Game coverage

Lemaire coaches final game in 6-3 Minnesota win; Gaborik saying he’s leaning toward testing free agency

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

If you want to see Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock’s really nice words and praise for Jacques Lemaire, click this link, go to Hitchcock’s press conference last night and it starts about 2:15 into it. 

I’ve covered a lot of coaching changes in my sportswriting career (OK, none here), but when I grabbed Jacques Lemaire by the shoulder and pulled him aside after his press scrum tonight to talk alone with me and the beat writer across the river, I still was a bit stunned to hear him say what I knew he was going to say.

Just to hear him actually say the words that he was done as the Wild coach was hard to grasp.

I just want to fast forward 20 minutes before I continue, but when I was hustling back up to the press box, outside of the Columbus locker room standing against the wall was Lemaire. He was all alone. He was throwing what I think was a ball against the opposite wall and catching it. And he just looked kind of sad as it hit him that this was really the end to the Jacques Lemaire era in Minnesota.

Lemaire loved coaching the Wild. He loves coaching … period, and that’s why he made this crystal clear that he is not retiring.

He still wants to coach, or work in the game in another capacity, but he re-iterated over and over that he loves to coach.

I have come full-circle on this, but a few weeks ago, I thought all the speculation that he’d be interested in the Montreal job was just crazy. I really believe he’d take it if offered now. And talk about a media circus. If he thought I was annoying, how about me times 50, and in French and English!

Lemaire said he wouldn’t talk about specific teams, but he’ll be looking. Lemaire, if he’s going to coach, must work with somebody he’s had a relationship with. Bob Gainey, he’s got a relationship with. And something else just dawned on me. If its true Serge Savard might buy the Habs, there’s a friendship between he and Lemaire.

“I think it’s time for the players to get a new coach and myself look at other stuff,” Lemaire said.

Will you coach elsewhere? “I’ll see. It’s exciting. It’s an exciting job. I was behind the bench there just before the game there, and I felt I was getting really tight because it’s something I’ve done for 15 years and I like it and I have to go.”

“Have to go.” He later added “I had to make [this decision] for certain reasons.”

Lemaire wouldn’t clarify, but, and this is conjecture, I think he was told, “It’s time, Jacques, for a change. Think about it.” Especially since he told us he won’t be working for the Wild, and the way he said it, and he threw a few other subtle hints at us tonight. Also, the way this went down. Lemaire, much, much, much, much to the team’s chagrin, got this out the way he wanted it out – with radio before the game and the beat writers after the game – rather than the way the front office wanted it released Monday. There were some very frustrated front office and staffers during the game.

As I’ve mentioned countless times, perception’s reality, and there’s got to be a reason the Wild can’t reel in the big fish. I don’t think it’s fair sometimes. There are a lot of defensive coaches in the league. Lots of old-school coaches. But if Lemaire’s the reason, it needed to change.

Lemaire looked like a man ready to go the last few weeks. He went into a number of unsolicited rants with the writers and he rarely went on the ice on game mornings. And there’s been clear tension between he and the team in the past couple weeks (more on that in a sec).

Now, before I continue, if you’re one of the people out there that thinks Jacques leaving gets Marian Gaborik to re-sign, you’re wrong. Gaborik said it changes nothing and he said after the game that he knows he’s a free agent and he’s waited this long and it would be cool to hear from 29 other teams.

So Gaborik, although he added he’d listen to the Wild if it comes to him (so did Brian Rolston, by the way, and he left after rejecting offers), might have played his final game in Minnesota. He scored two goals and an assist and was plus-3. He had an impressive 10 goals and 18 points in 11 games since returning. In fact, every unrestricted free agent except Stephane Veilleux (so Foster, Bergeron, Skoula and Gaborik twice) scored tonight.

As I wrote tomorrow, there’s been a lot of tension. People ask me all the time why I rarely take road trips off but do take home practices off. On the road, you’re around the team, the players aren’t in a rush to get home to their lives, so you get an idea of what’s really going on inside the room.

Players have been getting frustrated with Lemaire. They’ve been talking back to him. There was an incident during practice Thursday when one player cursed at him. There’s been a big rift between he and James Sheppard, one Doug Risebrough had to get involved with. Players have been furious with the few days off. 

Lemaire did not deny this stuff, especially the problems with Sheppard, saying none of this stuff is abnormal. But I think Lemaire just started to realize it was indeed time. This was a team damaged bigtime by injuries, but he still had trouble getting the team to play the way he wants. Jacques Lemaire teams play it tight. The Wild, in December and March, were routinely down by two or three goals. That killed him.

