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Myers: Wild's grit vs. Blues bodes well for would-be playoff matchup

by Jess Myers, 1500ESPN.com Updated 7 months ago | 1265 reads

ST. PAUL, Minn. - New Minnesota Wild goalie Illya Bryzgalov had a shaky start.

In his first appearance in an Iron Range red sweater since coming to Minnesota in a trade with Edmonton last week, the new guy stopped just one of the first three shots he faced.

After that things were fine. The lanky Russian stopped all of the next 19 shots the high-powered St. Louis Blues sent his way. The Wild rallied from a 2-0 hole to forge a 2-2 tie, and dominated long stretches of the game, forcing overtime and then a shootout.

Which is trouble for two reasons: 1) Bryzgalov is a Russian goalie, and 2) T.J. Oshie plays for the St. Louis Blues.

In a scene reminiscent of the drama played out in the Winter Olympics a few weeks ago, when Oshie - the former Warroad High School and University of North Dakota star - scored on four of six shootout attempts in a win versus Russia, here he was again, staring down a Russian netminder with the game on the line.

Using his patented slow route to the net, Oshie went one way, then another, then another, finally snapping a shot off that Bryzgalov appeared to have, for just a second. Then the puck landed on the other side of the goal line, the red light flared, and a few seconds later the Blues had beaten the Wild for the eighth time in a row.

Afterward, Oshie joked that his USA teammate, Wild captain Zach Parise, may have provided some insider information on Oshie shootout moves to the new guy between the pipes in Minnesota.

"I think I was talking to Zach about that move tonight over in Sochi and he might have told Bryz[galov] what it was," Oshie said. "It seemed like he had me and I got a little lucky. It must've just squeaked inside the post. I got a little fortunate on that one, but I'll keep taking them."

Bryzgalov, whose appearance in goal snapped a string of 16 starts in a row for rookie Darcy Kuemper, said he thought for just a second that he'd foiled Oshie, but to no avail.

"You know, pretty much I almost had it," said Bryzgalov, who finished with 20 saves. "I don't know how he raised it over the shoulder. I thought there was no way to go for him. I was completely surprised he scored on that one."

For Oshie's teammates, the ability to get to a shootout and know you've got a not-so-secret weapon, even in a game where the Blues were dominated for long stretches, is one of the things fueling St. Louis' ascension to the top of the Western Conference standings.

"When I see Osh going in on a shootout, I kind of giggle," said Blues captain David Backes, who cut his hockey teeth at Minnesota State, Mankato. "I told him afterward that the goalies are starting to play like soccer goalies because they're just guessing left or right. He's got moves left, got moves right, got moves straight ahead. It's pretty special to watch and I've seen it a lot."

NHL realignment has put the Blues in the same division as Minnesota for the first time since the North Stars were routinely visiting the Checkerdome for old Norris Division battles. That's a good thing for the Wild geographically and for fan interest, as the Blues lineup is filled with familiar names from the WCHA - Oshie, Backes, former Colorado College star Jaden Schwartz and title-winning Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott, to name a few.

And as dominated as the Wild have been by St. Louis recently, Sunday's loss may have provided some hope that if these teams meet in the postseason, as is plenty likely under the NHL's new in-division playoff format, the team from Minnesota may be competitive.

The Blues got an early power play and scored on their second shot of the game. Then they scored on their third shot as well, and this was looking like a mismatch. Beyond that point, the Wild dominated and may have deserved two points instead of the consolation point that goes to a shootout loser.

"Tough call against and then the puck ends up in the net," Wild coach Mike Yeo said of the early Blues man advantage. "That's one thing, but then we make another mistake and we're down 2-0. It wasn't like we were that bad. We were competing. I think that they thought they were going to take it to us physically and I think our guys responded to that. I think we got into it, we started being physical on their defensemen. We really started to get in our game and from that point on, I thought we were the better team."

It was one game. And it was another loss versus the Blues.

But for once, this loss may have provided some hope that if they get into the playoffs - where there are no shootouts - and see the Blues again, there may be a reason for optimism.

"It's a team that, in all reality, we could be squaring off against in the playoffs too," Parise said. "I know there's a long time until that, but I thought we matched up well against them. We like the way we played. Some great opportunities at the end, just wouldn't go for us."

After a brutally long winter, the snow is finally melting. And it appears that with a good month of the regular season still to go, the Wild and another of their Central Division rivals are thinking ahead to April.

 

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
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