Those on the east coast would say the Philadelphia Flyers, with an honorable mention to the resurging New Jersey Devils. Those on the west coast would say the Vancouver Canucks. No doubt about it, all three of those teams have rung in the new year with an impressive bang. But while the bi-coastal media focus on their own shorelines, the Minnesota Wild continue to sneak in under the proverbial radar, and are quitely tied for tops in the NHL for 2011 with 13 wins.
It's been a busy year for warped minds, with not a lot of time for blogging (or posting on the new "improved" CBS site and its formatless ways) but for one glorious day, it's time to fire up the Warpy Psychlotron and send some quarks flying. The following quarks are for the season to date.
dangling sub-atomic participles:
Top Quark(s): Cal Clutterbuck is the obvious choice here. #22 showed some scoring mojo last season, but I seriously doubt anyone expected him to be the team's top goal scorer this late into the season. Cal has a nice, quick release on his wristers and snappers, which serves to catch goalies off guard when defending against a pass-happy team.
And the best part is, all this scoring has come without any loss in the physical play that makes Clutterbuck such a fan favorite at the X. Cal continues to drive opponents crazy, but as the local homer commentators correctly point out, he manages to agitate in a clean, civilized way rather than resorting to bush league tactics like the Matt Cookes and Sean Averys of the world.
Other Top Quarks go to the guys between the pipes. Since day one of the franchise, the Wild have been blessed with more than their share of good goalies, and this year is no exception. After an iffy streak where Niklas Backstrom actually looked mortal, Backs has returned to being the goaltending machine that fans have come to know and love. Jose Theodore stepped up big time in Nik's absence, and continues to play rock solid nets.
Backstrom and Theodore make for such a potent duo that it's easy to forget we still have Josh Harding (a backup who is arguably as good as half the starters in the league, and on the verge of returning to the roster to boot) as well as Anton Khudobin, who has once again proven himself NHL ready. Talk about an embarrassment of riches!
With several teams looking for help in nets, expect Chuck Fletcher to dangle a goalie or two out there before the trade deadline. I'd hate to see Theodore go, but frankly, I don't us getting a lot of scoring value for Harding right now, so Jose may be the odd guy out. I just hope we get some good scoring oomph in return: the Tampa Bay Lightining can attest to the value of having a former Wild netminder on their team, so hopefully Mr. Fletcher will keep the price tag high, and more hopefully, make a deal with someone in the Eastern Conference so we don't have to worry about getting stonewalled in the playoffs.
Up Quark(s): In no particular order, Up Quarks go to #24 Martin Havlat, #9 Mikko Koivu, #6 Marco Scandella, #15 Andrew Brunette, #4 Clayton Stoner and last but not least, #5 Greg Zanon.
Havlat has shown signs of becoming the sniper we expected to see when he joined the Wild, and he also does good work along the boards in the offensive zone. Frankly, I'd like to see him spend less time on the boards and spend more time in front where he can receive centering passes from the other three or four guys who insist on constantly cycle-jerking the puck behind the net, but more on that later.
Koivu isn't putting up the scoring numbers that one would expect from the a face of the franchise top line center, but warped minds continue to notice his stellar play in the defensive zone: #9 is arguably one of the best defensemen on the team, so I'll never figure out why Jacques Lemaire had such a hard-on for Kim Johnsson and Martin Skoula without giving Mikko some love.
It's hard to believe Bruno has surpassed the 1,000 game mark; he looks and plays like he's good for several more years. Move over, Nicklas Lidstrom; there's another ironman in da house.
Scandella has been a pleasantly huge surprise on what is turning out to be a suddenly solid blue line corps. And #5 sure as hell looks better on Z than it does on that other guy who used to wear it... Frankly, I'd like to see our D-men spend more time blocking shooters instead of blocking shots by the crease (our goalies are quite capable in that area) but it's hard to argue with success. Then again, it's a lot easier on the body to cover the shooter farther out and use a stick to deflect shots into the netting than it is to risk taking a puck in the family jewels.