And Lemaire did not tell the players after the game he was done. The beat writers did, which says a lot.

So what now?

Doug Risebrough wanted to give Lemaire his time with the beat writers and said he’d talk at a news conference scheduled for Monday at 10:30 a.m.

Obviously, Risebrough’s known for some time Lemaire was stepping down, so he’s got to have an idea of a list.

There’s Guy Carbonneau. There’s Tom Renney. There’s Peter Laviolette. And there’s Kevin Constantine.

But maybe Risebrough should wait and see who else becomes available, like maybe Lindy Ruff or Craig MacTavish. There are also solid assistants, like Todd Richards in San Jose or John Torchetti in Chicago.

I’ve got to say, I thoroughly enjoyed covering Lemaire. Just a great coach, and a genuinely good guy.


Final Night of 2008-09 season

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Niklas Backstrom has started a team-record 20 straight games for the Wild. That will be snapped tonight when backup Josh Harding starts for the first time since Feb. 28.

How can you tell this season is officially over. Nobody — and I mean nobody — skated this morning for the Wild, which got the news five minutes before it landed in Columbus in the wee hours of this morning that Anaheim had beaten Dallas to mathematically make this game meaningless for the Wild.

Apparently, somebody got reception on their cell phone on the descent, and the news trickled around the plane. Very quiet landing I am told by the handful of glum players I ran into in the lobby today.

I also just saw Jacques Lemaire outside having a cigar with Mario Tremblay. The two then walked to the arena — maybe for the last time.

Like I said last night, when Lemaire said he’s made up his mind on his future, I think that’s a clear indication his era in Minnesota is over. If not, I think he’d just announce he’s staying to end all speculation.

But this is a guy that needed a few weeks away last year to be convinced he should return. Do you really think after this season’s disappointing ending that the decision he’s already made is to return? I just don’t think so.

Lemaire is also the type of person that doesn’t want to go to Florida, then come back for a press conference. So if his mind is made up that he is indeed stepping down, I can see a press conference very, very soon after the Easter holiday.

Again, though, this is conjecture.

Craig Weller will play tonight for the injured Dan Fritsche. Tonight’s outcome means a huge deal for Columbus, which can still finish sixth, seventh or eighth in the West.

Lastly, here’s an entertaining and clever piece written by Kyle Anway in the Minneapolis Golf Examiner on golf tips on certain Wild players, coaches and managers heading into the offseason.

Wild eliminated from playoff contention despite 8-4 win over Nashville; Lemaire made up mind on future; Gaborik waves goodbye?

Friday, April 10th, 2009

The Wild’s 8-4 victory over Nashville was quite the party. Unfortunately for the Wild and its fans, the celebration didn’t last two hours.

The Wild needed Columbus to beat St. Louis, or Dallas to keep Anaheim from overtime. Neither happened.

The Blues beat Columbus 3-1, and in a painful manner for the Wild, Dallas rallied to tie Anaheim in the third period on a Fabian Brunnstrom goal. If the Wild somehow saw that before its plane hit wheels up, the elation didn’t last long.

It took Marty Turco 13 seconds to give it up on an Andrew Ebbett goal. Dallas forced OT on a Steve Ott goal with 13.1 seconds left, but the Wild was eliminated the second that final buzzer sounded. Anaheim eventually won in the shootout.

Too bad the Wild didn’t have more efforts like tonight this season. The Wild won its second straight game for the first time since Feb. 21-22. The Wild’s eight goals matched a team record and were the most ever scored at home.

Coach Jacques Lemaire’s eyes sparkled after this one. He was so proud of the Wild’s effort. He was so proud he finally got the team to play like he’s wanted them to all year. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.

Lemaire might have coached his final home game. He said afterward that his mind’s made up on whether he plans to step down or not. My gut says he will coach his final game tomorrow in Columbus.

This is a man who needed two weeks away last year to determine if he wanted to coach again. He had to be convinced to come back by Doug Risebrough persuading him that he didn’t lose the team and that he can still reach today’s players.

Judging by his rants lately, I think Lemaire’s questioning that again and has decided he’s had enough.

Marian Gaborik had two assists in what could have been his final home game. He is currently unsigned and did a slow loop after the game, waving to the fans. Was he waving goodbye? After the game, he said he didn’t know. That has a lot to do with what the Wild’s new offer will be after the season.

He said during the final minutes, he started to wonder in the back of his head. You can read the quotes in tomorrow’s notebook from both gentlemen.

The Wild got two goals tonight from Marc-Andre Bergeron and goals from Dan Fritsche, Andrew Brunette, Kim Johnsson, Mikko Koivu, Cal Clutterbuck and Marek Zidlicky.

