Hockey season is officially underway, and the Minnesota Wild has Minnesotans salivating with their performance on Thursday night. The 5-0 demolition of defending division champ Colorado was the most thorough performance imaginable, with the whole team looking like a well-oiled machine. This was the cycle as an art form, and pure puck possession hockey at its highest level. The top line of Zach Parisé, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Pominville led the charge with a big night, but every line was in on the act. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter both scored from the blue line, showing just how seamlessly fluid the Wild was. There should be no need for Suter to log absurd ice times this season now that the second defensive pair is a bit more mature, and Spurgeon offers a second legitimate offensive threat from the point. The penalty kill, a serious weakness last season, was more active and thoroughly neutralized the Colorado power play. This is the way hockey is meant to be played.
It would be a mistake to get too high off one game, and this version of the Avalanche was probably far from their best. While they’re unlikely to repeat their surprise run to the top of the Central from a year ago, they’ll still be a tough team in an incredibly tough division. If the Wild really is anywhere near as good as they looked on Thursday night, it may not be a stretch to say that three of the five best teams in the NHL—Chicago and St. Louis being the other two—are all in the same division. The future of Minnesota professional hockey has perhaps never looked so bright.
Friday saw the start of the NCAA hockey season with a game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, an enticing opening matchup that was made much less enticing by a 1:00 start time at an arena in Indiana with 54 people in it. The top-ranked Gophers return nearly everyone from last season’s national runner-up squad, and they looked very much the team to beat in the first five minutes of the game, poaching a pair of goals off bad UMD turnovers. After that it was a relatively flat game until a 3rd period UMD comeback made things interesting. The early lead had set the tone, with UMD trying to walk that awkward line between mounting a comeback and not exposing their weakness in back any more than it already was, and the Gophers largely content to sit back and rely on the transition game. Unlike the Wild game, this one definitely looked like a season-opener, with rust and sloppiness among the major themes.
The stars of the game were the two top-line centers, Kyle Rau and Dom Toninato. Rau had a hand in three of the four Gopher goals and was his usual antagonistic self all afternoon, winning battles all over the ice. While there’s a lot of talent around him, this is clearly Rau’s team. He, Sam Warning, and Hudson Fasching make for a lethal top unit. When the secondary scoring comes–and it will–this team will be very hard to stop.
Toninato, meanwhile, looks poised for a breakout year. He didn’t get quite as much attention as some of UMD’s other freshmen forwards last season, largely due to a lower point total, but he did a lot of things that don’t show up on the scoresheet with his strong defense, penalty-killing, faceoff wins, and presence in front of the net. Now, the Duluth East alum looks ready to become a force for the Bulldogs. (All 3 UMD goals were by former Greyhounds.) To really maximize the offensive potential that he and linemate Alex Iafallo bring to the table, they may want to move a playmaking forward to the top line in place of Adam Krause, whose grinding abilities may help out one of the lower lines that were occasionally caught too deep.
The Gophers may be #1, but there is work to be done. Two of their lines were largely invisible over the course of the game, and the defense had a few lapses as well. They also looked to be coasting some after grabbing the early lead, and the midseason energy wasn’t quite there yet. There’s no reason to suspect that they’re not the best team in the nation after this win, but the gap is probably not a large one. Don Lucia has a lot of bodies to sort through as he works out his lower lines and third defensive pair, so it may take a while before they really look championship caliber. With the length of the college hockey season, that’s no big issue.
UMD got better as the game went along, generating the majority of the zone time. That’s important, given their freshman goaltender and somewhat spotty defense; even the veteran defenders had some forgettable moments on Friday afternoon. Despite the loss, it was largely an encouraging performance from the Bulldogs, who enter the season one spot out of the USCHO preseason rankings. As they work things out over the course of a long season, it’s easy to see them moving up the ladder.
We’re a month away from the start of high school practices, and the Elite League season is nearing its end. While there’s usually some sort of October surprise to throw things off, I’ve started scratching out some early thoughts on preseason rankings, and will have plenty more work to do before they come out in about 5 weeks. Start the countdown…