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Pay attention to the Wild

by Larry Wigge

Minnesota’s 5-0 start is something to pay attention to for a couple reasons.

Don’t confuse this team with last year’s Wild team that won its first six games and had nine wins in its first 10 games. That team was 4-15-1 in its first 20 road games.

With a quick-strike offense led by Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston; the goaltending of Niklas Backstrom and the tight defensive work in coach Jacques Lemaire’s system, the Wild finished last season 15-4-2 on the road. Then, they lost in the first round of the playoffs, 4-1, to the Anaheim Ducks because many believe they weren’t gritty enough.

In road victories at Phoenix and Anaheim on back-to-back nights, Oct. 13-14, grit was never a problem -- especially against the defending champion Ducks.

The Wild stood toe-to-toe while pursuing the puck with the Ducks in a 2-0 victory at Anaheim. They also got a bit of revenge for what they perceived as a cheap shot by Brad May on defenseman Kim Johnsson early in the 2007 playoff series.

On Oct. 14, Derek Boogaard passed up a bout with heavyweight George Parros early in the game, but never hesitated to square off against May. Later, Boogaard and Parros went at it as did Nick Schultz of the Wild and Ryan Getzlaf of the Ducks.

”No one’s going to intimidate that team,” Lemaire said after the game.

”We’ve talked a lot about being more aggressive on the puck and in our battles for the puck,” said center Wes Walz. “I think we’ve fought hard to get that mentality each game.”

The win against Anaheim was Minnesota’s third shutout in five games -- and it was young goalie Josh Harding’s third shutout in eight NHL games.

Speaking of goaltending, Backstrom’s numbers are scary since he took over as No. 1 for Manny Fernandez on Feb. 1. Before he beat Phoenix, 3-2, on Friday, Backstrom had 21 wins, six shutouts, a 1.80 goals-against average and .933 save percentage since displacing Fernandez.


”Sid The Kid” on the skids? Not on your life.

Forget that it took the NHL’s reigning Most Valuable Player and scoring champion, 20-year-old Sidney Crosby, four games before he scored his first goal of the 2007-08 season in a 6-4 triumph at Toronto on Oct. 13.

Crosby will be just fine, even if some wonder how becoming captain of this team might affect his play.

The Pittsburgh Penguins came into this season being billed as one of the favorites to contend for a Stanley Cup Final berth after the young and talented squad finished just two points behind the New Jersey Devils in the highly competitive Atlantic Division.

Growing maturity among youngsters like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitley, Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury is one reason for optimism. The presence of veteran leader Gary Roberts from the start of this season also helps. Pittsburgh also added veteran free agents Petr Sykora and Daryl Sydor, both winners of the Stanley Cup.

Consequently, most experts think bigger and better things are ahead for the Pens, who made the playoffs last spring for the first time in five seasons.

The one thing some insiders are wondering about the Penguins after they scored just eight goals in going 1-2 in their first three games is if Pittsburgh is too right-handed among its forwards.

Last season, the Penguins were third in the NHL in goals with 277 -- behind only Buffalo (308) and Ottawa (288). The most impressive part of the potent Pittsburgh attack was the 94 power-play goals it scored, most in the League.

The Pens were just 1-for-7 with the man advantage against the Maple Leafs, giving them just a 4-for-23 mark in their first four games.

While Sykora easily could match the 19 goals that departed Micheal Ouellet had last season, the theory is that centers like Crosby and Malkin could miss having a right-handed shot in their wheelhouse for passes waiting in the slot on the power play, where Oulette scored 11 of his goals.

Pittsburgh’s only right-handed forwards are Colby Armstrong, Adam Hall and Georges Laraque. But you can bet that GM Ray Shero will react quickly if he needs to go out and deal for a right-handed fix.


Christmas in July. Christmas shopping in September, October and November. Why not a Coach-of-the-Year vote in the third week of October?

My vote goes to Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, who -- minus top two centers Chris Drury and Daniel Briere -- has transformed his team into a puck-moving defense and winger-driven offense. Yes, they are still an impressive offensive team -- even if the offense might look a little anemic with defensemen Brian Campbell and Jaroslav Spacek leading the team in scoring and Spacek first in goals with four in their first four games.

After getting six goals in the first two games of the season, the Sabres scored 13 times in their next two games. Not bad, eh?

The center-less line of Paul Gaustad-Ales Kotalik-Drew Stafford was particularly impressive in Buffalo’s 7-3 comeback win agaianst Washington on Oct. 13. The line’s go-to-the-net, short, aggressive passing game really stood out.

That shows me a fine coaching job for a team written off by many when Drury went to the New York Rangers and Briere to Philadelphia in free agency.


Don’t look at the roster of the Miami Dolphins if you are looking for the best quarterback in South Florida. Try Cory Murphy, an undrafted 29-year-old defenseman from Colgate, who registered a pair of power-play assists in the Florida Panthers 6-4 victory against Tampa Bay Oct. 13.

Murphy spent the last six seasons playing in Europe, five years in Finland and one in Switzerland. He had 13 goals and 37 assists in 45 games for HIFK Helsinki last season. Murphy is manning the point on the power play with captain Olli Jokinen.


For all of those nit-pickers who like to say trapping defensive hockey is creeping back into the game, in the 13-game NHL schedule for Oct. 13, five games totaled 10-or-more goals -- Florida beating Tampa Bay, 6-4; New Jersey topping Atlanta 6-5; Pittsburgh 6-5 against Toronto; Buffalo beating Washington, 7-3 and Calgary against Nashville 7-4. ... The most surprising score in that mix was the win by New Jersey, with Martin Brodeur winning his first game in four starts. Don’t look at Brodeur’s first win as news. The news in goal for the Devils is that the team’s backup Kevin Weekes is 1-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average. Last season, Brodeur’s backup, Scott Clemmensen won just one game -- and the season before that, Clemmensen had only three wins. Weekes’ experience should give Brodeur a chance to take a break at certain times during the season, making Marty stronger for the playoffs.

Dany Heatley already has six goals this season in a bid to go 50-50-50 in the last three seasons. The last player to have three straight 50-goal seasons? Brett Hull, who actually did in four consecutive seasons for St. Louis from 1989-90 through 1992-93. ... Consecutive wins at Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are always eye-popping, but even more so when you see a team that is just two years from winning the Stanley Cup like the Carolina Hurricanes. With goaltender Cam Ward reporting to camp for the Carolina Hurricanes 25 pounds lighter (no typo, 25 pounds) and seeing a healthy Cory Stillman back in the lineup and Matt Cullen back from a one-year hiatus in the Big Apple, this Canes team is beginning to look a lot like that the one that had the best record in the NHL in 2005-06 and beat Edmonton in the Final. ... Rocky Mountain High? The Colorado Avalanche have scored at least four goals in each of their first three home games.



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