Remember all those high foreheads that predicted a more free-wheeling NHL would be a bane for clutch-and-grab teams like the Wild?
Most of the rule changes were designed to beat the modern 'trap' system Lemaire perfected while coaching the Devils in the mid '90s.
Rubbing out the red line, penalizing anyone who so much as lays a hand on an opposing player (especially in front of the net), drastically restricting the goalie's ability to play the puck and stopping defencemen from dumping the puck down the ice or over the boards to relieve pressure, were all moves to combat Lemaire's schemes to slow down the game and frustrate more offensive opponents.
So this week's home-at-home series between the Canucks and Lemaire's Wild was supposed to be a triumph of offence over defence. The scales were now tipped in the Canucks favour and the Wild's obstructionist ways were going to be severely challenged.
However the Wild's ability to adapt was clearly underrated, as they showed in a 6-0 white-washing of the Canucks on Wednesday. Lemaire, anticipating the new rule changes, used the 18-month layoff to, well... change nothing.
"With the rules, everyone starts to think about offense, but ... I don't think we can play that way," Lemaire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We've got to play a solid game defensively. Solid game defensively is not staying back, it's not (not) forechecking. Playing solid defensively is positioning. Being involved at the right time, being able to support people. Now, we're all over the place."
Wednesday's match looked like any other Wild game, with four, sometimes five Wild jerseys in the neutral zone, forcing the Canucks into pre-lockout, dump-and-chase mode. As a result the Canucks didn't register a shot on net until halfway through the first and managed just three total in the opening frame.
Surprisingly it was the Canucks who took the first two penalties, as Todd Bertuzzi and Jarkko Ruutu were booked for obstruction. Rookie Matt Foy, filling in for the injured Marian Gaborik, scored with Bertuzzi in the box and Lemaire got the lead he covets.
"I don't know what it is," Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier told the Vancouver Sun. "It seems like we come in here and, I don't know, we think it's going to be an easy night. It's all about doing the little things when you play the Minnesota Wild and we certainly didn't do that."
From there it was all uphill for the Canucks, despite getting eight power plays. It's quite clear Lemaire has so much confidence in his penalty killers, that he can overcome the obstruction-type penalties. The Wild have now killed 26 of 27 penalties this season.
They also made the Canucks pay on the other end, scoring three times in five tries with the advantage.
Throw in Dwayne Roloson's solid netminding and the Wild look like they'll continue to be a formidable force in this new-look NHL. For the system-first approach Lemaire instills, it's always surprising how skilled his players are. The Wild actually beat the Canucks in the few one-on-one battles that emerged, mostly using their speed to intimidate the Canuck defenders.
"If you're trying to find a guy that didn't play well, I would have a hard time," Lemaire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's funny we've been practicing defence the last four days and we get six goals."
Foy was the best Wild forward on the night, buzzing around the puck all game and keeping the defence on their heels. The 6-2 Oakville, Ontario forward showed flashes of Cam Neely against the Canucks and it was tough to tell just how much of that was due to Lemaire's system or a sloppy Canucks defence.
"I think every time he goes on the ice he's effective," Lemaire told the Tribune. "Because of his skating. He's on the puck, he's very intense."
It will be interesting to see if the Canucks can rebound for tonight's rematch in Vancouver. For that to happen they will have to score first, because it's obvious that, pre- or post-lockout NHL, Lemaire is still tough to beat with a lead.
BIG BERT STRUGGLING
Aside from a couple big hits the other night, it was clear Todd Bertuzzi has not been the same player through the Canucks first four games that he was prior to his assault on Steve Moore in March 2004. Playing on the top line with Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison, the feisty winger has just one assist and has seen his goal drought stretch to 13 games, dating back to Feb. 20, 2004. During the 2003-04 season Bertuzzi managed just 17 goals in 69 games, prior to his season-ending suspension. That was down from his career-high of 46 in '02-03. So far this season he has just 8 shots on net, while amassing 13 minutes in penalties - most on hooking-type calls. While the fallout from his attack on Moore curtailed his ability to play hockey during the lockout, Bertuzzi has appeared to lack the confidence to bulldoze his way by opponents. Even the fight he initiated with the Wilds' Alex Henry seemed more the actions of a player desperately seeking a spark, than the natural offspring of a confident Bertuzzi willfully dominating opponents.
