2010-2011 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild

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mikkokoivu2.jpgLast season: (38-36-8, 84 points, 4th in Northwest Division, 13th in Western Conference) The Wild were anything but that last season and while the record is deceptively above .500, the Wild were a mixed-up jumble last season. Playing their first season without Jacques Lemaire at the helm had it’s ups and downs while learning a new system. In the end, the team just wasn’t very good and injuries didn’t help matters much.

Head coach: Todd Richards enters his second season as head coach and he had an uphill climb to begin with. Teaching a new system to a roster full of players that had essentially only known one way of playing under Lemaire takes time to get it working. The Wild were brutal for the first two months last season before things started to get through to them and work. Another slow start this season could be damning of Richards’ ability to prepare a team. Not that the Wild are set up with a killer roster to win lots of games, but the point will be made nonetheless. The preseason hasn’t instilled any hope for the upcoming season, that’s for sure.

Key departures: F Derek Boogaard, D John Scott, F Andrew Ebbett. Boogaard’s intimidating presence and cult-hero status will be missed a bit, but they’ll be OK without him. Scott’s presence on the blue line was physically large but his poor decision making will be a welcome subtraction in St. Paul.

Key arrivals: F Matt Cullen, F John Madden, F Brad Staubitz, F Eric Nystrom. Cullen is an underrated second-line center with good faceoff skills. Madden brings his veteran experience and penalty-killing abilities into town so Mikko Koivu doesn’t need to do absolutely everything for the team. Staubitz is a small-time semi-replacement for Boogaard’s punchy presence while Nystrom is a potential agitator. So these additions aren’t flashy nor are they overly offensively inclined. It’s not as if the Wild were going to go after Ilya Kovalchuk anyhow.

Under pressure: Fans in Minnesota aren’t happy. Unfortunately for them, the people that can still be blamed for the mess the team is in aren’t working there anymore (former GM Doug Risebrough and Lemaire) so there’s no one immediately available to put pressure on. With a brand new large contract extension and a team captaincy, however, Mikko Koivu is the man who will bear the brunt of fan angst. He’s being paid the most and he’s the team’s first-line center. Taking the heat and feeling the pressure are all part of the job description. If he can get the Wild together and make a run at the playoffs, however, he might end up being more famous in Minnesota than Neal Broten.

niklasbackstrom2.jpgProtecting the house: Niklas Backstrom is the man in goal. Flat out, he’s all they’ve got in Minnesota now that Josh Harding is likely out for the year with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. AHL stud Anton Khudobin figures to be the backup for the time being but there’s talk of Jose Theodore possibly being brought in to help push Backstrom and give him quality relief. Backstrom is a great goalie, but the transition from being a full-time trap team to a hybrid one seemed to effect his play a bit last year. Perhaps all he needed was his defense to find their comfort zone in the new system.

Defensively, Brent Burns is the top man. He’s solid both moving the puck and playing defense and is the clear leader there. Marek Zidlicky isn’t too bad in this respect either and Cam Barker is a sneaky high-quality guy as well. Greg Zanon provides stellar defense-only work and Nick Schultz does well here too. Clayton Stoner figures to be the sixth defenseman out of camp, but after that things get thin fast. Former St. Lawrence Saint Drew Bagnall could be the first guy out of the AHL in Houston should anyone get hurt. Bagnall has yet to play in an NHL game. The Wild can’t afford to have injuries on defense all season which makes things a bit more daunting than they need to be.

Top line we’d like to see: Guillaume Latendresse-Koivu-Martin Havlat. Latendresse and Havlat worked well last season on a line with Kyle Brodziak at center, so you’d have to think having those two play with the team’s best player would work out even better. Only thing gumming up the works on this possibility is the chemistry that Koivu has with Andrew Brunette. With Pierre-Marc Bouchard set to come back this season, perhaps our dream line can happen as the Wild would have more offensive balance with a potential second line of Brunette-Cullen-Bouchard.

