling behind 2-1 after three games. Then Nashville gave away Game 5, and it was history. The Blackhawks survived a 5-minute major penalty in that game, and it was the player who spent time in the box, and who has come in second the last two years, who scored the game winner that ultimately put the series out of Nashville's reach. Will this be the year that Marian Hossa finally gets to lift the Cup himself? With help from Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Antti Niemi, he's certainly hoping so.

Standing in Chicago's way is the team that they faced last year at this same time, and a team that they ushered out the door in six games. The Vancouver Canucks aren't much different from the team that lost to Chicago last season, but they are an improved team. The Sedin twins are playing big-time hockey now, shaking off criticisms that they couldn't bring their talent into the playoffs with them. Meanwhile, Mikael Samuelsson helped add offense to a Vancouver team that already had plenty. The big concerns for the Canucks will have to be on the penalty kill, as they were awful at slowing down the Los Angeles Kings power play, and whether or not Roberto Luongo can shake the demons of past performances. If Luongo can be the stud goaltender that the Canucks are hoping he can be, they can look to playing in the conference finals. Ultimately, though, this year's result won't be any different from last year, as the Blackhawks advance in 6 games.

Friday, April 23, 2010

2009-10 Wild Season Recap

The playoffs are barely a week old. The old season has been put behind everyone, and the "second season" has provided exactly what people love to see out of the NHL, as physical play has been offset by impressive offense, and the different series have all provided different sorts of thrills. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild have been sitting at home, evaluating what happened this past year, and looking ahead to what can be better next season. What better time to take a look back at what went right and what went wrong for Minnesota during the 2009-10 campaign.

What Went Right?
- Benoit Pouliot for Guillaume Latendresse trade. Pouliot had spent his career for the Wild being something of an underachieving player. Unquestionably, he has talent, but he wasn't showing it consistently for Minnesota. The same was true for Guillaume Latendresse in relation to his time in Montreal. A mid-season trade reinvigorated both players, and Latendresse ended up leading the Wild in goals. His appearance also gave a jump start to Martin Havlat, who had previously looked like a huge bust.

- Martin Havlat comes to Minnesota. At the beginning of the season, it didn't look good for Minnesota, with regards to their acquisition of Martin Havlat. The Wild made it seem as though Havlat was being brought in to replace Marian Gaborik, but the two players are very different in what they can provide. Gaborik is a goal scorer, who will gather assists, but is mainly going to be a sniper. Havlat, on the other hand, is a playmaker, and his ability to create opportunities is huge. However, without a finisher, Havlat looked lost. Enter Guillaume Latendresse, and suddenly, Havlat found his game. Once the Wild's second line was secured, the only player who looked more comfortable in the system was Mikko Koivu.

- Mikko Koivu named first permanent Wild captain. The Wild have needed a permanent captain for a long time, and what better player to pick for the team than a player who is often underrated, but is able to play both ends of the ice, and does it all with his heart on his sleeve? In his first season as the full-time captain, Koivu shouldered the pressure well, setting a new career high in points, and he was willing to place the team on his back and pull them through some of their more troublesome moments.

- Young call-ups given chances. The Wild's cupboard is one of the more empty in the National Hockey League, but they are working on fixing that. More importantly, some of the players that were called up this season should have a good chance to break into the roster for next season, providing some more speed and scoring to a line-up that desperately needed it. Robbie Earl, Nate Prosser, and Casey Wellman all have some seasoning and conditioning to go through before proving that they're ready, but they're definitely close and should be able to contribute. Don't forget about Colton Gillies, who spent his second season in Houston to improve his game and get him ready for the big show.

What Went Wrong?
- James Sheppard falls off the radar. Sheppard may be the biggest casualty of the previous management staff. He was brought up to the Wild right away, without getting some needed conditioning in the AHL. He spent too many games on the ice, which would force him to be placed on waivers before being dropped to the minors. During the pre-season, it looked like Sheppard might have a breakout year, but then he just dropped off the map, and turned in his lowest point total since entering the league. Sheppard is a player who desperately needs a change of scenery, much like Benoit Pouliot. Hopefully, the Wild will be able to find another diamond like Latendresse.

