Defensemen shouldering heavy load for Wild
ST. PAUL, Minn. – When a team is down to six defensemen, one making his NHL debut, the last thing a coach wants is to see one of those players getting ejected in the first period.
That's exactly what Wild coach Mike Yeo witnessed on Thursday night at the beginning of Minnesota's 2-1 shootout win over the Blackhawks, but Nate Prosser's ejection for head-butting Jamal Mayers was not the blow it could have been.
Despite Prosser's objection that he hadn't done anything on purpose, that Mayers sold the move as a head butt – "He acted like teeth were knocked out and everything," Prosser said. "I felt bad at the time, but looking at it, he was back the next shift." – it still could have been a momentum-changer. That's true any night, but it's especially worrisome when the Minnesota defense was as shorthanded as it already was on Monday.
Somehow, though, it wasn't the game-changer it could have been, and the Wild held onto the momentum that Marco Scandella said was set with Josh Harding's save on a Patrick Sharp shot at 8:17 in the first period.
"That was an unbelievable save, and once we saw that, on the bench… you're like, ‘He's not going to let any pucks in tonight, many pucks,'" Scandella said.
That proved true in a night when the Blackhawks had just 23 shots on goal and one score, which came in the first period. Harding was perfect for the rest of the night, and a large part of that was due to the record-setting minutes logged by Scandella and Tom Gilbert.
Scandella, who was averaging 21:32 per game, finished the night with a Wild record 35:32, and Gilbert played only slightly less, a career-high 34:17. It was easy to joke about postgame, about the moment in the second period when Gibson tried to climb back onto the bench but was waved back onto the ice, about how a skate repair was the only thing between him and 37 minutes. But really, having two defensemen who are able to withstand so many minutes while playing at a high level is indispensable.
Scandella is just 22, in his second season seeing NHL action. Gilbert is seven years older, with four more years' experience, but he didn't join the Wild until the middle of the 2011-12 season. They're both finding their spots on this team, and the relationship they've built on the ice has been a bright spot in the team's recent struggles.
"I think they're good for each other," Yeo said of the two defensemen. "Good players want to play with good players, and defensemen, they have to defend, but they don't want to just defend all night either. They want to play with somebody who can execute, somebody who can move the puck."
Scandella said that after practicing together for just a short time, he and Gilbert have built a good relationship. Scandella looks up to his older teammate as a role model, but on Thursday night, he was right there with him, holding his own and having what can only be described as a breakout game.
But in the end, for the 20th time this season, the game went beyond defense. Scandella and Gilbert, Justin Falk and Kurtis Foster and even Tyler Kuma in his first-ever NHL game – they kept the Wild with just one goal for the entire game, until Cal Clutterbuck scored at 16:48 in the third period to tie the game. And with no further goals, defense became irrelevant and a shootout decided the game.
For the second time in three games, the Wild defeated the Blackhawks on a Devin Setoguchi shootout goal, but Thursday's outcome was a far cry from the team's 5-4 win on Sunday. This time, it was about defense, about near perfection from Harding and perhaps the most stretched part of the Wild roster performing better than it ever should have.
"It's amazing how many games we've won this year when we've either played with five D for most of the game, anyways," Yeo said.
But even after a solid win like Thursday's, there's still a hint of the disappointment that's plagued Yeo for the second part of the season. In beating the Blackhawks twice in one week, the Wild proved yet again that they can hold their own against playoff teams while they often falter against losing squads. It doesn't make any sense, and it only adds to the coach's frustration.
"There's a lot of frustrating things for us right now, a lot of what could have beens and if onlys, unfortunately," Yeo said. "It's been a difficult time lately… and that's why I give our guys credit, because it's difficult on them, too."
So for now, with just one game remaining in a season that descended quickly into strange, frustration is tempered. For every question Yeo has, there's still a level of pride that makes late-season wins like this one a bit more encouraging.
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