Wildly Biased Observations...
Wildly Biased Observations Is Moving!

Hey everybody.

Just a head’s up, but I’m retiring the Wildly Biased Observations Tumblr page and rebooting over on Blogspot.

It’s been a fun couple of years here on Tumblr.  I’m very fond of the writer/reader interaction provided by Tumblr, but the rest of the format here is just very sub-par.

So… if you’ve enjoyed the blog over the last couple of seasons feel free to head over to the new Wildly Biased.

To anybody else who’s read the blog, let me offer a sincere thank you.  It’s an incredibly time consuming labor of love and I appreciate everybody who’s stopped by.

Game Day - Game 4: Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild (Hawks Lead Series 2-1)
DOWN TWO GAMES TO ONE, the Wild look to even their series with the Blackhawks and head back to Chicago tied at two games apiece.
 
SUNDAY WAS ONE OF THE most memorable nights in Xcel Energy Center history, with more than 19,000 fans on hand to see the Wild recover from an early 1-0 deficit and get their first win of the series when Jason Zucker scored in overtime for a 3-2 Wild victory. Zucker became one of just a handful of players who scored their first-ever post-season goal in overtime. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Zach Parise scored in regulation for the Wild, both of them putting backhand shots over the left shoulder of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.
 
SOME CREDIT FOR THE WILD’S energetic, physical play on Sunday goes to Stephane Veilleux, who did not play a single regular-season game for the Wild this year, but who was inserted into the lineup for Game 3 and responded with three hits in just under eight minutes of ice time. Also contributing to the physical play was Cal Clutterbuck with a game-high eight hits, and Devin Setoguchi with seven. Picking up his first-ever post-season point was Wild center Kyle Brodziak, who assisted on the Bouchard goal.
 
INJURY REPORT: Still questionable are Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom and forward Jason Pominville. Both are skating, but it’s unclear if they are ready to play. Mike Rupp, Zenon Konpoka and Clayton Stoner are all nursing injuries as well and their availability is uncertain. To provide depth, the Wild have brought up a number of players from Houston, including Jake Dowell, Matt Dumba, Carson McMillan and Justin Fontaine. At today’s morning skate, Dowell was centering Torey Mitchell and Veilleux on the fourth line.
 
TRIVIA QUESTION: When he scored the winner on Sunday, Jason Zucker became the fifth player in Wild history to score an overtime goal in the playoffs. Who were the first four? (Answer below.)
 
AT THIS MORNING’S PRE-GAME skate, Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, who scored the tying goal late in Sunday’s game, was not on the ice. He flew back to Chicago to be with his wife, who gave birth to a baby boy, and Keith is expected back for tonight’s game. Both forward Dave Bolland and goalie Ray Emery remain out for Chicago, although the team said they might be available for Game 5 on Thursday.
 
IT’S NOMINATION TIME FOR the NHL’s post-season awards, and finalists for the various awards are being named over the next few days.  Today Wild defenseman Ryan Suter was named one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, awarded every year to the NHL’s best defenseman. Suter led the NHL in ice time this season, averaging 27:16 per game, a franchise record. He was second among NHL defensemen in assists with 28, and third in points with 32. P.K Subban of Montreal and Kris Letang of Pittsburgh are the other two finalists. The winners are named during the Stanley Cup finals.
 
SNUBBED IN THE NOMINATIONS was Suter’s defensive partner, Jonas Brodin, who many observers expected to be a finalist for the Calder Trophy, awarded each year to the NHL’s best rookie. Brodin led all NHL rookies in ice time, and was a plus-3 on the season with two goals and 11 points. On Tuesday, nominees for the Masterton Trophy will be named. The Masterton is awarded for “Perseverance and Dedication to Hockey.” The Wild’s Josh Harding is Minnesota’s nominee for the award and seems likely to be named a finalist.
 
TRIVIA ANSWER: Previous Wild players to score playoff overtime goals were Richard Park (2003 vs. Colorado), Andrew Brunette (2003 vs. Colorado), Keith Carney (2008 vs. Colorado) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (2008 vs. Colorado). For Carney, it was the last goal in a 16-year career that spanned 1,018 games.
 
IN OTHER WESTERN CONFERENCE series, the L.A. Kings won at home last night to tie their series with the St. Louis Blues at two games each. Also tied at 2-2 are Anaheim and Detroit, following the Red Wings’ overtime win last night. San Jose leads Vancouver 3-0 and looks to close out that series tonight in San Jose. All four of the Eastern Conference series are at 2-1, with Pittsburgh, Boston, Ottawa and Washington holding the lead.
 
There you have it.  As is typically the case with Wiuld home games this post comes courtesy of Tim Droogsma of Wild Game Notes.
 
