Saturday, October 31, 2009

Backstrom Beats Penguins With Little Help From His Friends

Statistically speaking, goaltenders do receive credit for wins but, for the purpose of compiling league standings, their teammates must share in that credit. There are times, tonight for example, when it hardly seems fair.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had plenty of tricks up their sleeves, but it was Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom who treated his team to its first win of the season outside of St. Paul.

The Wild were held to single-digit shot totals in each period en route to being outshot by the Penguins 35-15 for the game. But Backstrom's magnificent 34 save performance stole a 2-1 victory from the defending champions and handed it to his less-than-supporting cast. The Wild has now won consecutive games for the first time this season.

Already without Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar, the Pittsburgh lost Sidney Crosby for nine second period minutes due to penalties including a fight with.....Marek Zidliky??? But the Penguins played an outstanding defensive game; clogging shooting lanes with leafy-gutter-like efficiency and frustrating several Wild attempts to get pucks through to Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Kyle Brodziak opened the scoring at 12:11 after finding himself in the right place at the right time to pounce on a loose puck after a Chuck Kobasew shot and flip the puck into a mostly open net. Less than three minutes later, however, a pair of former Wild players joined forces to tie the game for Pittsburgh.

After Craig Adams won an offensive zone draw back to Martin Skoula, Jacques Lemaire's adopted son slid a pass to original Wild forward Pascal Dupuis who rifled a one-timer past Backstrom. But Martin Havlat fed Eric Belanger from behind the net and Belanger's shot from the right circle beat Fleury with just 0:0.6 remaining in the first period. Minnesota clung to a 2-1 lead despite being outshot 16-4 in the period.

That was it for the night's scoring but not for Pittsburgh's offense which fired 19 more shots on Backstrom over the final two periods in a futile effort to knot the game at two.

The Penguins even received a gift from  the officials late in the game when, during a scramble in front of Backstrom, former Gopher Alex Goligoski's stick caught Belanger in the face. Although Belanger left the ice leaving a trail of blood on the ice, Goligoski was not penalized which paved the way for Pittsburgh to pull Fleury for an extra attacker and pelt Backstrom with a last minute flurry of shots.

Minnesota dodged a huge bullet in Pittsburgh and now returns home with four days to prepare for division rival Vancouver. The Canucks make their first visit of the season to St. Paul on Thursday night.

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Have the Wild Finally Hit Rock Bottom?

It's tough to win with three great minutes, 25 brutal ones, and so-so for the rest. The Wild are having a a ridiculous amount of trouble stringing together consecutive quality shifts much less complete games. Flashes of brilliance are negated by periods of complete disarray.

Minnesota came out flying after the first intermission, moving the puck well and firing quality shots on Dan Ellis before he got yanked. But other than a few spurts, the Wild's offense was virtually non-existent the rest of the way. Todd Richards' decision to scratch a healthy Petr Sykora has to be questioned in this case. Sending a message is one thing if things are going well and you can afford it. But to sit a 20-goal scorer when goals have been so hard to come by is a head-scratching move.

Richards, for whatever reason, does not seem to have a solid grip on his team and the whispers of dressing room dissension--although not surprising--are troubling and indicative of deeper issues than wins and losses.

The players, however, must begin to play harder and smarter at both ends of the ice. A very weak backcheck by Derek Boogaard leads to the first Predator goal as he coasted in the zone before making a half-hearted reach for the puck and becoming a spectator. Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns getting beat on the shorthanded game winner was inexcusable.

With a chance to tie in the waning seconds, Burns does a great job moving his feet to create a shooting lane but fires a high wrist shot into Preds goalie Pekka Rinne's chest. Chances for a deflection or rebound in that scenario? None.

This was a more-than-winnable game for Minnesota facing a team averaging less than two goals per game on home ice. It took Nashville less than five minutes to raise its scoring average and put the Wild into a hole with which it is ever so familiar this season.

While a sense of urgency has begun to creep into their statements to the media, that mentality continues to be conspicuous by its absence on the ice. One has to speculate whether Minnesota has finally reached a point where there is nowhere to go but up? If not, the ever-increasing boos will reach unprecedented levels if they haven't already.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Former Oiler Star Visits St. Paul

I had the distinct pleasure of sitting adjacent to former Finland and NHL star Jari Kurri--the first Finn to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame--in the Al Shaver press box at the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night.

Kurri who, while with the Edmonton Oilers, formed half of one of the most prolific scoring duos in NHL history along with some guy named Gretzky, is the General Manager of the Finnish national team. He was joined by Finland Head Coach Juka Jalonen and the pair was presumably in attendance to scout players in advance of making their selections for the team which will represent Finland in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympic Games in February.

