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Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (28-17-1-57) vs. Minnesota Wild (22-20-3-47)
Where: Xcel Energy Center

Monday, January 11, 8 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9

Season Series:
The Penguins and Wild complete their two-game series at the Xcel Energy Center. Minnesota walked away from Mellon Arena with a 2-1 victory on Oct. 31 behind goals by Kyle Brodziak and Eric Belanger. Pascal Dupuis tallied the lone Pittsburgh goal as Niklas Backstrom stole the show with 34 saves as the Penguins outshot the Wild, 35-15.



Last Meeting: Oct. 31, 2009
  MIN 2 - PIT 1 
Game Highlights
AP Recap
Faceoffs: One of the areas head coach Dan Bylsma wanted to see his team improve during this five-game road trip and moving forward into the second half of the season is faceoffs. They responded by winning 34 of 59 draws (58 percent) against Toronto on Saturday. Minnesota will present a tough challenge in this department as their 53.4 winning rate ranks second in the NHL, led by Eric Belanger (58.8 percent) and Mikko Koivu (57.6 percent). 

Keep Doing the Little Things:
The Penguins got off to a good start to their five-game road trip by winning all the little battles that added up to a 4-1 defeat of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Pittsburgh outhit the Leafs (17-15), registered 12 takeaways, won the faceoff battle and blocked 34 shots. More of the same against the Wild will help slow a Minnesota squad which is 7-2-2 in their past 11 home games.      
Minnesota missed the playoffs in ’08-09 after qualifying three of the previous five seasons. However in the two seasons prior, the Wild won their only division championship in team history (’07-08) and won a franchise-record 48 times (’06-07). Perennially among the best defensive teams, Minnesota’s 200 goals allowed in ’08-09 were second fewest only to the 196 allowed by the Boston Bruins. The Wild lost five of their first six games to open this season but have gone 21-14-3 over their past 38 games to move within six points of the final playoff spot. They are coming off a dramatic 6-5 shootout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night when they came back from a 5-1 third-period deficit.  

After playing a neutral-zone trap their first eight seasons, the Wild have undergone a total transformation with former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Todd Richards taking over the reigns and bringing an up-tempo, puck-possession system. Richards spent last season as an assistant coach for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks. He led WBS to the 2008 Calder Final.
In addition to changing head coaches, the Wild also switched general managers for the first time in team history, replacing long-time NHL executive Doug Risebrough with first-time GM Chuck Fletcher, who teamed with Ray Shero the past three seasons to build the Penguins into a Stanley Cup champion. Franchise scoring leader Marian Gaborik was allowed to depart to the New York Rangers as a free agent, with shifty Martin Havlat taking his place as face of the franchise.

Joining Havlat as a new face up front is former Penguin Petr Sykora. Deadly when left uncovered in the high-slot area, Sykora provided secondary scoring the past two seasons in Pittsburgh paired on a line with Evgeni Malkin, scoring 53 times during the regular season. Sykora has dressed for only 13 games with the Wild, netting two goals and an assist. Fletcher acquired a face familiar to both he and Richards when he traded for Kyle Brodziak, who played for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in ’06-07 when the Edmonton Oilers loaned players there. The 25-year-old had 11 goals and 27 points in ’08-09 with the Oilers. Brodziak tallied the opening goal against the Penguins on Oct. 31. Earlier this season the Wild acquired Chuck Kobasew from the Boston Bruins. Kobasew scored 21 times for the Bruins last season, but was caught in a numbers game due to their depth up front.

Defensively the Wild added a couple of wily defensive-minded defenders when they signed free agents Greg Zanon from Nashville and Shane Hnidy from Boston. Zanon offers a shot-blocking presence to the blue line while Hnidy’s forte is his physical play.
Martin Havlat struggled adjusting to Minnesota with only five points (1G-4A) through his first 12 games but over his past 27 games has registered 23 points (6G-17A). If the Wild want to continue their push for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference they will need him to increase his goal-scoring production. Although he will never win any style points for his skating, veteran Andrew Brunette continues to provide consistent scoring in his second stint with Minnesota. Brunette continues to find open creases in the offensive zone to hit the back of the net, as he leads Minnesota with 13 goals and his 36 points are second-best. He finished second on the team behind Owen Nolan with 22 goals last season.

Minnesota has gotten a huge boost offensively from mid-season acquisition Guillaume Latendresse, acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for former No.4-overall draft pick Benoit Pouliot. Latendresse, 22, has regained his scoring touch in Minnesota with nine goals and 11 points in 20 games with the Wild after getting only three points (2G-1A) in 23 contests with Montreal. He scored twice against the Blackhawks on Saturday and has four points (3G-1A) in his past three games.