Oh captain, my captain: Koivu is the man now. After years of rotating captaincy, Koivu is the full-time guy and for good reason. He’s come up through their system and he’s got a nice, long contract extension. He’s also a pretty damn good two-way forward as well. If more Wild players followed his example, they might be able to evolve past seemingly permanent mediocrity.

bradstaubitz.jpgStreet fighting man: With the Boogaard now doing his thing in New York with the Rangers and John Scott doing his thing in Chicago, the job for team enforcer is wide open. The leading candidate to fill that role is Brad Staubitz, who  led the Sharks in fighting majors last year with 12 and if he lands in the lineup he will be finding someone to spar with. For all the attention checking forward Cal Clutterbuck gets, he’s not much of a fighter since most of the scraps he ends up in happen because someone’s gotten wrongly upset with a body check he’s delivered. People should lighten up a bit.

Best-case scenario: Latendresse shows that his huge goal-scoring party last year was not a fluke and becomes the Wild’s preeminent power forward punching home 30+ goals. Havlat comes out of his shell a bit more and with Koivu develops one hell of a top scoring line. Bouchard plays, plays often, and plays well while staying healthy showing that he’s the team’s missing piece offensively. Without having a real checking line, the Wild roll four lines of consistent, aggressive play making every game 60 minutes of hell for opponents. They get great play from Backstrom in goal and no injuries to the defense and the Wild make the playoffs. There’s almost one too many qualifiers there just for best-case scenario purposes.

Worst-case scenario: Latendresse reverts back into the moody, inconsistent player he was in Montreal while Koivu and Havlat’s output suffers for it. Bouchard struggles in coming back from post-concussion syndrome and the lack of offensive talent all around on the team makes it impossible for the team to win consistently. Lack of defensive depth becomes a major issue and leads to poor play from Backstrom, thus sinking the Wild to the bottom of the Western Conference.

Keeping it real: The Wild aren’t very likely to be a good team this year. Lots of things have to absolutely go right for them to make the playoffs and just a handful of things have to either go wrong or not happen at all for them to be a miserable team. The talent level is thin and the depth in the minors is worse. The lack of work Risebrough did is criminal because the Wild can’t afford to lose anyone to injury and they can’t afford to add anyone via free agency thanks to lots of really bad, really expensive contracts.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Wild are a definitive 1. They’re no threat to win the Cup. They’re no threat to even win their division. Barring a miracle of smaller proportions, they’re destined to not make the playoffs either.

Turn it up to 11? Pens, Caps have a lot to live up to

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by WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby doesn’t think the Pittsburgh Penguins have some sort of mystical edge over the Washington Capitals. That all those series and all those years and all that dominance will not mean a thing when the two longtime rivals meet in the playoffs for the 11th time starting Thursday night in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Of course, it’s kind of easy to say that when you’re on the side that always wins.

Eras change. Stars change. Coaches change. Styles change (well, sort of). The result when the Penguins are on one bench and the Capitals are on the other and a spot in the next round in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup is on the line does not. The Penguins have won nine of the 10 previous meetings.

Epic collapses. Unlikely comebacks. Wild finishes. Emotional scar tissue from losses that come from being the hockey equivalent of Sisyphus. Hall of Famers (and future Hall of Famers) all over the place — particularly if you wear black-and-gold.

Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and company have a lot to live up to. But before we throw ourselves into the physical and psychological maw for two weeks, let’s press our finger on the bruises – or relive the joy, depending on your point of view – of the magic and misery that came before and almost certainly is to come.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

THE YEAR: 1991

THE ROUND: Patrick Division Finals

THE RESULT: Penguins in 5.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: The Capitals scored three times in the first 10:26 of the third period of Game 2 in Pittsburgh to take the lead. Randy Gilhen – he of the three career playoff goals – jumped onto the ice during a delayed Washington penalty and emerged from a sea of bodies to tie it with less than 5 minutes left in regulation. Kevin Stevens won it with a wrist shot off a pretty setup by Ron Francis 8:10 into overtime to even the series. The Capitals scored three goals total the rest of the way as the Penguins advanced to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 2. The massively talented Penguins had seven Hall of Famers on the roster (eight if you include the ageless and sure-to-be inducted Jaromir Jagr) and won their first Cup two rounds later.

THE YEAR: 1992

THE ROUND: Patrick Division Semifinals

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: The Capitals sprinted to a 3-1 series lead. After getting drilled at home in Game 5, Washington led 4-2 4 minutes into the second period of Game 6. And then Mario Lemieux happened . Super Mario scored or assisted on three power-play goals over the final 30 minutes as the Penguins tied the series, then shut the Caps down in Game 7, a 3-1 win on the road to propel them to a second straight Cup.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 8. Pittsburgh had a bit of a Cup hangover after winning it all in ’91 and appeared on the verge of collapse after the Capitals crushed them 7-2 in Game 4. And then … well, consider this the start of a trend.

