Where do we even start when we look back at 2011 in Minnesota hockey? The Minnesota State Boys’ High School tournament produced two of the best championship games in recent memory. The college hockey national championship was played in St. Paul, but the trophy went north for the first time to Duluth. For the Wild, Todd Richards left, and Mike Yeo arrived. Brent Burns and Martin Havlat headed West, and Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi came north. The hockey world visited the State of Hockey as well, when Xcel Energy Center hosted the NHL Draft in June. And we lost two of our adopted hockey sons when former Wild fan favorites Derek Boogaard and Pavol Demitra tragically passed away far too young.
After tonight, the Wild will look to make 2012 the best in franchise history. Right now, the team has positioned itself to make that possibility feel real. With just one game to play in 2011 against the Phoenix Coyotes tonight, the Wild can improve on its position that currently has them in fourth place in the Western Conference and just two points out of the second spot.
The Wild’s outlook improved dramatically thanks to Thursday’s rousing 4-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers that snapped an eight-game winless skid. While the game featured fights, skirmishes and big hits, it also showcased some much-needed goal scoring as Mikko Koivu, Jarod Palmer, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Dany Heatley all lit the lamp. There was also a sizable helping of goaltending brilliance provided by Niklas Backstrom, who turned aside 27 shots to move to 16-0-0 at home against the Oilers.
The Coyotes lost for the fourth straight time on Thursday in Colorado in the first of a four-game road trip. Mikkel Boedker scored both Coyote goals, but they weren’t enough as Phoenix played its seventh consecutive one-goal game and fell to 2-4-1 in those contests. Jason LaBarbera took the loss in a 32-save effort.
Wild vs. Coyotes will be broadcast locally in high definition on Fox Sports North with a start time at 5:00 PM. The game can be heard on KFAN 100.3 FM or online at Wild.com.
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Tonight’s early start time of 5:00 p.m. allows plenty of time for New Year’s celebrating. If you haven’t already, make sure you’ve made arrangements for a sober driver postgame. Cabs are going to be at a premium later tonight.
Without looking, can you guess who leads the Coyotes in scoring? It’s not Shane Doan. It’s not Martin Hanzal. It’s probably not anyone else that you can name on the Coyotes, unless you actually follow the Coyotes.
The leading scorer on Phoenix is wily veteran Ray Whitney. While Whitney has always been an offensive contributor and a solid NHLer, you don’t necessarily think of him as the leader of a team that still has a legitimate shot at another playoff appearance. Somehow, Phoenix gets it done, and that’s despite the offseason loss of Ilya Bryzgalov, who was long thought to be the primary reason for the team’s success the last two years.
For whatever reason, the NHL doesn’t count a scoring streak if a player misses time due to injury. That doesn’t seem to make sense. In baseball, a hitting streak keeps going if a player sits out a game. Heck, in hockey, a goaltender’s shutout streak keeps going if he sits out a game.
Alas, that’s the rule, but the fact that Koivu now has a point in each of his last nine games shows how he has heated up as the air as gotten colder. The nine game streak would be a personal high…if it counted. Still, his five goals and seven assists in that stretch is stellar.
Head Coach Mike Yeo has been pleased with his team’s performance over the last two games, but he says it’s just a start. Now is the time to gain some traction before an imposing month of January arrives in which the Wild will play just three home games.
Prior to the game, the Wild recalled Jed Ortmeyer and placed Palmer on injured reserve.
The reality of Nate Prosser’s situation is that he’s earned the right to be the first defensive callup from Houston, but he’s also going to have to be the first guy sent down when a Wild defenseman gets healthy. But Prosser seems determined to make an impression at every turn. He did that on Thursday, not just by playing sound defensively, but by playing an in-your-face game and sticking up for his teammates by mixing it up after whistles.
Shortly after scoring his first NHL goal, Palmer was hit hard into the sideboards and suffered an upper body injury. He is now on injured reserve. One forward would have to come out. Last game, it was Colton Gillies, but Matt Kassian could be the scratch as well:
"You’re not going to see a game like that every game, for sure…Every game is different. It doesn’t mean we’re going to run guys, throw guys over the boards every game and have amazing fights. But everybody’s got to go out and battle in their own way.”
- Mike Yeo on his team’s physicality that was apparent against Edmonton
C Patrick O’Sullivan was originally drafted by the Wild and eventually played 21 games for Minnesota last season.
The Wild leads the NHL with 635 blocked shots. Nick Schultz has 71 of those rejections.