First of all, apologies for not posting after game 2 (I know the world was waiting with rapidly dwindling patience). I was busy reffing flip cup at a charity tournament for breast cancer, which is actually a totally true sentence from start to finish, so after watching the game on Saturday night I was too gassed to write anything. Anyway, here’s what my recap of game 2 would have been:
Nathan MacKinnon, ftw. That is all.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s turn our focus to game 3. To say last night’s game was pivotal would be an insult to the intelligence of every reader I’ve been lucky enough to pick up in the brief history of this blog, so I won’t do it. Crap, I just did it! I’m so sorry everyone, I really like you people, honest.
In any case, in the playoffs you need to go above and beyond to claim any prizes at all. Though they played sporadically well through the first two games, one gets the sense that they were not yet in full playoff mode. Game 3 changed all of that. In game 3, everyone and their mother hulked out for the cause. Let’s take a look at the run down of those who officially went beast mode on Monday night.
1. Mike Yeo
It would have been easy for Mike Yeo to look at games 1 and 2, see how close the Wild came, and stay the course. He did, to some extent, between games 1 and 2, and the result was MacKinnon going MacKinnon all over our Bryzgalovs, which was just as dirty as it sounds.
So Yeo went nuclear with his lineup in game 3, switching goaltenders (smartly doing this halfway through game 2) to bring in Darcy Kuemper. He also scratched Stephane Veilleux in favor of Dany Heatley, whom I thought would have been a spectator throughout the series due to his defensive shortcomings. Perhaps most surprising was the scratch of Kyle Brodziak. Not that Brodziak has been playing well, in fact, his game has gone starkly downhill since he scored in game 1, but the fact that he has missed a grand total of 3 games since joining the Wild in 2009, one of which was the season finale with Nashville which meant nothing. As much of a whipping boy as Brodziak has become for the fans this season, he’s been an automatic pick for the coaching staff, so kudos to Yeo for having the guts to pull a player whom the rest of the lineup is used to seeing out there every day. Brodziak may be back for game four (more on that later), but for one night the experiment was a rousing success.
2. Mikael Granlund
For a year and a handful of games, I (and probably many of you) have lost a little hair and popped more than a few blood vessels screaming “shoot!” at Mikael Granlund, who at times can be so deferential that he passes up gift-wrapped scoring opportunities in favor of his linemates. In game one, he was one-on-one with Varlamov in the third period, and opted for a tricky pass through two Colorado defenders and a prone Matt Moulson, intended for Jason Pominville, and the Wild didn’t even get a shot away.
On Monday, Granlund played as if all that shouting I did into my TV finally got through. Granlund attempted 7 shots, or one more than his previous five games combined. Compare that with October, when Granlund still looked like a player who wasn’t going to be able to hack it in the NHL. In that month, a total of 13 games, Mikael attempted 14 total shots. None went in.
Beyond that, Granlund was the most dynamic player on the ice in game 3. His puck-handling was sublime, and he was able to drive the net out of the corners with impunity. Oh, and of course there was this:
3. Semyon Varlamov
Listen, these can’t all be Wild players, and this game would have been over in the first period if it hadn’t been whom Mike Greenlay is apparently contractually obligated to mention is the favorite for the Vezina Trophy this year.* Varlamov made a games-worth of saves in the first period alone, stopping 22, and added 23 more just to round out the numbers.
Honestly, however, the actual amount of saves is only the second most imressive thing about Varlamov’s evening. The seldom talked about aspect of goaltending, which Varlamov displayed perfectly on Monday night, is the amount of energy goaltenders spend moving laterally, tracking the puck, and following the play. This is of course magnified when the opposition is spending long, continuous stretches in your zone. Staying in a ready stance for a goaltender for 60-90 seconds at a time is hell on your thighs and calves, and the Wild had several such sustained opportunities in game 3. Sure, Varlamov is in terrific shape, but the fact that he was able to put up with such pressure for over 60 minutes, and he still made still made several of his tough saves look relatively easy, was very impressive. We all saw what kind of Bobby Orr-lite effort it took to beat him, so hats of to Varly.