Also, as is typically the case with home games, I’m not sure how much of the game I’ll be able to catch tonight.  No Twitter either.
Game Day - Game 2: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks (Hawks Lead 1-0)

Seems like forever ago that the Hawks & Wild played Game 1, doesn’t it?  So much has happened in the rest of the NHL world that even an extra day between games renders everything ancient.

Now, that’s not to say I haven’t been thinking about Game 2 pretty much since the moment Bickell buried the winner in Game 1.  Zucker’s bar in OT has been haunting pretty much my every waking moment.

Regardless, that game’s done and in the books.  Time to move on to Game 2.

-Between The Pipes: According to those in the know, Josh Harding will be back in net for the Wild tonight.

The question, I suppose, is whether or not it’s reasonable to expect Harding to play as well with two days to prepare as he did when he was thrust into action on short notice Tuesday for Game 1.

Well, I’m not a betting man, but if I was I’d put money down on Hards tonight.  If he were a lesser man, I’d think all that time between games would be detrimental, but with everything Harding’s been through, I think he abandoned all doubt quite some time ago.

And when I say that I don’t just mean his struggles this year with MS.  For years and years Harding has battled fluke injuries, inconsistent play, and an ever-present #1 goalie.  Many people were surprised (myself more than anybody) when he agreed to terms with the Wild on a three-year deal despite the fact that Backstrom had one year remaining and Hackett was the heir apparent.  Harding put it about as straightforward as he could.

“I want to be the #1 goalie for the Minnesota Wild and I want to win a Stanley Cup here.”

I’m done doubting.  Obviously twists and turns have led us to tonight’s game, but given everything that’s happened over the years, there’s no way Harding finds himself in this spot without those twists and turns.

But here we are.  Josh Harding wanted to be the guy for the Wild when everything was on the line.  He’s got it.  Plenty of people (again, myself included) have bet against Hards over the years, yet here he is and here we are.  I think Harding plays the game of his life tonight.

-On The Blue Line: Clayton Stoner is out, Justin Falk is in.  Mike Yeo had this to say about it:

“He actually has played some good hockey.  It’s nice to insert him into a place where we feel we can give him a good chance to succeed, too. You’ll see him out there more against more of their third and fourth lines — bigger lines, a little bit more physical. That’s the type of game that he should be playing. … With his size, we’re looking for him to bring a physical element to the game, too.”

Where do I even begin with a quote like that?

“He actually has played some good hockey.” - Actually!

“It’s nice to insert him into a place where we feel we can give him a good chance to succeed.” - He can stop Michael Frolik! Um… Hopefully!

“With his size, we’re looking for him to bring a physical element to the game.” - Quoting Todd Richards, a bold move Coach Yeo

Look, I like Justin Falk, but he’s basically Clayton Stoner with more size but less sandpaper.  I’m not going to waste too many words on swapping #6 d-men, but this is still a troubling development.

-Where’s The O?: A lot was made of the fact that Zach Parise failed to get on the board in Game 1.  Jim Souhan specifically wrote an inherently ridiculous column today claiming that Parise isn’t worth his paychecks without points to back it up.

(Kudos To Souhan for shoe-horning a shot at Joe Mauer’s power numbers into a column about the NHL playoffs.  Didn’t seem clumsy at all!)

Anyway, Parise summed it up best when he mentioned that if his shot had gone in during OT everybody would be saying what a great, complete game his line played.

This, of course, disregards the fact that the puck did not go in the net, but his point remains valid.

So, going back to my original blueprint for beating the Hawks, I still think it’s unrealistic to expect to keep the Hawks big guns off the board.  Rather, it’s paramount that the Wild’s big guns match them and let this game become a battle of whose bottom six forwards can score more

Why do I bring this up?  Because I think the Koivu line is in for a healthy dose of redemption tonight.  I think Mikko gets one tonight and I think Suter gets one tonight (via the Koivu Line).  There’s just no way these guys are letting the ship crash into the iceberg now.

-X Factor: Don’t let all this unbridled optimism throw you.  I’m still a pessimist at heart and there’s one thing that could really sink the Wild tonight.

Joel Quenneville

I won’t rehash everything I wrote in the series preview as to why I think Coach Q gives the Hawks a huge edge in this series, but just let me touch on something specific to this game.

I hope I’m wrong, but I have a real fear that Mike Yeo made the mistake of saying to his club, “Alright, boys.  Great game.  We did a lot of things right, we just didn’t get the bounce we needed.  If we continue to play like that, limit their chances, and keep shooting we’re bound to catch our breaks.”

Not to reference Jacques Lemaire (though, really, I’m talking about coaching. Find me a better coach.), but when Lemaire’s teams “played well” in losses to the Avs & Canucks in ‘03, he tweaked.  He juggled lines.  Hell, he juggled goalies.  He showed different variations of the game plan that, over the course of the ensuing two games (Games 2 & 3 losses), that by Game 4 neither Marc Crawford nor Tony Granato had any idea what team would be hitting the ice.  It was a master-stroke by a brilliant coach that, as long as I have a computer, will not be forgotten.

