It was New Year's Eve in Columbus Ohio as the Wild looked to build off a much needed road win in Winnipeg Monday night. Minnesota is looking to string some wins together to climb back in to the playoff race.
So what does Minnesota have to do? They need to play well in special teams, especially on the power play. That's not an easy task as the Blue Jackets had killed off 23 straight penalties coming into Wednesday's game. The other key to winning is to have Darcy Kuemper build off his win in Winnipeg in which he made some big saves of the athletic/robbery type as the minutes ticked off the clock in the third period.
It hasn't been easy in Columbus recently for the Wild when facing its expansion team brethren. The Blue Jackets were 9-1-1 in the month of December coming into Wednesday's action.
Columbus got the game's first five shots on goal and didn't allow Minnesota a single shot until the 6:18 mark of the first period. In fact the WIld had a lot of one-and-done rushes up ice and really couldn't get much zone time or pressure in the Jacket's zone. It changed when Kevin Connaughton gave the Wild its first power play of the game. Minnesota wasn't able to score, but a little established zone time went a long way to even the shot count and provide some decent pressure. Then four minutes later, Tyler Graovac, whose playing in just his second career NHL game, used his size and skill to protect the puck and drew a holding minor from James Wisniewski.
Zach Parise would gather a foiled Mikko Koivu shot and shoot it over the downed left pad of Sergei Bobrovsky. That power play goal snapped a streak of 24 straight killed penalties by the Jackets. As the period went on, the Wild seemed to build the pressure. Nino Niederreiter came close with a back-hander and the Cooke - Graovac - Fontaine line provided a great energy shift following the Parise power play goal.
The second period the Wild started off by getting good pressure in the Jackets' end. They started to take the lead in the possession stats. At one point, Parise was a +9 in Corsi differential as he had not allowed a shot attempted against while he was on the ice. A Ryan Suter penalty for tripping allowed the Beej an opportunity to gain some momentum. Even though Minnesota was able to kill the penalty without allowing a shot on goal the added zone time got the Wild running around their own end.
With Darcy Kuemper playing fairly strong in his crease but he saw some real flurries of action a little more frequently. One such flurry caused Kuemper to lose his stick and in his attempt to gather his paddle, Kevin Connaughton was able to sneak the puck through after taking a quick shot from the left half boards with just 46 seconds left to play in the period. It was a pretty soft goal and the kind we're hoping he could put behind him (figuratively, not literally).
Ryan Suter, who has been struggling in his own end recently, had taken a bad penalty in the second period, took another bad penalty in the third for holding. Brandon Dubinsky did a pretty good job of selling it, but nonetheless, Suter was holding him. The PK started strong as Kyle Brodziak was very good for the first minute of the kill. But the second unit got caught running around. Matt Cooke took a bad angle to try and disrupt the D-to-D pass and left David Savard open for the one-timer that scorched the top shelf behind Kuemper.
Minnesota got two power play chances in the third period and couldn't cash in. One of the those, Columbus made the Wild look foolish. the inability to score and to provide sustained offensive pressure for most of the period ended up hurting the Wild. Sure, Graovac had a nice opportunity to tie it. Nino Niederreiter swung and missed at a rebound. However, the Wild tried flipping the switch too late. In a last minute try to get the tying goal with Kuemper pulled for the extra-attacker, it was Ryan Johansen the would net the empty-netter and seal the game.
Yeo never put Marco Scandella, who has scored nine goals, or Nino Niederreiter, who is tied with Parise for the team lead with 14 goals, on the ice in crunch time. Yeo instead relied on his veterans. Even as the One minute remaining announcement rang over the PA system, Suter, Pominville et all found passing around the perimeter, holding on to the puck for large chunks of seconds, and forcing passes through the slot rather than just shooting the puck into traffic and looking for rebounds was the better option.
Minnesota hasn't won two games in a row since November 20th - 42 days, and 17 games ago. Some of the best shifts of the game came from that third line that featured Graovac as the pivot. Mikko Koivu was brutal in the face off circle. He finished 38 percent on the night and lost two crucial offensive zone face offs with the net vacated at the other end. Stu Bickel only saw 5:12 of total ice time. Graovac finished with three shots on goal and played just over 12 minutes. If there was a sore spot in his game, it was faceoffs. He was destroyed in the dots only winning 39 percent. Compare that to Columbus' Johansen who was over 80 percent in the dots and won a number of important faceoffs in the third period.
The Wild will now play host to Toronto at Xcel Energy Center Friday night. The Maple Leafs are 20-14-3 with 45 points and are sixth in the Eastern Conference. They are coming off a 4-3 shootout win against the Boston Bruins on New Year's Eve.