Among those getting a look last night were Minnesota's Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, and Niklas Backstrom as well as Carolina's Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen. Tuomo Ruutu of the Hurricanes would have been given a look if not for the three-game suspension handed down by the NHL for his destruction of Colorado Avalanche agitator Darcy Tucker the night before in Denver.

While I won't outright condone Ruutu's hit, I'm not going to loose much sleep over Tucker getting carted off on a stretcher when the guy has made a career out of attempting to shorten the careers of others.

Clutterbuck Takes Wind Out of the 'Canes

SAINT PAUL, Minn--With Willis Reed-like determination, Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck heroically returned from injury—one which usually takes weeks to recover from—to lead his team to victory after sitting out a mere five games.


Clutterbuck’s goal at 3:05 of overtime lifted Minnesota to a 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night and signaled loud and clear his remarkable return from a high ankle sprain suffered Oct 10 in San Jose.

Andrew Brunette and Kyle Brodziak also scored for Minnesota while struggling defenseman Brent Burns contributed two assists and played perhaps his best overall game of the season.

“It’s definitely exciting to be able to get out there and get a winner like that. It was a step in the right direction,” said Clutterbuck after the game while admitting to being a little fatigued.

Last season’s NHL hits leader dove to the ice and swatted the puck into a wide open net to help the Wild—still seeking their first win in regulation—remain undefeated at home under Todd Richards.

Clutterbuck was the beneficiary of a shot by Greg Zanon which rang off the post during a mad scramble which left Carolina goaltender Cam Ward horribly out of position.

“The puck actually hit me in the face off the post then it dropped down in the slot. I was able to find it and just wave at it and it went in,” said Clutterbuck while conceding his good fortune.

“Clutter had to really battle for that one,” raved Zanon. “He did a great job to put it in the net.”

Richards was pleased with what he got out of the second-year forward; looking past some early turnovers the coach attributed to Clutterbuck’s trying to do too much too soon.

“(Clutterbuck) does what he does. He finishes checks. He gets under the other team’s skin,” said Richards. “He had their whole bench shouting at him and got them to focus on him instead of the game. He had a big impact on the game, especially scoring the game winner.”

The Wild have made a habit of falling behind early throughout the first month of the season and failed to make an exception against a Carolina team whose road struggles (0-4-2) have nearly matched Minnesota’s.

With Minnesota defenseman Shane Hnidy off for holding the stick, Sergei Samsonov redirected a Ray Whitney feed past a sprawled Niklas Backstrom at 10:32 for his first goal of the season.

After two miserable power plays early on, the Wild struck back on a 4-on-3 advantage when Brunette fired from along the goal line to Ward’s right. The puck squeezed between the stunned Carolina goaltender and the post for Brunette’s team-leading sixth of the season at 12:52.

Unfortunately for the Wild, it was their ninth and final shot of the period. Not even an entertaining heavyweight bout between Minnesota defenseman John Scott and Farmington native Tim Conboy could light a fire under the locals.

Minnesota’s next shot was also its next goal as Owen Nolan’s backhanded dump in attempt from in front of his own bench found Brodziak sneaking behind the Carolina defense. Brodziak cut left and tucked a backhand shot behind Ward for his first goal in a Wild uniform just 1:51 into the second period.

The Wild’s penchant for costly turnovers reared its ugly head once again midway through the second when Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen pick-pocketed Wild forward Antti Miettinen to begin a two-on-one with Ray Whitney. The pair executed a perfect give-and-go with Pitkanen burying his first of the season and second point of the night.

Carolina nearly took the lead just prior to the second intermission after John Scott’s shot was blocked by Scott Walker sending Walker in alone on Backstrom. But Minnesota’s All-Star netminder was equal to the task and snared Walker’s rising shot with a beautiful glove save with 1:33 to go.

Backstrom—who finished with 21 saves to get credit for the win—was the story in the latter stages of the third as well; thwarting high-quality Matt Cullen and Eric Staal scoring opportunities in the final three minutes of regulation to preserve the tie.

The win gives Backstrom a new team record 15-game home unbeaten streak (11-0-4) dating back to Feb 6, breaking his own 14-game streak (11-0-3) set March 9 to Nov. 15, 2008.

Richards said his team’s puck management and decision making improved as the game wore on but acknowledged that without Backstrom’s strong play it may have been for naught.

“We limited their chances but we gave up some pretty good quality chances. At this level, players are too good to be giving up chances like that,” said Richards. “But our goaltender came up big again.”