- The injury bug strikes... over and over again. The Wild just couldn't stay healthy. The number of man-games lost to injury this season set a new record by a long shot. Key players, from both starting goaltenders to Brent Burns, from Chuck Kobasew to Pierre-Marc Bouchard, weren't able to play the full season, and, in Bouchard's case, only touched the ice once. The Wild is looking at their off-season conditioning to try and fix some of the problems that popped up this season. The Wild definitely has to find out how to be healthy, but it's been a problem that's plagued them, admittedly not this deeply, from day one of their existence.

- Petr Sykora comes to Minnesota. When Sykora was brought to the Wild, it made people believe that the Wild were honestly not in a rebuilding season, but were instead looking to remain competitive. Pairing Sykora with Havlat seemed to give Minnesota a strong second line of scoring, and the veteran's presence would help bring the rookies along. Instead, Sykora never meshed with his teammates or his coaches, and he spent almost as many games scratched instead of playing, although a concussion certainly didn't help. Sykora was eventually released by the Wild, after never finding his game, and is still looking for a new team to pick him up.

What is the Verdict Still Out On?
- Kim Johnsson traded for Cam Barker. In many ways, this trade should have drastically improved the Wild's blue line. Barker plays a similar style of hockey to Johnsson, but has a bigger shot, better mobility, and is younger. Unfortunately, Barker has run hot and cold for the Wild. If he can prove to be the young stud that he was in season's past, the Wild made a great choice. If he can't find his game, then Minnesota may want to be thankful that they have as many defensemen chomping at the bit to make the move from Houston.

- Niklas Backstrom making Josh Harding expendable. In the 2008-09 season, it seemed like a no-brainer. Backstrom was amazing in net, and, while Harding was solid, he didn't look like a starting goaltender. The change of regimes in Minnesota shook that up a bit, as neither goaltender looked quite like themselves. However, both goaltenders showed a lot of heart and made amazing stops to keep their team in games. Expectations are that Harding will be with a different team by the time the 2010-11 season starts. If Backstrom can return to the brilliant form he showed, or if the Wild has the next great goaltender waiting in the wings, then they should leverage Harding for as much offense as they can get. If Backstrom falls off, and Anton Khudobin isn't able to be consistent at the NHL level, and Harding turns into a Vezina winner, the Wild might be kicking themselves for holding on to the wrong mask.

Ultimately, the Wild had a better season than anyone had any right to expect, and they should be able to build on that for next season. Having the 9th pick in the draft won't hurt, but it won't help as much as they might have hoped. However, Chuck Fletcher and his staff are working to replenish a stripped down system, adding draft picks and bringing in college free agents, and if they can keep the team moving in this new direction, then the dream of Lord Stanley's Cup getting raised in Minnesota might only be a couple of seasons away.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2009-10 Playoff Previews: Western Quarterfinals

With half of the hockey world looked at yesterday, it's time to turn the attention to the West. Teams in the Western Conference may not have quite the star power of their Eastern counterparts, but that doesn't make them lesser teams. Quite the opposite, in fact, as many of the teams in the West are often viewed as being stronger, more physical, and better rounded. Of course, the West also currently houses the team that has become known more for its playoff collapses than for their in-season success.

#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Colorado Avalanche
The San Jose Sharks spent the early part of the season looking like they were going to do exactly what Washington did in the East. However, instead of running away with the conference, the Sharks had to fend off some late pressure in the form of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sharks are a team that has some fantastic forwards (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley), solid goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov), and consistent defense. Because the Sharks had a challenge to keep the top spot, they should be a little better prepared than in year's past.