My fear, then, is that while Yeo is preaching “consistency” (read: complacency), Quenneville has been scheming for two days.  In Game 1 he threw the Wild off balance by matching the Toews line with the Koivu line, a move nobody saw coming.

What does he have in store for Game 2?  I don’t know.  I do know this, though.

In the first two Wild/Blackhawks games this season (the Wild’s SO win in StP, the Hawks win on national TV), Quenneville let his horses run.  The Wild played well enough in the first one to get the W, but had no answer in the second.

The third game of the season?  Whole ‘nother ball game.  The Hawks game out and played textbook trap.  They didn’t press the play.  Hell, they didn’t even play puck-control hockey.  They waited, and waited, and waited for their break.  Well, if you wait long enough Clayton Stoner is bound to throw you a bone and that’s just what he did in the form of an errant cross-zone pass that Marian Hossa read before it was thrown.  Back of the net, ball game.

It was a brilliant move on Quenneville’s part.  The equivalent of a basketball team playing man-on-man defense all season only bust out the zone in crunch time.  This scares me more than anything else tonight.

Regardless, I think Hards is up to the task.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  Late game tonight.  I plan on being on Twitter (@WildlyBiased).  Fell free to banter/taunt etc…

One’s a lefty; one’s a righty.
Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville on Backstrom vs. Harding (via Russo’s Rants) (Quenneville, you cagey bastard…)
Josh Harding exemplifies everything a hockey player should be! No quit, no feeling sorry, just battling against all odds fearlessly.
Dallas Star (and former Wild) forward Eric Nystrom on Harding’s performance last night (via @ENystrom23) (Because it’s the Cup…)
Game 1 Wrap - Chicago Blackhawks: 2 Minnesota Wild: 1 (OT)

Damn it feels good to have the Wild back in the playoffs doesn’t it?

Scroll down and you’ll see a couple of quotes from Tim Droogsma of Wild Game Notes.  That feeling in the pit of your stomach…  The highs and lows from shift to shift… No, the Wild didn’t come out on the winning side, but boy is it fun to take the ride.

Now, all of that being said, that’s a really tough loss.  Everybody’s saying the right thing in the paper today.  “We showed we can play with them,” “It’s just Game 1 of the series…”  blah, blah, blah…  deep down, the Wild must know that if they’re going to win this series they were going to have to take one of these first two in the Chi.  They aren’t going to get a better chance than the one they had last night.

Regardless, an entertaining game.  Let’s break this thing down a bit.

-Story Of The Night:  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, win or lose, Josh Harding was the story of Game 1.

I’d been refreshing Twitter all day because I was a ball of nerves before the game.  Just as I was about to leave the house to head over to the bar for the game I saw a barrage of tweets saying “Niklas Backstrom just left the ice during warmups.  Status unknown.”  If you follow me on Twitter you probably saw me retweet a couple with the added commentary of, “Aaaahhhh! Aaaahhhhh!”  Let’s face it, I’m nothing if not subtle.

Well, by the time I got to the bar and checked Twitter again it had been confirmed: Scientist out, Harding in.

For those of us who crafted series previews that hinged on Backstrom returning to form, this represented, as Mike Yeo succinctly put it, a curveball.

Now look, I love Josh Harding as much anybody.  The guy’s had a run of bad luck throughout his professional career that would have crushed lesser men.  Through it all, he’s always maintained that his goal is, “to be the starting goalie for the Wild and to win a Stanley Cup here.”  How can you not love a guy who, despite being passed over and taken for granted so often, still presses toward that singular goal?

But show me one person whose heart didn’t skip a beat when they read that Backstrom had left the ice and I’ll show you a liar.

(Quick Optimism Aside: For those of us who’ve been following the Wild for years seeing Harding take the reins on such short notice instills just a bit of confidence.  He’s done it several times over the years, most notably taking over for Backstrom a few years ago in St. Paul before the Wild rallied from 4-1 to beat the Blackhawks in a shootout in what, until last night, was the iconic moment of Josh Harding’s career.  Losing Backstrom was scary, but there was something oddly reassuring about Harding stepping in rather than Darcy Kuemper.)

Well, Harding played as well, if not better, than anybody expected.  He stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced and generally looked poised and confident.

(Quick Chicago Sidenote: Harding was named the 3rd Star Of The Game for his work and was roundly booed by the Blackhawks fans.  I’m not going to judge too harshly considering the way Wild fans treated him during the Edmonton debacle, but considering the Blackhawks won, their fans could have shown a little more class.)

I don’t know what the reemergence of Josh Harding means for the Wild’s crease going forward, but that’s a question for tomorrow’s post.  For now, despite the loss, I couldn’t be happier for Harding.

-Defense First:  The Wild played such a brilliant game defensively that my friend @Phileeeeeeep tweeted at me that it looked like a vintage Lemaire Era game from the Wild.