THE YEAR: 1994

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Capitals in 6.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Washington again jumped out to a 3-1 series lead only to lose Game 5 at home. Back in Pittsburgh for Game 6, the Capitals went up 3-0 only to have the Penguins cut it to 3-2 after the first period. Momentum teetering, Washington defenseman Calle Johansson beat Tom Barrasso 1:25 into the second to restore the Caps’ two-goal lead and Washington closed out Pittsburgh for the first – and only – time.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 6. Pittsburgh viewed 1994 as a redemption tour after its bid for a three-peat was derailed by the Islanders in the 1993 playoffs. The Penguins won the Northeast Division and had the third-best record in the league only to lose to a Capitals team that started the season 0-6 and fired coach Terry Murray at midseason and replaced him with Jim Schoenfeld.

THE YEAR: 1995

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Lemieux sat out the lockout shortened 1994-95 season due to fatigue and the Capitals took advantage in the playoffs. Washington – stop us if you’ve heard this before – headed to Pittsburgh with a 3-1 lead and jumped ahead four separate times in front of a stunned crowd at the Igloo. Kevin Stevens, however, drew the Penguins even with 8:18 left in regulation and Luc Robitaille kept Pittsburgh’s season alive with his OT winner 4:30 into the first extra period to give the Penguins a 6-5 victory. Pittsburgh went on to win Games 6 and 7 by a combined 10-1.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 9. For a franchise that didn’t exactly have a reputation for answering when pushed, Washington’s remarkable play in Game 5 went against the grain and they didn’t have to worry about Lemieux. And yet …

THE YEAR: 1996

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Make it defining moments. All of them seeming to come in an epic Game 4 . The Capitals led 2-1 and didn’t have to contend with Lemieux after he was ejected late in the second period for fighting Washington’s Pat Peake. Regulation ended tied at 2. So did the first overtime. And the second (after Washington’s Joe Juneau couldn’t convert the first overtime penalty shot in NHL history ). And the third. With 45 seconds left in the fourth extra period, Petr Nedved threw a shot in from outside the left circle that slipped by Olaf Kolzig and into the net to tie the series. Pittsburgh captured the next two to advance to the conference finals.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: They might not have invented the number yet to rate the emotional toll of this one. Say ”Nedved” around Caps’ fans at your own risk.

THE YEAR: 2000

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 5.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Washington lost 7-0 in Game 1 but had a chance to even the series when Game 2 went to overtime. Jaromir Jagr, however, effectively ended the competitive portion of things with a power-play goal 5:49 into overtime as the Penguins – who finished a middling third in the Atlantic Division – knocked off the Southeast Division champions with relative ease.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 3. Washington’s record was a bit of a mirage in a division that included the teams (Atlanta and Tampa Bay) that finished with the two worst records in the NHL.

THE YEAR: 2001

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 6.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: The last great stand of the Lemieux-Jagr partnership. Super Mario scored the game-winning goals in both Game 2 and Game 5 and Martin Straka’s OT winner finished off the Capitals in six games. Washington was built on coach Ron Wilson’s defensive style but the Penguins – as they almost always did – found a way to squeak by anyway. Pittsburgh allowed just 10 goals in six games.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 4. At this point, the rivalry had gotten to the point where the Capitals appeared to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

THE YEAR: 2009

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference semifinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Let’s just go with the whole thing. The NHL pulled itself out of the 2004-05 lockout largely on the back of Crosby and Ovechkin. Meeting in the playoffs for the first time, they somehow exceeded massive expectations. They put up matching hat tricks in Washington’s Game 2 win. The Penguins responded by ripping off three straight only to have Washington force a Game 7 with an overtime victory in Pittsburgh in Game 6 (helped by three Ovechkin assists). Was this ”The Year”? SPOILER ALERT: No. At home in Game 7, the Capitals collapsed. Crosby opened the scoring, the Penguins were up by four just 2:12 into the second and that was it.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 7.5. It probably should be higher because of Washington’s very un-Capslike rally in Game 6 on the road but the Penguins were coming off a season in which they were a Stanley Cup runner-up and just proved to be more mature when it mattered.