Eric Belanger, a consistent 35-point producer throughout his career as a third-line center, has done a great job filling in for the injured Pierre-Marc Bouchard as the Wild’s No. 2 center. Belanger ranks fifth on the team with 25 points (11G-14A) in 44 games. Burly Owen Nolan has enjoyed a late-career renaissance, leading Minnesota with 25 goals last year. Through Sunday, Nolan ranks fourth on the team with 10 goals in 40 games. 21-year-old Cal Clutterbuck, solidly-built at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, has earned a reputation as one of the hardest body checkers in the league. He paces the NHL with 178 hits. Antti Miettinen, one of the game’s more responsible defensive players, tied his career high last year with 15 goals and his 44 points established a career high. Through 42 games he has 20 points (9G-11A) for the Wild.
Minnesota has a solid stable of capable puck movers to direct a transition game which is a key component to head coach Todd Richard’s system, led by emerging two-way threat Brent Burns and offensive-minded Marek Zidlicky. After spending time at forward last season under Jacques Lemaire, the 6-foot-5, 219-pound Burns began to reassert himself at both ends of the rink during the second half. He finished the season with eight goals and 27 points playing in 59 games. Burns has battled a couple concussions this season while registering 10 points (2G-8A) in 21 games. In ’07-08 Burns had a career year with 15 goals and 43 points. Zidlicky came over in a trade from Nashville on July 1, 2008. His forte is the offensive zone, as he has scored 40-plus points four of his first five seasons, including three seasons of 12 or more goals. He leads all Wild defensemen with 28 points (4G-24A) through the first 44 games.

Kim Johnsson might not produce points at the level he did in his younger days but he is a better all-around defender and outlets the puck from his own zone as good as anyone in the game. Johnsson has 11 points (6G-5A) in 38 games. His best offensive season came with the Philadelphia Flyers in ’03-04 when he posted 42 games (13G-29A) in 80 games. Nick Schultz, a second-round pick in 2000, has developed into a steady, stay-at-home defender. Tough to beat one-on-one, Schultz has been a mainstay in Minnesota since breaking into the lineup at 19 in 2001. He has 11 points (1G-10A) in 45 games. Shane Hnidy and Greg Zanan have provided the Wild with a physical element in their first seasons with the Wild.
Last season the Wild gave up the second-fewest goals per game at 2.4 per contest, but that number is up a half-goal per game this season (2.9), which ranks 20th in the NHL. Besides a more up-tempo system, part of the reason for the drop-off is a slightly down season from last season’s Vezina Trophy finalist, Niklas Backstrom. The 31-year-old finished third in the league in ’08-09 with a 2.33 goals-against average and was fourth with a .923 save percentage while posting a record of 37-24-8 in ’08-09.

This season the 6-foot-1 Backstrom has seen his numbers drop to a 2.62 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage while posting a record of 19-14-3. Backstrom, who made 34 saves in a 2-1 defeat of the Penguins on Oct. 31, has a 2-0 career record against the Penguins, allowing only two goals in those games. He was pulled in his most recent start against Chicago on Saturday after surrendering five goals on 12 shots.

Reserve Josh Harding relieved Backstrom in that contest and picked up the win, but for the season has a record of only 3-6 with a 3.31 goals-against average and a .881 save percentage. He was in the net and allowed four goals to the Penguins on their last visit to the Xcel Energy Center on Oct. 30, 2007.
Mikko Koivu has built off a career year in 2008-09 to have an even better season through the first half of this campaign. He has been able to do this despite not having Pierre-Marc Bouchard anchoring a dependable second line behind him. Through the first 45 games of the season, Koivu is once again pacing the Wild in scoring with 42 points (12G-30A).

A superb playmaker whose play has begun to mirror that of older brother Saku, now with the Anaheim Ducks, Koivu is just as good in the defensive zone as he is the offensive. Koivu, the Minnesota captain, is also one of the top faceoff men in the NHL with a 57.6 winning rate on draws which is 9th best in the league. Last season he posted a career-high 67 points (20G-47A) to lead the Wild.
Minnesota has been able to post an above-.500 record despite two of their top players missing a majority of the season.
- Center Pierre-Marc Bouchard, a creative playmaker and the Wild’s No. 3 leading scorer last season, hasn’t played since the season opener due to a concussion.
- Defenseman Brent Burns is skating on his own after experiencing his second concussion of the season.
- Winger Chuck Kobasew is on the shelf indefinitely with a sprained left ACL and MCL.
- Defenseman Clayton Stoner has sat out two consecutive games with a groin problem.
"The first 40 minutes we watched them skate and watched them play. We had a couple opportunities. But the last 20 minutes was great. The crowd and the atmosphere was unbelievable."

– Minnesota head coach Todd Richards talking to the Wild’s official team website after his team scored four third-period goals to erase a 5-1 deficit to the Chicago Blackhawks and eventually captured a 6-5 shootout victory.

27.8: Minnesota allows the fourth-least amount of shots in the NHL by surrendering only 27.8 shots per game.
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Author: Jason Seidling

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