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Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (11-4-2-24) vs Minnesota Wild (10-4-1-21)

Where: Mellon Arena
When: Tuesday, November 18, 7:00 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: Versus Network



Pens vs. Wild 10/30/07
  Game-Day: Therrien 11/18
Game-Day: Crosby 11/18
Game-Day: Fleury 11/18
Game-Day: Dupuis 11/18
Trib Inside the Locker Room
Break the Trap: The Penguins have been frustrated at various times this season with teams that lock down the neutral zone. Minnesota’s neutral-zone trap, made famous by New Jersey in the 1990s and brought to Minnesota by head coach Jacques Lemaire, is a suffocating system that can offset any skill or speed deficiency between the Wild and Penguins. The initial breakout pass from the Penguins defense will be crucial. And the team must make clean passes in the voided areas in the neutral zone to break the trap. Pittsburgh isn’t at its best when it’s dumping and chasing. The Penguins must remain patient in their efforts.

Power Play: The Penguins power play helped them defeat the Buffalo Sabres. Any time Pittsburgh plays a team that is so sound defensively, like Minnesota, the power play becomes even more important. There will be few opportunities to score goals and their best chances will come on the man-advantage. Pittsburgh cannot let those chances slip away.
The Minnesota Wild is flying high this season and appears to be a legitimate contender to repeat as Northwest Division champions. Last year, Minnesota went 44-28-10 for 98 points and a third-seed playoff berth. The Wild are riding last season’s momentum and are in the early division lead despite losing two of their top four scorers. The Wild improved their defense with a couple offseason trades and boast the top-ranked defense in the league.

The strength of the Minnesota franchise is its commitment to head coach Jacques Lemaire’s defense-first, trap approach. No matter how many players come and go, the team will always be competitive while Lemaire is behind the bench. Minnesota was the hottest team to start this season, going 6-0-1 out of the gate. They stumbled a little after that stretch but recovered to win three out of their past four games.
Minnesota lost its No. 3 (Brian Rolston, 31G-28A-59P) and No. 4 (Pavol Demitra, 15G-39A-54P) scorers and gritty winger Todd Fedoruk from last season’s squad. General manager Doug Risebrough recruited former Wild Andrew Brunette, who ranks third in franchise history with 110 assists while playing for Minnesota from 2001-04. He also signed veteran forward Owen Nolan and Antti Miettinen. Risebrough bolstered his defensive corps by trading for two top defensemen. First he picked up Marc-Andre Bergeron from Anaheim. Then, he acquired Marek Zidlidky from Nashville.
Marian Gaborik is one of the most dynamic players in the league. He can single-handedly change a game by himself. Gaborik has five 30-goal seasons in seven years in the league. He set new career highs in goals (42), assists (41), points (83) and rating (plus-17) last year. Gaborik’s goals, points and rating led the team. He was expected to have a huge season this year since this is the final year of his contract, but a lower body injury has kept him out of the lineup for all but two games.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard is the team’s best play-maker and will center the top line. He led the team with 50 assists in last year’s campaign. Captain Mikko Koivu recorded 42 points last year despite missing almost 30 games with a leg injury. Koivu currently paces the Wild with 15 points (2G-13A) in 15 games. Brunette averaged 23 goals a season during his three-year stint with Colorado. Nolan isn’t the dominant power forward he was in his prime, but he’s still a serviceable veteran that can chip in. Miettinen is second on the team with 12 points (6G-6A) and could best his career high of 15 goals in a season. James Sheppard, the ninth-overall pick in 2006, is a promising rookie who jumped from juniors to the NHL. Eric Belanger, Stephane Veilleux and Craig Weller will also contribute.
Zidlicky and Bergeron were huge additions to the blue line. Zidlicky notched 40-plus points in three of his four NHL seasons. Bergeron made an immediate impact with Wild. Bergeron has a big shot from the point and quarterbacks the power play. They both are key contributors with the man-advantage. Both men have scored their only two goals this season with the man-advantage.

23-year-old Brent Burns looks to improve on his breakout campaign last year, in which he set career highs in goals (15), assists (28) and points (43). Kim Johnsson is a balanced blue liner and will occasionally join the rush. Nick Shultz is a disciplined player in his own zone. Martin Skoula and Erik Reitz also logged ice time with the Wild this season.
Niklas Backstrom is the beneficiary of Minnesota’s defense-first approach. However, the Finnish netminder has been the best goalie in the league in the early going - as evidenced by his 10-3-1 record, 2.00 goals against average and .934 save percentage. The 30-year-old went from unknown to top-tier goaltender in only one season. He has been lights out since entering the league two years ago and has combined numbers of 66-24-15, 2.15 goals against average and .925 save percentage. He may get extra help from his team’s system, but his save percentage proves that when shots do end up on net, they rarely go in.

Josh Harding is a serviceable backup that saw action in a career-high 29 games last year. Minnesota will rely on the second-round pick to spell Backstrom on occasion, and maybe take the reigns in the coming years.
The Penguins will have their work cut out for them against Backstrom. They’ll have to earn everything they get. Backstrom ranks in the top five in the NHL in every major goaltending category: save percentage (. 934 – 4th), GAA (2.00 – 5th), wins (10 – 2nd/tied) and shutouts (2 – 2nd/tied). Backstrom will be in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy by season's end and possibly even get some Hart hype. Every goal against him is rare and crucial. Minnesota’s discipline in its own zone doesn’t lend to many scoring opportunities. Backstrom really frustrates his opponents by squashing those precious few opportunities.
“They play a great team game. Their whole team buys into the system. When your whole team buys in, it’s tough to crack it and get some goals.”
- Rob Scuderi on Minnesota
With Lemaire contemplating a stay of absence from behind the bench, the natural successor to Minnesota’s top job is former Penguins head coach Kevin Constantine, who is currently the head coach of the Wild’s AHL-minor league affiliate Houston.

Author: Sam Kasan

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