The Colorado Avalanche, on the other hand, didn't know if they would be in the playoffs until an impressive shoot-out win capped an unbelievable season for them. Matt Duchesne, a rookie who is getting serious Calder Trophy consideration, has helped to power the Avalance to an over-achieving season. Too bad for Colorado that they won't be able to survive against the San Jose onslaught, as the Sharks will dispatch the Avalanche in 5.

#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Nashville Predators
Chicago has to hope that this year is the year they take home the heavy hardware, because, with the salary cap, a number of players are going to be wearing different jerseys next season. The Blackhawks spent, and it allowed them to put together a very strong team. Obviously, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are expected to shoulder a lot of Chicago's offense, and Marian Hossa is hungry for his first championship, after coming in second two years in a row. The question for Chicago remains how their goaltending will hold up, as it's been the most suspect position for them on the ice.

The Nashville Predators, on the other hand, have just quietly gone about their business, and put together a nice season. In the East, they might even be looking at home-ice advantage, but the West is the tougher conference, and the Predators know it. However, Nashville has yet to win a playoff game on the road. They should pull one out this season, but don't be surprised to see the Blackhawks send the Predators home in 6.

#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings
The Vancouver Canucks have the NHL's top scorer, his twin brother, and solid defense and goaltending. They also have a player who might be on the NHL's own hitlist, especially given the way that Alex Burrows called out NHL officiating earlier this season (admittedly, with more than a fair reason). The Canucks will have to avoid getting into penalty trouble, which could be tough for them. Meanwhile, Roberto Luongo needs to be stellar in net, and he has a tendency to become merely human in high-pressure games.

The Los Angeles Kings, much like the Chicago Blackhawks, are one of those teams full of youth, size, and speed. They play a style of hockey that fits more closely with that played in the Eastern Conference, and they can pepper the net with shots. The Kings will need to take advantage of the Canucks early, and give themselves chances right away, otherwise Vancouver will lock the game down with their defensive play. All told, though, the Kings should prove triumphant, defeating Vancouver in 7.

#4 Phoenix Coyotes vs #5 Detroit Red Wings
The Phoenix Coyotes come into the playoffs the NHL's most-improved team. After dismal showings in past seasons, Dave Tippett and his coaching staff turned the team around, and molded them into a strong playoff contender. Unfortunately, everything good that has come to the Coyotes has been tinged by wonderings about how much the league has affected the outcome of games for the team that they own. If Phoenix wasn't owned by the NHL, their achievements wouldn't even be suspect. As it is, the Coyotes are definitely coming into the playoffs much better than anyone gave them reason to expect.

Too bad that their running into the Detroit Red Wings. Earlier this season, the Red Wings looked like a team that wasn't going to even make the playoffs, or might sneak in with the #8 spot. Then injured players returned, the team allowed Jimmy Howard to become a star goaltender, and Detroit rattled off a fantastic close to the season. They enter the playoffs the NHL's hottest team, and they aren't looking to go home in the first round after coming in second last year, and winning it all the year before. Expect that Detroit will handle Phoenix in 5 games.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

2009-10 Playoff Previews: Eastern Quarterfinals

For hockey fans, the most wonderful time of the year is just a day away. The NHL's "second season" is about to kick off, and the 16 remaining teams have a pile of hockey ahead of them on their way to Lord Stanley's hardware. Today will feature a quick spin through predictions for the first round in the East. Tomorrow, the West will get it's chance to shine.

#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
Top seeds can lose in the first round. Just ask last year's San Jose Sharks team. However, when the top seed features one of the best players the league has right now, and a stellar supporting cast, the odds of them getting bumped out right away are pretty slim. Especially when you factor in an opponent who can be less-than-consistent night after night.

The Capitals are a high-flying team. They have far from the best goaltending and defense in the playoffs, but they'll survive the same way they did all season; the scoring that they put on the ice is just sick at times. Even once you move beyond Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are a deep offensive team, and their moves at the trade deadline helped shore up some of the role positions that could have lead to question marks.