It’s no secret that the Wild are going to have to play low-scoring, tight checking hockey if they want to win this series and they did so brilliantly last night.  Despite losing Clayton Stoner in the first period, the remaining 5 d-men brought their game up a level.  Ryan Suter logged over 41:00, Jonas Brodin over 30:00, and Scandella, Spurgeon, & Gilbert each topped 20.

I joked about adding Scandella to the roster yesterday, and yet again I was proven to be a fool.  Superstorm Scandy and Jared Spurgeon picked up right where they left off back when they were marching to the Calder Cup finals.  Big picture, if Scandella continues to play well this series maybe it will finally cement him as a member of the big club.

I was listening to Paul Allen and Wes Walz on KFAN this morning and they said two things that stuck with me:

First, PA tried to argue that the fact that the Wild blocked 21 shots was indicative of them playing a great defensive game.  Walz countered by pointing out that, even though the Wild blocked 21 shots to the Blackhawks 10, all it really meant was that the Hawks spent a lot more time in the WIld’s zone than the Wild spent in Chicago’s.  Hadn’t thought of it that way before.

Second, PA asked who was to blame for Bickell’s game wining goal: Rupp for losing Bickell at center ice or Brodin for committing too hard to Stalberg & failing to prevent the pass.

Walzy took it back to Oduya’s pass off the glass and over Suter’s head saying that’s where the play should have been stopped.  I suppose that’s true, but honestly, if Oduya tries that pass 100 times how often do you think it succeeds?  Suter probably stops it 90 times.  That’s a tough break, but some days you don’t get the bounces.

I suppose, if blame has to be placed (and I don’t think it does), I think it falls on Brodin.  Rupp’s still not 100% (and isn’t particularly fast when healthy) and defensemen are taught from Day 1 that they need to take away the pass in an odd-man rush.  Still, I don’t think Brodin played it particularly poorly.  Credit where it’s due, Oduya, Stalberg, & Bickell put together one hell of a play to net that winner.

-Where’s the O?:  Going back to my Series Preview from yesterday, I thought the Wild would have to make sure that they matched the output of the Hawks Big Four forwards (Hossa, Kane, Toews, & Sharp) with their own big guns (Parise, Koivu, Coyle) rather than trying to keep them off the board entirely.

Well, the Hawks evidently had other ideas.  Coach Joel Quenneville shrewdly matched the Koivu line with the Toews line (rather than a traditional checking line) in an effort to force the Wild’s top line to expend energy playing defense rather than attacking.  Obviously this strategy worked brilliantly as the Koivu line managed only 7 shots while Toews, Sharp, and Brandon Saad combined for 9.

Parise & Koivu have taken some heat in the media today for the lack of offense, but look what they were matched up against.  It would be tough for anybody to generate chances against those guys.

I’ve been trying to figure out if the glass is half-full or half-empty regarding the offense.  They got the “Unlikely Contributor” goal from Clutterbuck that you always need to succeed in the playoffs, but that was a goal that should have been stopped.  Both Parise & Kyle Brodziak had great chances in OT but just couldn’t finish.  Zucker rattled a couple of pipes (including a rare “bar-down no-goal” in OT).

Basically, the Wild scored when they shouldn’t have and got unlucky when they should have buried one or two.  What does that mean going forward?  I have no idea.

-Big Picture: Alright, so the Wild find themselves down 1-0 in the series.  It was a disheartening loss in the sense that they’re going to have to win at least one OT game to have a chance in this series.  Taking Game 1 would have been huge.

Now, heading into Game 2 on Friday, the goaltending situation is up in the air, as is the 6th defensemen spot.  The offense may be frustrated, but they did some good things last night and will likely add Jason Pominville to the lineup Friday.

All things considered, Game 1 feels like the opening chapter in what will prove to be a memorable series.

That’s about all I’ve got for now.  Plenty more to be said before Game 2 though, but that’s for tomorrow.

Learn to love that knot in your stomach #BecauseItsTheCup
Tim Droogsma on Game 1
I know it’s a cliche, but this is why we put up with the regular season, just to feel this tension and have every shift put you on an emotional roller coaster.
Tim Droogsma (again) (of Wild Game Notes) on Game 1
Series Preview - (8) Minnesota Wild at (1) Chicago Blackhawks

Well here we are, Wild fans!  After a season of soaring highs, crushing lows, and a rich, creamy middle it’s finally time for the second season to start and for the first time since ‘08 your Minnesota Wild are taking part!

Interestingly, they’ve drawn the President’s-Trophy-Winning Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.  Obviously, the Wild are huge underdogs in this matchup, with most pundits giving the Wild little hope of winning more than one game.  While I’m inclined to agree with them, let’s break this thing down and have a look at the task at hand.