Stoner gets a shout-out for his prowess when the gloves come off. I'm not sure how he managed to get in Todd Richards' doghouse earlier this season, but with injuries forcing him into the lineup, he has proven to be a reliable if unspectacular defender, and he appears to be more handy with the fists than Brad Staubitz (as David Backes and the St. Louis Blues just found out the hard way)
And one final Up Quark shout has to go to coach Todd Richards. Remember all that crazy talk earlier about his job possibly being in jeapordy? Neither do I; it's about as memorable as anything that comes out of Michele Bachmann's mouth, eh?
Down Quark(s): More shooting from guys like Havlat, Koivu and Antti Miettinen would be nice. Lacking true scorers like Gaborik and Demitra of previous seasons, this is a team that needs to go into lunch pail mode and go for more garbage goals (hey, they count just the same as highlight reel goals) Unfortunately, it's impossible to score when all three forwards continue to cycle the puck behind the freaking goal line. Cycling is a good way to start a scoring chance, but sombody's gotta be in front of the net to receive a Bruno pass and bang it home like Antti did last night. I go postal every time a guy in front of the net makes a beeline to the back wall one nanosecond after a teammate finally gets control of the puck. Has anyone else noticed this, or is it just me?
Bottom Quark(s): A reluctant Bottom Quark goes to the blueliners (*cough* Brent Burns) who do too much stick and arm checking and not enough playing the man on defense. I thought the days of putting one arm out and poking for the puck were over when we unloaded the Swedish Turnstile, but #8 appears to be keeping the tradition alive. In Burnsie's defense, he does contribute enough on offense to earn a mulligan here and there on D, but it'd be nice to see him use his size more and play the man like a good Canadian blueliner.
Speaking of Canadian D-men, Cam Barker is probably the odd man out when Marek Zidlicky returns to the lineup. At 24 years old, it's still too early to give up on a former first round pick with good size, but Barker has been underachieving and Stoner has shown better toughness, so unless he decides to accept more ice time in Houston, Cam will need some snazzy suits to wear while being a healthy scratch.
Strange Quark(s): OK, I am officially off the Patrick O'Sullivan bandwagon now. Warped minds still rue the day Doug Risebrough gave up O'Sullivan and a draft pick (*cough* Anze Kopitar) for Pavol Demitra, but O'Sullivan hasn't panned out to be the soft touch goal scoring sniper I expected, so the trade didn't end up being as big of a debacle as, say, the Brian Lawton over Pat LaFontaine draft pick of the good old days.
And am I the only one who wonders if Todd Richards has something against having a brotha on the team? It seems like Robbie Earl can't buy a break; last year, all he did was bang goals in every time he got called up, only to be sent back down when the roster got back to healthy status. With the Calgary Flames' playoff chances going the way of the Kennedys, Jarome Iginla sure would look good in a Wild sweater for the stretch drive, and he could also greatly accelerate Earl's learning curve on how to handle life as a minority in the NHL.
Charmed Quark(s): Gotta give a shout-out to Jared Spurgeon. For an undersized defenseman, Jared displays an awareness of his position that Stoner would do well to imitate in his quest to be the next solid, stay-at-home D-man ala Nick Schultz, and also displays a physical side that should make Burnsie take note. It seems like no matter how hard Jared gets hit along the boards, the puck almost always ends up on the stick of a teammate who can clear the zone.
post-dramatic sin drones:
And in Kihnclusion: Games in hand only help if you win 'em, and the good guys are doing just that with the recent sweep of the Blues. The scary part is, the Wild have managed to claw their way into the playoff picture without their top scoring forward (Guillaume Latendresse) and their top scoring defenseman from last year (Zidlicky). Z is now practicing again, and Lats appears to on schedule for a March return, so the Wild could (knock on wood) enjoy the luxury of a completely healthy lineup in time for the playoff drive. Throw in a trade acquisition or two before the deadline, and this could be a team that owns the Vancouver Canucks worse than they’re already waxed by Minny this year. LET'S GO WILD!!!!!
...and now, a word from our spawn's heirs:
If my wife-to-be (or not to be) is watching, it probably wasn't meant to be. To the rest of you, thanx for tuning in, and remember: the sooner you fall behind, the more time you will have to catch up.
quando omni flunkus moritati