Meanwhile, Montreal is a team that almost didn't find itself in the post-season, and they have a lot of ground to make up. Jaroslav Halak will be relied on to make incredible saves, and Michael Cammalleri is the biggest offensive threat for the Canadiens. However, they'll be playing back on their heels all series long, as the Caps will come gunning, looking to enter the second round with momentum. Washington should send Montreal home in 5.

#2 New Jersey Devils vs #7 Philadelphia Flyers
The New Jersey Devils have the best goaltender ever to play the game in Martin Brodeur, and they've got skilled players in every corner of the ice. Whether it's Zach Parise on the offense, Jamie Langenbrunner on defense, or a wicked slap shot from Brian Rolston, the Devils have assembled a tough team to play against. Add Stanley Cup winning coach Jacques Lemaire back into the mix, and New Jersey could be a viable contender for the Eastern Conference crown.

The Flyers, on the other hand, are a team that's been scrambling for the last month or so, hoping to solidify a playoff spot, which they did (barely), by beating the New York Rangers in their final game of the season. The Flyers are a team that's willing to get dirty and play the physical side of the sport, while still seeing contributions from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The biggest problem for Philadelphia? They don't have a legitimate goaltender. The Devils will slap the Flyers around, taking the series in 5 games.

#3 Buffalo Sabres vs #6 Boston Bruins
Buffalo should be concerned. While they've got a fantastic goaltender in Ryan Miller, the rest of the team has stayed pretty much under the radar. Not many people outside of Buffalo may know who plays for the team, aside from Miller, but they've still gone about their business, taking their division with relative ease.

Their first-round opponent, the Boston Bruins, on the other hand, have some players you can't miss, but their goaltending isn't where they're most noted. Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara provide a physical side to the game, and Marc Savard, David Kreci, and Patrice Bergeron should provide an offensive kick. The question remains, however, if the Bruins have enough left in the tank to advance to the second round. They overcame the distractions of Phil Kessel's situation to start the season, and will overcome the Buffalo Sabres in 6 games.

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Ottawa Senators
The Stanley Cup champions, with Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, and the rest of their cast, are looking ahead to their third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Their first obstacle is the Ottawa Senators. The Penguins have a ton of offensive firepower, and it's no secret that the league itself wants to push them to the elite status, even despite potential burn-out from people getting tired of hearing about Crosby.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators had their own problems to deal with this season, but the loss of Dany Heatley may actually prove to be a gain. The Senators have a solid four lines of hockey, and they may have found their goaltender for the future. Unfortunately for Ottawa fans, it won't be quite enough, and the Senators will get bounced by the Penguins in 6 games.

Monday, April 12, 2010

2009-10 Game Eighty-Two: Wild 3, Stars 4 (SO)

The Minnesota Wild season ended on Saturday night, not with a bang, and not with a whimper. Instead, it ended with a tough, hard-fought game, as two teams playing for nothing but pride met and battled all over the ice. It also ended with a heartfelt tribute to a player who may have pulled on the skates for the last time. Mike Modano may not have had much impact on the ice against Minnesota in what may very well have been his final game as a player, but his legacy will definitely live on, and he has set a number of marks that will make it tough for American-born players to break.

Meanwhile, thanks to the continued onslaught of injuries, the Wild's youth movement continued, and with it comes the glimpse of what might be the future of Minnesota hockey. The Wild's young recruits have skated hard, and they have proven to be wily acquisitions by a team that has a pretty bare cupboard for future talent.

Game pluses:
- Mikko Koivu. The Wild's captain notched two goals, with some nicely placed shots, to give him a new career high in goals. He also showed a lot of why he became the Wild's first permanent captain.
- Casey Wellman. The Wild have needed centers for years, and, even though Wellman has played on the wing, he may be showing that the center position is getting an upgrade. Wellman has good speed and vision, but needs to bulk up a bit. Still, he has a nose for the puck, as he proved with his first NHL goal.
- Team toughness. The Wild laid out a lot of good strong hits, and they didn't back down from challenges. Often, with nothing to play for, teams tend to retreat. That didn't happen against the Stars.