THE YEAR: 2016

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference semifinals

THE SERIES: Penguins in 6.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Pittsburgh was in a malaise in December and fired coach Mike Johnston in favor of Mike Sullivan. General manager Jim Rutherford overhauled the roster to one built on speed and depth. All three goal scorers in Pittsburgh’s clinching Game 6 win – Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino – were brought in by Rutherford to ramp up the team’s quickness. Together they formed the ”HBK” line and Bonino’s jam into the net 6:32 into overtime showcased the depth the Penguins needed to take some of the pressure off Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 9. The Capitals captured the Presidents’ Trophy by posting 120 points, 11 more than the next best team. They had home ice and a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender in Braden Holtby, who lost in regulation only nine times during the regular season. Still, Holtby was outplayed – just a tad – by 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

THE YEAR: 2017

THE ROUND: Eastern Conference semifinals.

THE SERIES: Penguins in 7.

THE DEFINING MOMENT: Maybe Matt Niskanen‘s controversial shot to Crosby’s head in Game 3 that forced Crosby to miss Game 4? Washington’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7? Let’s go with Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The winningest netminder in franchise history had lost his job to Murray over the course of the season but was pressed into action when Murray was injured before Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s opening-round series against Columbus. Fleury was brilliant, no more so than in Game 7 against the Caps. He stopped 29 shots for his ninth career playoff shutout, including a save on an Ovechkin one-timer with the butt end of his stick late in the second period to preserve a one-goal lead.

GUT PUNCH LEVEL: 6. Why 6? Call it the emotional calluses of disappointment. If this loss was to say, the New York Rangers, it may have been more traumatic. But this is what happens when the Capitals play the Penguins.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

PHT Morning Skate: Provorov played with AC separation; Time for Wild to rebuild

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, check out the highlights from Game 7 between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs.

• Even though the Capitals and Penguins have had similar regular-season success since the start of the Crosby/Ovechkin era, there’s still a glaring difference when it comes to playoff results. The Caps are hoping this time will be different. (Sports Illustrated)

• A three-peat won’t be easy for the Penguins, but it isn’t supposed to be easy. There’s a reason why the Stanley Cup Playoffs are considered to be the most difficult grind in professional sports. (Pensblog)

Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the big reasons why the Golden Knights are through to the second round of the playoffs. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, but he certainly doesn’t act like he has one. (SB Nation)

• The San Jose Sharks have an incredible power play, the Vegas Golden Knights have an incredibly penalty kill. Which special teams unit will come out on top in Round 2? (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Instead of smashing a car before their second-round series the Winnipeg Jets, Predators fans will smash a small plane instead. (NHL.com)

• Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw underwent knee surgery on Wednesday. He’s expected to miss at least six months of action. (NHL.com/Canadiens)

Ivan Provorov played in Game 6 against Pittsburgh with a grade 3 AC separation. “It was really frustrating going down in the third period, where I was starting to lose the feeling in my arm. I lost the puck a bunch of times and turned it over. As a competitor, it’s hard not to be out there and not try to do everything to help the team win.” (NBC Sports Philly)

• The Columbus Blue Jackets did some things well and other things not so well during their first-round series against the Washington Capitals. They managed to grab early leads and their stars produced, but they also took too many penalties and their goalie wasn’t good enough. (Jackets Cannon)

• The Colorado Avalanche had a positive season, but they still have a lot to do this offseason. Joe Sakic can start by signing Mikko Rantanen to an extension. (Mile High Hockey)

• New Jersey surprised many by making it to the postseason this year, but they’ll have to show that they can perform now that other teams see them coming. (All About the Jersey)

• The Flames will have to hope that new head coach Bill Peters is able to relate to his players better than the team’s previous coaches. (Flames Nation)

• Regardless of who the Minnesota Wild hire to be their next GM, they should probably look at rebuilding. (Featurd)

• The Hockey Hall of Fame will display items used by First Nations women’s hockey star Bev Beaver. She played competitive hockey for four decades. (Color of Hockey)

• Why will the Capitals get the job done this time around? DC Puck Drop explains why. (DC Puck Drop)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info

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The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is now set, thanks to the Boston Bruins winning Game 7 over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-4. The Bruins will move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Washington Capitals to complete the Eastern Conference bracket. Out West, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets will battle out of the Central Division and the Vegas Golden Knights take on the San Jose Sharks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Here’s the full second round schedule, which kicks off with two games on Thursday night:

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.