Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ducking the Issue

(more hockey analysis you didn’t ask for)

by Sam Bergman

Star Tribune hockey writer Michael Russo could hardly have been more unequivocal in his assessment of the Wild’s performance in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series against Anaheim. The Ducks controlled nearly every facet of the game, wrote Russo, and only the standout performance of netminder Niklas Backstrom prevented a far more lopsided score than the actual 2-1 final. The defense was shoddy, the forecheck nearly nonexistent, and the Minnesotans were generally manhandled by a superior Anaheim squad that had clearly come into the playoffs loaded for bear.

So it was odd to scour the comments section of Russo’s blog at (which many local puckheads have taken to using as a place to congregate and chat during the games) on Thursday morning and see that a hefty percentage of the beat writer’s online audience had an entirely different assessment of Game 1. No one thought that the Wild had outplayed the Ducks, exactly, and there were certainly no excuses being made for a defensive corps that allowed a whopping six Anaheim breakaways, one of which led to Teemu Selanne’s tying goal in the second period.

But nearly everyone agreed that Anaheim’s go-ahead goal in the third period was a fluke, a garbage goal which perhaps shouldn’t even have been allowed, since Backstrom (flailing backwards as teammate Kim Johnsson crashed into him) had covered the puck with his right leg a good two seconds before Dustin Penner jammed it out from under him and into the net. Also finding consensus was the fact that the Wild, while lacking the physical presence of a Scott Niedermeyer or Chris Pronger, nonetheless showed a willingness to play the tough, Canadian-style game that Head Coach Jacques Lemaire is forever asking for. Basically, where Russo seemed to see a clear Wild loss, many fans saw an Anaheim win. It’s a subtle difference, but it says much about where the series might go from here.

The first issue to be considered is that of expectation vs. reality. By any objective analysis, the Ducks are a clear favorite in the series. Anaheim won a very tough division by three points, holding off not only Dallas’s veteran squad, but also a San Jose Sharks team that many have picked to win it all. They have two of the best physical defensemen in the game, two above-average goaltenders, a probable future Hall of Fame forward in Teemu Selanne, and a wealth of playoff experience which includes a trip to the Cup Finals back in 2003, the same year the Wild made their own stunning playoff run.

The 2006-07 Wild, by contrast, are largely untested in the playoffs, and are widely considered to be an occasionally dangerous team which must be clicking on all cylinders in order to run with the big boys. Minnesota’s month-long hot streak to end the season was a nice story, but in the last several weeks, it was reported that the Ducks were actually hoping to face Minnesota in the first round, believing that it would be all too easy to muscle scorers like Marion Gaborik and Mikko Koivu off the puck, and overpower a Wild defense that, despite flashes of solidity, had a maddening regular season habit of failing to backcheck and turning the puck over in front of the net.

In other words, playing at home in front of a full house (a luxury Anaheim rarely enjoys during the regular season,) the Ducks should have won Game 1 of this series. And they did. So why all the gloom and doom from the beat writer about the loss? After all, for Minnesota to have hoped for more than a split at Honda Center would have been plain greedy, right?

Well, maybe. But the real reason for Russo’s decidedly negative tone probably had to do with the fact that the game just looked so damned winnable! With starting goaltender J.S. Giguere held out of the lineup after spending a week attending to the health of his infant son, the Wild missed a golden opportunity to pepper (admittedly capable) backup Ilya Bryzgalov with pucks. The standard prescription in this circumstance is for a defenseman to throw the puck in the general direction of the goal, and count on his teammates, who should be crashing in on the goalie, to make deflections or bang away at rebounds until the biscuit winds up in the basket. This is harder than it sounds, especially these days, when shot-blocking by defensemen and even some forwards has become a league-wide obsession, rather than the specialized deathwish it used to be.

But the Wild never even seemed to consider such an approach with Bryzgalov, or more accurately, they only seemed to consider half of it. Plenty of pucks were thrown towards the front of the net, especially in the second period – the problem was that there never seemed to be anyone in a white sweater around to do anything with them. This has been a Wild bugaboo for years, now: the lack of any sort of physical approach down low, a dearth of forwards willing to endure the physical abuse one inevitably invites when parking oneself in front of the opposing goal.

Strangely, this is exactly the problem that many of the team’s offseason and in-season acquisitions were supposed to address. Hometown boy Mark Parrish was signed to be a big, tough, fearless presence who loved to crash the net and rack up the garbage goals. Adam Hall and Dominic Moore (both healthy scratches in Game 1, as Lemaire chose to play enforcer Derek Boogaard, who has been working hard in recent weeks to prove that he’s more than just a devastating right cross) were supposed to add yet more physicality. And still, where teams like Anaheim and Calgary never seem not to have a huge man with a stick camped out in front of the opposing goal, the most the Wild have been able to muster on most nights is a winger flying in towards the net at the last second to take a desperation pass from the corner that may or may not come.

It’s a strange business, this lack of offensive toughness. Most observers, when asked the reason behind it, tend to say that Minnesota simply doesn’t have the right personnel for such an approach. The team’s top scoring threats, Gaborik and Demitra, specialize in high-speed breakaways and opportunistic rushes up-ice that result in goals before the opposition can collect itself to give proper chase. The much-vaunted White-Bouchard-Rolston line likes to spend a lot of time stick-handling around the defense and then hoping that yet another Rolston slapshot from somewhere near the blue line will find the back of the net.

But there may be more to it than just personnel. Lemaire is well-known to favor a system in which the center spends a great deal of time acting almost as a third defenseman, so as to guard against odd-man rushes the other way. In some circumstances, this means that the man who would normally be expected to crash the net is instead sitting back by the blue line, as instructed. (It should be noted that I am not nearly enough of a hockey expert to know how often this is actually a factor. I’ve been asking every hockey expert I can get my hands on about it, and have thus far received inconclusive answers.) In that sense, Lemaire’s many critics in Canada may be indirectly right when they say that he only wants to prevent goals, not score them.

In any case, one thing is clear as the Wild lick their wounds and regroup for Game 2. To paraphrase Denny Green, the Ducks are who everyone thought they were. And in Game 1, the Wild appear to have been exactly who the Ducks thought they were. If a repeat of the Wild’s 2003 playoff run is to have any chance of happening, that will have to change, and fast.

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