No rest for defense - Playoffs 2008
Monday, 04.14.2008 / 10:59 AM / Features
By Adam Somers | Minnesota Wild
To get through 82 games and an impending playoff run, a team needs skill, grit, passion and hard work, among many other things. It also needs some luck on its side. For the majority of the 2007-2008 season, the Wild had plenty of luck in the injury department. Outside of Mikko Koivu missing 24 games, the team has avoided serious injuries.
Then, amidst their pursuit of a first Northwest Division title, the team’s luck started to run out. On March 19 in San Jose, the Wild lost defensemen Kurtis Foster for the year with a broken femur. While Foster was an important part of the Wild’s blue line, the team’s depth at the position avoided any panic.
Fast-forward a couple weeks, with the division title in the bag, and the team gave Nick Schultz the last day of the season off with flu-like symptoms. It wasn’t until the following day that January and February’s captain found out it wasn’t the flu and he underwent an appendectomy.
“Anybody tells you that you have to forget about it and move on, but he’s a huge part of our team,” said fellow blue-liner Brent Burns. “It’s tough, he’s a top d-man and takes a lot of minutes, a lot of good minutes. He’s tough to play against and he’s so good defensively. It’s tough to lose a guy like that.”
With two of their top defensemen out, the Wild turned to rugged veteran Sean Hill and offensively gifted Petteri Nummelin for Games 1 and 2 of their Quarterfinals matchup against the Avalanche.
While Hill has been a regular fixture in the last couple months of the regular season, Nummelin appeared in just five games since Jan. 24. After Game 1, Nummelin admitted that any of the rust was mental, but playing in Schultz’s absence for the regular season’s final stanza definitely helped with the unexpected turn of events.
“It gave you a little idea of how the game is going to be,” he said. “It’s not like practice, the speed of the game is totally different.”
Drawing Colorado instead of a more physical opponent such as Anaheim or Calgary is also beneficial for Nummelin, who can play more to his skill set.
“Nummy is one-of-kind, he’s got skill coming out of his ears,” Burns went on to say. “He’s just crazy with the puck, the things he can do with the puck, it’s sick.”
Despite spotty playing time toward the end of the regular season, Nummelin does seem to produce when given the opportunity. In the five games he did play since Jan. 24, he tallied three points in 21:44 of total ice time while notching an assist and three shots.
“Nummelin played a little more than [Keith] Carney and Hill, but he played decent, he played well,” head coach Jacques Lemaire said.
Carney and Hill are both 38-years-old and Lemaire prefers to keep them around 15 minutes a game, and, in Game 2, it was Carney who ended the important second game with an overtime game-winner. Still, the current six-man arrangement puts pressure on the other four defensemen as Schultz was among the team leaders in ice time.
Both Burns and Kim Johnsson both played over 30 minutes on Wednesday, but Lemaire was able to keep both under 30 on Friday.
“There are defensemen in the league that do it [play 30 minutes], so I don’t see why he wouldn’t be able to,” Lemaire said of Burns. “Certain guys that don’t have the ability, they have to push hard to get somewhere and that’s hard to play 30 minutes. But the players that have the skating ability, it’s a lot easier.”
After limiting Colorado to just 22 shots in Game 1, as well as holding Avalanche scorers Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny to a combined minus-3, even the series-opening loss can be looked at as a success for the Wild defenders.
“I think the big thing is that the forwards really came back and did a good job in our end, limiting their shots,” Burns said of Game 1. In Game 2, of course, Carney played the roll of hero, while Burns had an assist and Nummelin played 13:52.
It will take a collective effort from all fronts to prevail in what might be the tightest series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, as the only two games played to this point have seen overtime. Teams often respond best when challenges become steeper, and losing Schultz a day before the eve of the playoffs would definitely qualify.
The Wild didn’t change its philosophy with Schultz out of the lineup. And though he is practicing with the team, he is not ready to return, Minnesota remains focused on keeping the puck in Colorado’s zone to provide quick shifts along the blue line, which will be critical with their top pairings logging increased minutes as the series is extended.
However, it is the time of year where every shift counts more than the last, and succumbing to fatigue does not even enter the players’ minds.
“Everybody can handle more time,” Nummelin said. “It’s playoff time, you never get tired in the playoffs.”