(Quick aside: Once the jubilation of getting to the playoffs wore off, how pissed off do you think Red Wings fans were that the Wild tumbled all the way to the the #8 seed?  If the Wild could have just tread water and hung on to #7 the Wings would have drawn the Hawks, leading to one last blood-and-guts, winner-take-all series before realignment drives them apart for the foreseeable future.  Instead they got the Ducks and the 10:00 EST start times that come with it.  Good thing nobody in Detroit has a job to be at in the morning.)

Forwards:

Blackhawks: Arguably the scariest group of forwards in the West.  Patrick Kane has had the Wild’s number for quite a while (thank god there aren’t any shootouts in the playoffs).  Marian Hossa has feasted on the Wild as well.  Jonathan Toews didn’t get the nickname “Captain Serious” for nothing.  And Patrick Sharp could be the sneaky key to the series for the Hawks.

While that group is legitimately scary, there’s comfort in the known.  Obviously, if the Wild are going to have any success in this series they’ll have to control the damage this group inflicts.  There is no safer bet in hockey right now than Ryan Suter & Jonas Brodin facing the Hossa/Kane line every time they step on the ice.  To put it bluntly, these four forwards are going to “get theirs.”  The key to the Wild’s success (assuming the Wild’s big guns “get theirs” as well) is how the Wild handle the bottom six in Chicago.

Dave Bolland has been ruled out in Game 1.

(Quick Bolland Aside: Over the years that the Wild failed to make the playoffs I became a huge Dave Bolland fan because everybody in Vancouver hates the guy.  Two years ago the Hawks went down 3-0 in a first round series against the Canucks.  Bolland returned for Game 4 in Chicago and the Hawks proceeded to take the next three and push Game 7 into OT.  Bottom line: Every game the Wild avoids Dave Bolland the better.)

However, the Wild will still have to find answers for the likes of Viktor Stalberg, Michael Handzus, Andrew Shaw, psuedo-tough guy Daniel Carcillo and Calder hopeful Brandon Saad.  Off the top of your head you’re probably thinking, “Well, it shouldn’t be too tough to find an answer for that group.”  Theoretically, no, it’s not.  However, when the available options are Justin Falk, Brett Clark, Nate Prosser, & the Konopka line you can see why it’s a troubling proposition.

Wild:

After the season the Wild put together it’s difficult to see how this squad is going to score enough goals to keep up.  I mentioned it above, but working under the assumption that the Big Four from Chicago are going to score, it’s imperative that Mikko Koivu & Zach Parise are able to get on the board.  Scoring depth doesn’t mean much when the big guys aren’t putting the puck in the net.

The consensus among pundits is that the Wild’s success (at least offensively) is going to hinge on the performance of the second line and that seems reasonable.  Lord only knows how healthy Matt Cullen is at this point but, as has been mentioned plenty over the last couple of weeks, he’s going to play the biggest role of the Wild’s forwards.  Not only is Devin Setoguchi a lost puppy without Cullen, but the fact that the Hawks top checking line (the Handzus line) will be dealing with the Koivu line means that Cullen’s line will likely be matched up against the Hawks second line (Toews/Sharp).  Not only will Cullen, Setoguchi, & Zucker/Bouchard/Pominville be counted on to score, but they’ll have to be better-than-responsible defensively.  Tall order.

Kyle Brodziak has had a season to forget, but if his line with Clutterbuck & Pominville/Dowell/Mitchell/Rupp can slow down the Kane line he’ll have earned his keep.

(Grinder sidenote: I’ve harped on it all season and I’m sorry to do it again, but I’m going to stump once more for the addition of Stephane Veilleux to this roster.  He’s fast, he hits, he yaps, he knows his role & limits… I just think he’d be a real asset in getting Hossa/Kane off their games.  OK, rant done.)

Edge: Blackhawks

The Wild have trouble scoring against everybody.  The fact that they’ve lost Pominville for at least Game 1 will only add to their struggles.  Throw in the amount of time they’re going to spend chasing around the Hawks forwards and it will be imperative that the Wild’s forwards capitalize on their chances.

Defensemen:

Blackhawks:

Much like Suter/Brodin facing the Kane line everytime they’re on the ice, it’s a sure bet that Joel Quenneville will have Duncan Keith & Brent Seabrook on the ice every time the Koivu line is out.  If that line is going to have any success against those two rocks of defensemen they’re going to have to keep grinding away.  Honestly, I think the Koivu line’s best hope is to just work hard and try to draw penalties to get the Wild’s PP on the ice.  If Keith & Seabrook play smart hockey they should be able to contain the Wild’s big line, thus blowing up the Wild’s game plan of matching goals with the Hawks Big Four forwards.

The drop in quality from Keith/Seabrook is notciceable, but not especially dramatic.  Nick Leddy & Niklas Hjalmarsson will likely be tasked with stopping the Cullen line.  I might be crazy, but I’d call that a toss-up if Cullen’s good to go.  If that line can get a goal or two against the Ni(c)k(s), and if the Wild’s bottom six can at least make those guys pay every time they go back to retrieve a puck, the Wild could take advantage.

