Friday, October 30, 2009

Sykora Responds to Richards' Message

With nowhere to go but up after a dismal performance on Wednesday against the Nashville Predators, the Wild, led by a motivated Petr Sykora, bounced back with a solid 3-2 win over the Marian Gaborik-less New York Rangers at the Xcel Energy Center.

Sykora had a goal and an assist, Mikko Koivu chipped in two assists, and Antti Miettinen scored his first goal since March 25 to pace Minnesota to its first win in regulation this season.

Gaborik—who sat out his homecoming game game with the all-too-familiar lower body injury—entered Friday’s game tied for second in the league in goals (10) and was fourth in points with 18 in 12 games played.

The Wild’s all-time franchise leader in several offensive categories—including goals (219), assists (218), points (437), PPG (59), GWG (43), shots on goal (1,694) and five 30-goal seasons in 502 game—left for New York via free agency in July.

Leading from start to finish for the first time this season, Minnesota outshot the Rangers 32-20 in a game in which the home team appeared to play a more trap-conscious game--Jacques Lemaire would have been proud--leading to three goals in transition off of Ranger turnovers.

Heading to the dressing room after the second period with a 3-1 lead, the Wild were venturing into very unfamiliar territory.

"I made a comment to the coaches walking in after the 2nd period and I said ‘So this is what it feels like to be up by two,’" deadpanned Wild Head Coach Todd Richards. "I’m sure the players probably felt the same thing. It’s a lot better--instead of looking up at the scoreboard fighting for goals--to be up by two. But you’re also, as a coach, wondering how the guys are going to respond and how they’re going to play being up by two. I like the way that we played. We managed the game well in the third period."

Say what you want about Richards' decision to bench Sykora for much of Monday night's game in Chicago and at home against Nashville on Wednesday night--and I was a critic--but you can't argue about the result as Sykora played like a man possessed against the Rangers. The Czech forward was forcing turnovers and creating scoring chances all night and received a well-earned #1 Star honor.

Sykora was immediately confronted about the issue by the media in the dressing room after the game but wanted nothing to do with the subject; preferring to keep the focus on Minnesota's first regulation win of the season.

"Let’s not talk about it. I’m happy we won the game. It feels great to win a game," said Sykora with a hint of exasperation. "I think we beat a great team tonight; a very well-coached team . . . with a great goalie. I think that’s a big win for us and we can build on that."

But Sykora's linemate, Eric Belanger, revealed that Sykora's playing time, or lack thereof, has been tough on his frequent carpool companion. “We’re driving together, we’re talking about it," said Belanger. “You’re trying to tell him you’re going to be all right and stay positive but it’s not easy being in that situation. I had a feeling tonight that something good was going to happen and it did and hopefully it can get a run going.”

Criticized recently for its penchant for attempting to play too "pretty", Minnesota scored three of the prettier goals you're apt to see from them this season. Forced turnovers led to quick tic-tac-toe passing plays into mostly open nets.

Richards, for the most part, was pleased with his team's performance.

"I think we did a better job tonight of going after pucks," said Richards. "There still was a couple of occasions where I think we backed up a little bit but, for the most part, it was much better and I think the other thing was, once we created the turnovers, our defensemen moved the puck quickly up the ice and we were able to catch them kind of in that transition."

I asked Belanger--who registered his third goal of the season in the game--afterwards about and he offered a simple explanation.

"I just feel that this team was aggressive in the neutral zone--they were forechecking two forwards--and I think we caught them a couple times and the execution was there on the goals," said Belanger whose 11 points (3 g, 8 a) rank second only to Koivu (12 pts.) in team scoring.

Minnesota now heads to Pittsburgh for a Halloween clash with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins tomorrow night at Mellon Arena. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and forward Petr Sykora—both former Penguins—will each receive their Stanley Cup rings Saturday night.
Although still led by former Shattuck St. Mary’s standout Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh will be without 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner (playoff MVP) Evgeni Malkin. The 23-year-old forward who also won last season’s Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer with 113 points (35 g, 78 a), is out 2-3 weeks with a shoulder strain.

"He strained his shoulder about 10 days or so ago,” said Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma on the team’s web site. “It is precautionary for the player. We are worried about the safety of the shoulder. A couple weeks of rest and rehab will get that thing healthy so he can get back onto the ice.”

Random Thoughts

Could the consecutive first-period kneeing calls 1:57 apart on Minnesota’s Eric Belanger and New York’s Marc Staal be a first-of-its-kind scenario?

Even at the age of 37, Wild right winger Owen Nolan is still too productive of a player to be saddled with linemates James Sheppard and Derek Boogaard as last season’s leading goal scorer (25 g) was on Friday against the Rangers.

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