Fritsche was injured in the second period when he was clocked by Jordin Tootoo. Fritsche has a “chest injury,” and did not make the trip to Columbus, where he played and near where he grew up.

The Predators were also eliminated tonight.

I know I’ve been hard on the Wild this season, but the teams that deserved to make the playoffs did. St. Louis was 15th in the West. St. Louis has been absolutely demolished by injuried. Yet, the Blues overcame all that and rode to the postseason thanks to tremendous young talent, team play and work ethic.

The Wild was ravaged by key injuries too this season, but this team never got on a single real winning streak. It left tons of critical points on the ice. December killed this team.

The Wild put itself in a position where it had to depend on others. Well, if you want things done right, you better do them yourself.

The Wild finished 6-0-4 at home though, but even those lost points in OT would have gotten it done. OK, I’m out of here. I’ll probably tinker with the blog before my flight, but right now, I’ve got an early flight to Columbus.

Wild vs. “Pesky Preds” …

Friday, April 10th, 2009

as Ryan Jones calls them.

So I asked around today about goalie’s being pulled in weird circumstances.

Here’s an email I got for Edmonton Journal Hall of Famer Jim Matheson: In ’69-70, the Canadiens were locked in a battle with the Rangers to see which team would finish fourth to get the last playoff spot in the Original Six. In the Habs’ last league game against Chicago, Claude Ruel, the coach, pulled goalie Rogie Vachon with 9 minutes and 30 seconds left in the third with the Habs down 5-2. The Habs needed to score five more goals because back then it was goal differential between tied teams that decided a playoff berth. Vachon only went back in for face-offs. The Hawks scored five empty-net goals to win 10-2. It was the first time in 22 years the Habs missed the playoffs.

And yes, Jacques Lemaire was playing on that Canadiens team. He had 60 points in 69 games.

OK, here we go. Do-or-die for the 81st time.

Wild 3, Former North Stars 1

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

(updated with Blues result, and schedules) 

Unfortunately for the Wild, and its passionate fans, the luster off this 3-1 win came off in just minutes when the St. Louis Blues began their rally from 1-0 down in Phoenix.

The Wild pulled within one point of eighth-place Nashville, but the Coyotes didn’t cooperate. The Blues won 5-1, meaning the Blues jumped into eighth and put the Wild three back again with only two games remaining. That means, any Wild loss, or one point from both Anaheim and St. Louis (actually Wild’d be OK with Blues if 0-1-1 and Wild went 2-0) and the Wild is eliminated from playoff contention. Nashville’s still kicking, too.

Why’s the Wild in this position? Not even a two-game winning streak since Feb. 21-22. And in the past 10 games, the Wild has won one, then lost one, and so on and so on.

Anaheim’s got Dallas and Phoenix left; St. Louis has got Columbus and Colorado; Nashville’s got Detroit and Minnesota; Minnesota’s got Nashville and Columbus.

By the way, St. Louis plays Colorado on Sunday at 5. So, conceivably, if the Wild goes 2-0 and St. Louis loses in regulation or overtime vs. Columbus on Friday, the Wild would have to wait till Sunday’s result of St. Louis to find out if it makes the playoffs. Drama, baby. That’s assuming the Wild wins its next two games for its first three-game winning streak since November.

The Wild is one point from ninth-place Nashville, which lost tonight to Chicago. The Wild hosts the Predators on Friday night in the final home game of the regular season.

Marian Gaborik, in his 500th game, scored a goal and two assists, although coach Jacques Lemaire called him, “opportunistic.” I thought he was fairly good the way he drove the net, scoring the first goal and creating the second and third with drives up the gut, then shots for rebounds. Those last two plays came on the power play.

Hmmm. Somebody fairly knowledgable contended to me the other day that Gaborik’s a bad power-play player after I questioned Gaborik’s absense on the 4-on-3 in overtime in a must-win again Vancouver. Hmmm.

I’d use him anyway.

Wild had a poor first period, taking no shots in the first 10 minutes but surviving thanks as usual to Nik Backstrom.

“We weren’t pushing,” screamed Lemaire. “We weren’t working hard enough. That’s what we didn’t do. Come on. I’m the first one that will try to protect the players, but on the other hand, they’ve got to play. Come on. Wake me up.”

Eric Belanger scored the winner for his first goal since March 7. Owen Nolan scored his 25th goal, becoming the fourth Wild player to score 25 in a season.