Wild:

Ryan Suter should win the Norris Trophy and Jonas Brodin should win the Calder.   That being said, all the hardware in the world isn’t going to mean much if they can’t figure out a way to put the screws to Patty Kane & Marian Hossa.  Are they up to the task?  Hopefully.  The way I see this series playing out, they don’t necessarily have to blank that line, but, they will have to hold those forwards to the same level of production that the Wild get from Parise/Koivu/Coyle.  If the Koivu line ain’t scoring, then it’s imperative that Suter & Brodin keep the Kane line off the board.  Easier said than done.

In a surprising move, the Wild called up Marco Scandella and plan to play him in the second pairing with Jared Spurgeon.  Somehow, I doubt Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp lost much sleep over this.

(Quick Scandella Note: Let me preface everything I’m about to write by saying that I’m a big fan of Superstorm Scandy.  Few people are bigger advocates of the “Defensemen Take Time To Develop” stance than me.  That being said, calling him up speaks volumes about just how far the Wild are from being true contenders.

The Wild’s defensive group has been a work in progress all season.  Everything past Suter & Brodin has been a crapshoot (and frankly, Yeo & Fletch got lucky that Brodin developed so quickly).  For the first half of the season we were treated to Nate Prosser & Justin Falk playing healthy scratch chairs.  At the time the Wild were carrying 7 d-men.  Then they went and added Brett Clark so they could have a “veteran in the mix” despite the fact Clark had played half the season in the minors because he couldn’t get an NHL deal from anybody (and there are teams much worse off than the Wild on the blue line).  Tom Gilbert’s play fell off, Clayton Stoner’s play fell off, Brett Clark is what we thought he was, and suddenly Fletch is calling up a NINTH defensemen!

All this is to say nothing of the fact that they’re taking Scandella (a d-man who’s flamed out three times in the NHL) and placing him on the second pairing with Spurgeon (because they had chemistry over 18 months ago), in a high-leverage situation against one of the deepest forward groups in the league and the whole thing screams “panic move.” Genuine contenders do not go into the first round of the playoffs with no clue who their Top 4 defensemen are.)

Alright, sorry for ranting.  Now, let’s say that Spurgeon and Scandella spend a day or two singing Taking Back Sunday songs together and redevelop that chemistry.  Suddenly, you’ve got too mobile de-men whose biggest strength is getting the puck out of their own end quickly.  Trying to out-skill the Toews/Sharp line may be fool’s errand, but the other options aren’t much better.

Speaking of which, Clayton Stoner and Gilbert/Falk/Prosser will make up the third pairing.  If these guys contribute any offense: great.  If they give up any goals: fail.  All I’d like to see out of this group is “off the glass, off the glass, off the glass.”

Edge: Blackhawks

Goalies:

Blackhawks:

Corey Crawford & Ray Emery were 1A & 1B all season.  Some people would call that a good problem to have, but ask the Canucks what happens if you let that situation linger too long.

It’s no secret that goaltending has been the Achilles Heel of the Hawks for years.  While both Crawford & Emery were great this year, I can’t believe any Blackhawks fan wouldn’t list those two as their number one concern heading into the postseason.

It’s actually kind of unfortunate for the Wild that the Hawks enter the series with Emery sidelined.  That means Quenneville has no choice but to ride Crawford.  Theoretically, if the Wild were to get a softy or two and steal Game 1, the Hawks would be faced with a goalie dilemma that could sidetrack the whole series.  As it stands, it’s sink or swim with Crawford.

Wild:

I’ve made so many jokes over the years about Niklas Backstrom’s unwavering consistency (and reliance on angles & situations rather than reaction) that I nicknamed him “The Scientist.”

So here the Wild are, back in the playoffs, and suddenly Niklas Backstrom is one of the biggest question marks.  It’s no secret that Backstrom’s game has run hot & cold for about a month now.  It’s gotten so bad that, even game to game, it’s nearly impossible to tell which Backstrom is going to show up.

That said, I think it’s redemption time for The Scientist.  I genuinely believe that the fatigue of playing so many games this season left him running on fumes by the end of the season.  The playoffs provide their own adrenaline and I think he’s going to be up to the challenge.  If the Wild are going to have any chance of winning this series The Scientist is going to have to steal a game, likely in Chicago.  I feel confident.

Edge: Wild

Coaching:

It may sound crazy, but I think this matchup is what’s going to be the Wild’s undoing.  To explain why, let’s take a trip in the Way-Back Machine.  All the way back to 2003.

The Wild overachieve and make the playoffs for the first time in history.  As you may remember, they draw a Colorado Avalanche team that features somewhere between 4-6 Hall Of Famers (depending on how you feel about Milan Hejduk & Adam Foote).  On paper, that Avalanche squad should have thrashed the Wild.