4. Darcy Kuemper
Sure, Kuemper did half of the work that was required of Varlamov, but young Darcy had to deal with the flip side of the goaltending coin; inaction. Whereas Varlamov was getting said calf workout mentioned above, Kuemper had to keep himself focused for the lightning quick Avalanche attack through extended periods where the most he had to do was wipe a little snow out of his crease interrupted by the Ken Dryden stick lean.
Colorado’s goal output since Kuemper is one empty-net tally. Not bad for a goaltender who had missed the previous two weeks and hadn’t started a playoff game in his NHL career.
5. Matt Cooke
Look, not all of these are going to be fun, and Matt Cooke reminded us last night of just why there was such a backlash over signing the man in the first place. Reform this and reform that, the fact that Cooke didn’t have any transgressions during the regular season amidst myriad press about how good he’s been for the past few years made us forget his history, at least a little bit. I’ll be big enough to admit that I, for one am guilty of this. Cooke reverted to form on Monday, which is a suspension in a box, if only for one moment, which is of course all that was needed. I’ve listened to the argument from both fan bases throughout the night, and while it is impossible that Cooke went out for a premeditated hit on Tyson Barrie, Wild fans aren’t doing anyone any favors by suggesting that it is somewhat Barrie’s fault for avoiding the straight on hit. No, it was an irresponsible hit that will cost the Avalanche one of their most important defensemen for the rest of the playoffs, and while not-premeditated, it was the kind of hit that Cooke cannot deliver anymore. Cooke was offered an in-person hearing in New York with the league (which he reportedly offered not to take) , and if the Wild are going to win this series, they will likely going to have to find a way to do it without him. Welcome back, Kyle Brodziak, you’ll have some feisty skates to fill.
6. The Fans
We saw the best and worst of fandom from our locals on Monday night. On the one hand, the atmosphere inside the XCel Energy Center was perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, with the fans helping to destroy the reputation that they only react to good play on the ice, rather than inspiring their team from the beginning. Anyone who says that the fans didn’t have a hand in the tone-setting first period needs a quick refresher on how adrenaline works.
On the other hand, there was Andre Benoit, the Avalanche defenseman who was buried by Nino Niederreiter at the end of a long (and I mean long) stretch in the defensive zone.** As Benoit lay on his back, clearly dazed, many Wild fans, frustrated that the referees blew the whistle for the injury, chose to take out their frustrations on Benoit, flashing the bird and booing Benoit.
Listen, I’m not suggesting that every fan base doesn’t have a few turds in it, but this was a little ridiculous. Defenders of these fans have taken to the internet to mention that they thought Benoit was faking the injury to get his haggard team off of the ice, and pointed to the fact that he returned to the game shortly thereafter as proof. First of all, I’m fairly certain that being dog-tired makes you more susceptible to injury, and Niederreiter’s hit was fairly seismic. Secondly, if you ever see the fan next to you at the game giving the finger to an injured player, feel free to kick him in the junk (assuming its a guy). Be sure to then taunt him while he’s down. You know, for karma’s sake.
APROPOS OF NOTHING
One fun fact. This series is, of course, playing out exactly like the Chicago series last season through three games. A blown lead leading to an overtime loss in game one, a regulation loss in game two, and a dramatic home overtime win in game 3 at home. But if you want an interesting example of how much the Wild have changed in one season, take a look at the players who were on the ice with Jason Zucker when he scored that goal. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk were all out for the winner. None are still with the Wild, and two are barely clinging to their NHL careers. Taking it one step further, Zucker is of course injured and has barely played this season, and Josh Harding was in net.
*Mike has not heard of Tukka Rask, I guess.
**There was a lot of buzz around the league, mostly from Avalanche fans but also NBC analyst Anson Carter, that Niederreiter’s hit was a slew foot. This implication is so ludicrous that this sentence will be all the time I waste responding to it.