With the post-lockout advent of the shootout routinely rewarding teams with a standings point even in a losing cause, overcoming a double-digit deficit in the season's latter half to become playoff eligible is far more difficult than it once was. Toss in a remaining January schedule which includes contests with each of the conference's top six teams (Chicago, San Jose, Calgary, Phoenix, Colorado, and Vancouver) in addition to the Stars, Red Wings, and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh and...let's just say the task becomes even more daunting. It's not over yet but the Wild must get hot against the best of the west if a playoff push is to be made.
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Although Minnesota didn't play horribly against Chicago, they simply couldn't manage to finish off scoring chances the way elite teams like the Blackhawks find ways to do consistently.
The trio of Kyle Brodziak Guillaume Latendresse, and Martin Havlat were buzzing the Blackhawks' net for much of the night but only Latandresse's ninth goal of the season in the first period eluded Chicago goaltender Cristobal Huet in a 19-save effort. The Latandresse acquisition by GM Chuck Fletcher continues to prove to be among his shrewdest moves thus far.
The Koivu, Brunette, Miettinen line also provided some excitement but, unfortunately, no results. On the other end of the spectrum, however, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky, and Petr Sykora were each minus 2 on the night and Josh Harding continues to lower his value in trade discussions with every appearance.
With Shane Hnidy already serving a holding time for holding, Zanon's delay of game penalty early in the third period led to what essentially boiled down to--despite Hnidy's exit from the box just four seconds earlier--a 5-on-3 goal for Chicago's Patrick Kane merely eight seconds into Zanon's two-minute sentence.
Harding too often ventured out of his crease with terrifying results due to his horrible puck handling. Early in the second Harding stopped a Chicago dump-in behind the net and froze with it for what seemed like an eternity. While his defensemen were expecting him to fling the puck back up the boards to either side, Patrick Sharp of the Blackhawks swooped in behind Harding, bumped him off the puck, and fed a pass to Marian Hossa which Hossa buried behind a scrambling Harding.
When Versus color-commentator Billy Jaffe insinuated that a penalty should have been called on the play, my initial reaction was 'For what? Delay of game on Harding?' although I knew he was alluding to the Sharp hit on the Wild back-up netminder.
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Minnesota's two most recent losses may have provided Minnesotans with a glimpse of this spring's Stanley Cup finalists. The Blackhawks and Devils are as dangerous as any team in their respective conferences and should be considered the favorites to clash come late May/early June.
Chicago has demonstrated a devastating offensive attack while limiting their opponent's chances and they have, surprisingly received excellent goaltending from Huet thus far. If the Frenchman can play anywhere near this level in the playoffs Chicago will be the Western Conference representative over a San Jose Sharks team which, despite the addition of Dany Heatley, still has some post-season demons to exorcise before I'm ready to have much faith in them.
Jacques Lemaire has New Jersey playing that trapping, patient, opportunistic, "boring" style of hockey he coached in Minnesota only with one significant distinction: he has better talent before him on his bench with which to implement said style of play. Lemaire had many critics late in his tenure here--myself among them-- but, although I enjoy watching the more aggressive and risk/reward system now employed by Todd Richards, it's hard to argue with the results coming out of Newark these days.
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