So how did the Wild pull off the upset?  Jacques Lemaire.

Not only did Lemaire get his whole squad of overachievers on the same page heading into the playoffs, he made little tactical moves all series to keep the Avs off balance.  He was a notorious line-juggler who’s system hinged on all his pieces interchangeable.

However, not only is Lemaire a genius, but Tony Granato was behind the bench for the Avs.  If memory serves, Granato spent most of that series either in a fetal position or yelling at Sakic to “fix it!”

What does that have to do with this series?  Well, that should be obvious.  Behind the Blackahawks bench is Joel Quenneville, a coach with a Stanley Cup ring, a coach who’s succeeded despite crushing expectations in a large market, a coach with big, complicated, frequently intoxicated personalities, and, perhaps most importantly, a coach with an impeccable mustache.

Behind the Wild’s bench: A coach who nearly pissed away a playoff spot by being goaded into fighting the Oilers, is betting on a ninth defenseman to be the answer, and doesn’t have eyebrows.

Massive Edge: Blackhawks

So that’s the tale of the tape.  Could the Wild in this series?  Sure.  But it’ll take a huge effort from Suter & Brodin, a flawless performance from The Scientist, the reemergence of Devin Setoguchi, and, evidently, Superstorm Scandy.

To be totally honest, the Blackhawks & Wild could play this series 20 times and the Hawks would win 19 of them.  To paraphrase Lloyd Christmas, I’m saying there’s a chance.

Two quick notes before I go:

First, Yeo and the players have said all the right things about how just getting to the playoffs “wasn’t the goal” and that there’s still “plenty of work left to be done.”

I suppose that’s true, but like I said at the beginning of the year, you don’t give guys 10 year contracts or pepper your lineup with rookies in an effort to win the Cup the first year.  In the big picture, making the playoffs this year is going to go down as an important, experience-gaining step.  Fletcher would never admit it, but win or lose, this has been a successful season.

Secondly, as fan, I’m thrilled just to have the Wild back in the playoffs.  For the first time in years I don’t have to be a fan/whore and cheer for whoever’s playing the Canucks.  I’ve thought of almost nothing else for the last two days.  God, it feels good to have a horse in the race.

Obviously I’ll be on Twitter for the series (@WildlyBiased).  Give me a follow, tweet at me, whatever…

Game Wraps - Edmonton Loss, Colorado Win

“I know it’s stupid to say this, but I’m actually kind of glad Columbus won that way the Wild can win & clinch in front of the home fans.”

That’s what I said to my dad as we drove to the Xcel Energy Center of Friday for the Wild’s game against the Oilers.  Add that to the always-growing list of reasons why I’m an idiot.

So… we all know what happened in the Edmonton game.  Or at least, we all know as much as we can know when something as terrible as that game happens.  We know they lost, we know they came out flat… we know it doesn’t matter at this point.  Take a trip in the way-back machine with me and let me throw out just a couple of thoughts about that loss.

-Ya’ll Know What This Is:  I probably don’t need to tell you, but Friday was the day that spring finally broke here in Sota.  The temperature jumped something like 30 degrees, the sun was shining, women were shedding their clothing, patios were jammed full… It really couldn’t have been a better setting for a celebration.  St. Paul was buzzing.

(Quick aside: At one point on the way to the game we were looping around Rice Park and ended up stuck behind the Pedal Pub, my most hated of pubs.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, Rice Park was being picketed by “God Hates Fags” protestors (?).  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rest of the park was filled with Oilers fans… Let me tell you, for about 35 minutes their Rice Park was the absolute worst place on earth.)

Anyway, the stage was set for a coronation.  Hell, the Wild acknowledged as much by wearing their greens.  More subtly, they acknowledged it when Mike Yeo met the Oilers challenge of opening the game with fourth lines on the ice and a staged fight waiting.

I cannot stress enough what an embarrassment that whole situation was.  Now, I have no problem with fighting (staged or otherwise), what I do have a problem with is the fact that Mike Yeo took this game so lightly that he thought, “Oh, they wanna go. Fine, we’ll humour them and settle some bad blood before we go ahead and beat them.”  I realize that just about everything was pointing towards a Wild victory before the puck dropped, but a professional coach should know better than to take even one shift for granted when the playoffs (and, more importantly, his job) are hanging in the balance.  Amateur move by Yeo.

-Boo Birds: The Wild deserved every last boo they received Friday night.  They played with no desperation & fire.  Much has been made about the booing/Bronx cheers directed toward Josh Harding.  Let the record show that, when Backstrom was pulled and Harding inserted with about 90 seconds left in the first, many fans in the building stood and gave an ovation that had nothing to do with Backstrom’s poor performance and everything to do with Harding’s battle with MS & his return to St. Paul.  Welcome back, Josh.

