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Getting Into Game Shape

by Mike Greenlay / Minnesota Wild

There is a term that is used at the beginning of the hockey season, after all-star and Olympic breaks, and when a player is ready to return from injury: Game Shape. It applies to whether or not a player can jump into the high-tempo pace of an NHL game.

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If you watched the Minnesota Wild players skate in informal practices last week, you would swear that they were in the Game Shape. Of course, you would’ve been wrong.

Being in Game Shape refers to more than being able to skate up and down the ice without the assistance of an oxygen tank. It takes another level to get beyond the base fitness NHLers already have.

“The big difference in being in game-ready shape is guys leaning on you, the physical part, where you can balance and bounce off a guy,” Wild Assistant Coach Darby Hendrickson said.

Wild forward Matt Cullen echoed those sentiments, “It deals with battling in the corners and stopping and starting.”

The key to getting ready for NHL hockey is matching the intensity of a season; something isn’t duplicated during the offseason. Hendrickson chuckled as he talked about what summer hockey brings, “In the summer when you’re on your own, and there are no coaches around, you tend to swing instead of stopping and starting. You’re playing shinny hockey for most of that time.”

Given the shortened season and six-day training camp, the NHL doesn’t have time for exhibition games. The compacted 48-game schedule intensifies the pressure of getting into playing shape immediately. The Wild countered that reality by chartering its minor league affiliate, the Houston Aeros, into the State of Hockey to play in two intra-squad scrimmages with the big club.

Monday’s game was what Head Coach Mike Yeo called a “controlled scrimmage,” while Wednesday’s game had the look and feel of a regular-season game. More than 13,000 fans were in the stands and full game-day operations were running at Xcel Energy Center.

“All of those game-like situations, even the time of day we’re playing (are important),” Hendrickson said. “We’re playing later in the day as opposed to earlier in the day, which the players have been doing for months.”

There isn’t a question Hendrickson and the coaching staff feels the small area battles and tiny nuances of hockey, such as faceoffs and defensive zone competitions, are what will get the Wild into game-shape. Drills where defensemen try to separate forwards from the puck will only benefit the team’s game conditioning.

Let’s not forget about the goaltenders, as they don’t exactly get into Game Shape by running into each other. For goalies, getting into Game Shape deals with different refinements.

“It’s not the bumping for the goaltender,” Goaltending Coach Bob Mason spoke about what a goaltender faces to get ready. “It’s the quickness, quickness of the pass, and game traffic and tracking the passes. Those screeners in front take your vision away from the pass. If you’re late on the pass, then you’re late on the shot and then you’re vulnerable.”

Niklas Backstrom has played in more than 325 NHL games since 2006-07 and Josh Harding played in a career-high 34 games last season. Both veterans know what it will take to get sharp in this abbreviated season.

With the Wild’s depth throughout the lineup, there is a lot of confidence that Yeo and the coaching staff can take this crew—into Game Shape and beyond—in the shortened NHL regular season.

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