Wild’s 5-0-4 in its past nine home games. That’s since that infamous 3-0 meltdown vs. Ottawa on Feb. 14. Boy, imagine if the Wild owned that victory. Or got at least a point in Detroit. Or didn’t lose four games to L.A. Or scored on one of those 10 power plays against Montreal. Or didn’t blow that game in the end to Buffallo.

Unfortunately, the Wild’s got no breathing room anymore, meaning it could very well have to look back at some games that got away.

OK, I’ll be writing the next couple days, but Stensaas will be updating the blog as I suddenly have a lot of articles lining up.

Just also an fyi, I talked with Nick Schultz briefly after the game. He looked a little out of it. He said he has no idea how he got hurt, just that things started getting blurry against Detroit. I’ve been told however by the front office that right now he’s got a head injury and he has not been diagnosed with a concussion specifically yet.

Regardless, he’s hurt.

Funny moment pregame, but Adrian Peterson, like a deer in headlights, completely messed up the Let’s Play Hockey. It was the biggest Lets Play Hockey foul-up since, dare I say, Gov. Pawlenty substituted an ‘F,” for the ‘P,’ in “puck,” at my first-ever Wild game in 2005.


Heartbreaker in Motown; Schultz injures eye

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

I had a major scare tonight. I carried my laptop downstairs to the press room after the game. When I got back after working the locker room, my computer went all blue screen on me with those terrifying words, “Beginning physical memory dump.”

The last time that happened to me? In this exact room in 2002 the moment I found out Scotty Bowman just let slip after winning the Stanley Cup that he was retiring as Detroit’s coach.

Amazingly, I hit the on-off switch and my computer booted up. In 2002, it never turned back on. Anyway, I wrote the two quickest stories of my life this afternoon just to get it into the paper in case it happened again, which it didn’t thank goodness.

The Wild’s season went blue screen tonight, and unlike my laptop, they won’t recover.

Season ended tonight, folks, the moment Marian Hossa — the man who snubbed the Wild’s long-term deal last summer — scored with 54.3 ticks left.

You would need a math genius from M.I.T. now to figure out a way the Wild can make the playoffs. The Wild’s three points from eighth with three games left, but when you really look at the tiebreakers, they’re really four points out because you’d have to overtake St. Louis/Nashville even if you caught ‘em.

And think both those teams won’t win again? Heck, think the Wild has the ability to win three in a row anyway?

In the past 10 games, the Wild’s executed perfectly a win-one, lose-one pattern. As I promised you three weeks ago, if the Wild didn’t put together a winning streak, it could not one-point its way into the playoffs and it could not win-one/lose-one its way into the playoffs. The Wild hasn’t won two in a row since February, hasn’t won three in a row since November.

Teams that can’t put together a single real winning streak in a season shouldn’t have been in this position anyway. But that’s an indictment of the system.

Tonight’s loss was deserved, but it was heartbreaking nonetheless. The Wild was outshot 44-23, 34-11 at one point. Only Niklas Backstrom, a shaky Chris Osgood, and a couple posts, too (first period must have been sponsored by the Minnesota & Michigan Iron Range’s cuz Koivu, Hossa and Hudler hit iron), allowed the Wild to even be a minute from overtime.

And then, in one flawed, fatal last-minute shift, three players — Cal Clutterbuck, Eric Belanger and Marek Zidlicky, according to coach Jacques Lemaire — made mistakes.

Belanger fell. Clutterbuck joined Marian Gaborik on a forecheck when he shouldn’t have. But as often is the case, it was Mr. Zidlicky who caused the 2-on-1 by again carelessly stepping up in the neutral zone like he’s done so many times this season (most recent on Zach Parise in New Jersey, resulting in Brian Gionta’s nail in the coffin).

Zidlicky got lured into stepping up on Pavel Datsyuk. One pass later, 2-on-1 between Tomas Holmstrom and Marian Hossa.

Game over. Season over.

Lemaire roasted the players, but I point you to the game story for those quotes. The locker room was pretty glum after the game, obviously, because this week vacation plans will begin and native country’s will begin to phone about world championship availability.

Nick Schultz sustained an eye injury around the 10-minute mark of the second period. I did not see it happen, and nobody seemed to know what happened. However, it started to bother him and he didn’t return. It’s not believed to be serious. He never had to leave for the hospital. He was able to return to the Twin Cities with the team and will be evaluated Monday by team doctors.

Schultz, one of three Wild players to play every game this season, has only missed two regular-season games in his entire career because of injury and an exploding appendix.

Kim Johnsson was outstanding getting all the extra ice time, but unfortunately his 30 minutes forced him to take one shift off in the final minute. Too bad for that.