-Be Cool, Bro!: I saw a couple of tweets during the game that implied it may not have been much fun for the always-classy Nick Schultz to watch his former team get booed off the ice and lose a golden opportunity to clinch a playoff spot.

I thought about it for a bit and remembered back to last season when Steve Kampfer was traded to the Wild from the Bruins in the Greg Zanon deal.  Somebody on Twitter presumed he was cheering for the Bruins to which he responded, “Hey, THEY traded ME.”  I’m sure Schultzy felt the same way.

-Aaanndd Buh-Bye: After the game my dad and I returned to something I had touched on last season: Getting the hell out of the same division as the Oilers.  If (and it’s a tremendous “if”) Oilers management ever figures it out and gets a real coach and real goalie, the skill up front makes this team terrifying.  As long as they don’t do anything stupid like tie up cap space with dead-weight defensemen like Ladislav Smid for multiple years this team’s future seems even brighter than it did at the start of this season.

Alright, so that was Friday’s game.  The Wild played like the suckiest bunch of sucks who ever sucked.  Fans were streaming out of the building during the second intermission vowing never to return.  It wasn’t pretty.

I went home that night and tried to sleep.  Unaware of how much the game was lingering in my brain I actually had a dream that I  was reading a Russo puff piece about how “Nobody is more disappointed than Craig Leipold about the team’s failure to make the playoffs” that would be written on Monday if the Wild lost in Denver.  It’s possible that I need some new hobbies.

Saturday.  Maybe some of you can sympathize, but has there ever been a worse day as a Wild fan to be known as “The Hockey Guy” around your job?  So many questions, so few answers.  No, I don’t know why the team played so poorly.  No, I don’t know if they’ll make the playoffs.  Sure, I’d be happy to spend 25 minutes explaining all the playoff scenarios to you.  And on and on and on…

Off work at two and all I could do was sleep until the game.

And we’re live in Denver. Pretty much everything that Chuck Fletcher & Craig Leipold have been building towards is on the line.  No biggie.

-Earn Your Keep: As the Wild have swooned this spring, I’ve tried to keep the faith by telling myself there is just no way Parise, Suter, & Koivu let this thing collapse.  Parise & Suter have put teams on their back before,  Koivu hasn’t been able to, but he’s usually missing a shoulder by spring.  And then, just like that, Parise opens the scoring and bursts the tension bubble that had been surrounding the team for 20 hours. Huge, huge goal.  Biggest of the season.  That’s what $98 million dollars gets you.

-Chuck Koba-screwed: The defining play of the game, though, was Chuck Kobasew’s “goal… wait… no goal” early in the second.  I watched the replay at the time and I’ve watched it several times since and I gotta say, that was a goal.  As long as I’ve been a hockey fan these disputed goals have hung on one of the stupidest questions in all of pro sports: Was there a distinct kicking motion?

Is that too vague & pretty much open to interpretation? Yup, always has been.  But that’s just it, it always has been the most important factor on goals off skates.  There is no way Kobasew made a “distinct kicking motion.”  Did he redirect it with his skate? Absolutely.  It was actually pretty impressive.  But as far as I can tell, he didn’t kick it “distinctly.”

Of course, on the other hand, screw Chuck Kobasew.

-Mile High Momentum: I tried to keep the faith during the game, but I’ll be honest, when the Avs killed off that 5-on-3 and then Varlamov stoned the breakaway I thought the Avs had gained all the momentum and it was only a matter of time before they scored.  Credit where credit’s due to the Wild for (relatively) tightening up and weathering the storm.

Also, blame where blame is due, thanks to the Avalanche for just being terrible.  The Oilers game was a glimpse into the future and, if we’re going to read this game the same way, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be in the same division as the Avs for the foreseeable future.  Terrible passing, bad defense, um… “adventurous” goaltending. … I mean, Duchene & O’Reilly are pretty good.  Erik Johnson looks like he’s just not going to figure it out though.  Throw in the fact that they fired head coach Joe Sacco today and, If I was one of the remaining 5,000 Avs fans, I’d be pretty down.  No wonder they legalized weed.

-Last Thought Of The Regular Season: Despite all the ups and downs of the last two seasons, one thing had, up until yesterday, remained a constant in the Mike Yeo Era: The Wild’s complete and utter inability to lock down defensively when they have a one-goal lead in the third period.

I stopped tweeting at the 7:00 mark of the third period because that was the first time Tom Gilbert unnecessarily iced the puck, which has become the known indication that the Wild are going into “Lock Down Mode.”  I spent the rest of the game with palms sweating so badly that the tweets wouldn’t have sniffed coherence.

Fortunately, much like the Kings earlier this week, Backstrom came through the with the big save when it counted.  A Pierre-Marc Bouchard empty netter, a playoff birth, and sweet redemption followed.  Thank god.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  I’ll have plenty to say about this upcoming Wild/Blackhawks series over the next day or two.  Right now there’s a patio and a beer with my name on it.