Game minuses:
- Injuries. They plagued the Wild all season, and a slew of players missed the finale because of them. The big question remains as to how many of those players missed their final chance to skate in a Wild sweater.
- Steve Ott. He answered Koivu's two goals with two of his own. He was also stirring up trouble all game long, and was a general nuisance for the Wild. Minnesota doesn't have much luck eliminating other teams pests, and Minnesota's own doesn't play as dirty of a game.
- Letting up. The Wild had a two goal lead, and looked like they were going to dominate the rest of the way. Then the second period started, and Minnesota lost all the momentum. They definitely have to find that second gear when leading in a game if they want a better result next season.

Next up: The Wild are done, but the blog will still be going. A look ahead at the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, as well as a look back at the Wild's season, are both on tap for this week.

Friday, April 9, 2010

2009-10 Game Eighty-One: Wild 2, Flames 1 (SO)

At the start of the season, it would have been hard to anticipate the outcome of the Minnesota Wild's penultimate game for the 2009-10 season. The way that the Calgary Flames lit up the competition in their first ten games, very few people expected that they would skate into game 81 having been eliminated from playoff contention. After seasons of futility against their division rivals, nobody could have anticipated that the Minnesota Wild would be looking for their fifth win in the season series, having only dropped one game at home. Even looking at recent history, with the seemingly crippling number of injuries and the amount of untested players being asked to contribute, it seemed unreal to believe that the Wild could topple the Flames.

Topple them they did, though. In a hard-fought, physical game, filled with penalties for both sides, the Wild and their young guns came out the victors. A scary moment came in the third period, with the score tied at 1 and the Wild on the penalty kill, as Niklas Backstrom took a puck to his throat and had to leave the game, but Minnesota responded by continuing to shut down the Flames fizzling offense, and, in the shootout, the only player who didn't use Mikko Koivu's signature move was Koivu himself, as both Brent Burns and Antti Miettinen tallied goals to give the Wild the win.

Game pluses:
- Youth movement. A lot of credit has to go to the way that Cody Almond, Casey Wellman, Robbie Earl, and Nate Prosser played. None of these players were with the Wild to start the season. With the exception of Earl, none were with them at the trade deadline. And yet those four are showing a lot of potential, and they could all make big splashes on the NHL stage next season.
- Penalty killers. The Wild found themselves shorthanded often enough that they may have thought a new rule was inserted that only gave them four skaters on the ice. And yet the penalty kill came up huge, especially with players like Greg Zanon sacrificing themselves to stop the puck.
- Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom has had a shaky season, and had to struggle through injuries. Against Calgary, though, he was brilliant, with the only Flames goal coming thanks to one bad rebound.

Game minuses:
- Power play. The Wild got their regulation goal on the only power play that looked like it had an idea of what to do. The rest of the time, Minnesota couldn't get set up in the offensive zone, and couldn't move the puck well.
- Communication. Passes went to the wrong places, and more than once, it looked like Wild players didn't know where their teammates were.
- Injuries. The Wild came into the game having lost 333 man-games to injury, and were missing another six players before the puck dropped. Over the course of the game, another two players went down, and at least one is guaranteed to not play in the season finale. The Wild definitely have to look at how their guys are training, to help keep them from injury. By the same token, the NHL needs to look more seriously at how some players are getting injured, and how some penalties are doled out. This is a league-wide problem, and, while the first step has been taken, at least with regards to head-shots, sometimes it's the boarding and other assorted penalties that carry larger impacts.

Next up: The Wild finish the season against the team that used to call Minnesota home, and they get to do it in front of their hometown fans. The Dallas Stars come calling on Saturday as the 2009-10 season wraps up.