Bertuzzi may have played himself off the top line, as head coach Marc Crawford had the big guy practice alongside Matt Cooke and Ryan Kesler on Thursday, while Richard Park took his spot with Naslund and Morrison. "You know what, it's four games in and I understand it's a long season," Bertuzzi told the Sun. "I have been around long enough to know things can turn around pretty quickly. Your highs seem to be highs and your lows are pretty low, so it's just matter of finding a happy medium here when you are struggling a little bit. But I'm positive and I'll keep working hard and get a bounce here or there and hopefully that will kickstart things." Maybe after Moore's civil lawsuit was thrown out yesterday by a Colorado court, Bertuzzi will be able to focus on hockey without the threat of legal action hanging over his head. Moore will likely file an appeal and could also file the same civil suit in a Vancouver court, but Bertuzzi has passed yet another obstacle on his road to redemption.
ICE SHAVINGS: The Wild is targeting Sunday's home game against Anaheim for star forward Marian Gaborik, who has been sidelined with a groin injury, to make his season debut. But Gaborik felt he might be ready for tonight's game in Vancouver. "Obviously we have to get on the same page," Gaborik told the Tribune. "They don't want to rush it. I don't want to rush it. We have to talk about it. I'm taking it day by day." The Wild is being cautious with Gaborik because he rushed back once in training camp and aggravated the injury, and he has a history of abdominal problems... The Avalanche are lucky to be sitting at 2-2, considering they have had little production from their top players. While rookie Marek Svatos has five of Colorado's 17 goals, Joe Sakic, Alex Tanguay, Rob Blake and Pierre Turgeon have combined for just two scores. However Sakic, Tanguay and Turgeon each have three assists through the first four games. Blake, making $6,364,112, has the most worrisome numbers. The big defenceman was a team-worst minus-4 and has not done much for the Avs' power play, which is 5-26. In a 5-4 loss to Nashville on Wednesday, the Avs' had failed to register a shot in five opportunities. "I can jump into the play a little more," Blake told the Denver Post. "I haven't been as active as I wanted to be. But I think that will come."... Avs' winger Brad May (groin) will not play tonight, but probably will see action Wednesday against Los Angeles... Svatos is tied with the Blackhawks' Pavel Vorobiev for the scoring lead among NHL rookies with six points... Maybe the real reason Avs' netminder David Aebischer went ballistic in a loss against Nashville two nights ago, is that he's worried for his job. Aebischer's hold on the No. 1 spot appears to be slipping and head coach Joel Quenneville has opened the door for rookie backup Peter Budaj to challenge for top spot. "I think it's wide open," Quenneville told the Post. "I don't go too far out in designating who's going (to start in goal) or when they're going. Basically, how they play kind of dictates a lot of what we do and what we're going to say. We'll see how it plays out." After watching Aebischer yield 12 goals in his first three starts, Quenneville will start Budaj against the Hawks. The former Toronto St. Mike's Majors goalie, who won his debut in Dallas, seemed to take a shot at Aebischer when he told the Post that just because scoring is up nearly 50 per cent, was no excuse for a poor goals-against average. "Because the rules are different doesn't mean anything," Budaj said. "Does it mean I'm going to give up more goals? No, no, no. That question has never even popped into my head." Big words to have to back up, but the kind coaches like to hear. It may remind Avs fans of another cocky goalie who backstopped them to two Stanley Cups. "I think it's healthy that the goaltenders push one another," said Quenneville... Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish has a solution for staying out of the box: keep control of the puck. "The best way to keep from taking the penalties they're calling now is to have the puck and watch the penalties go the other way," MacTavish told the Edmonton Sun. "We've been really good at it in both home games so far." The key to that was that the Oilers won more than 60 per cent of their faceoffs in both home wins against the Avs and Canucks. "If we continue to win 60 per cent of our faceoffs at home and keep it over 50 per cent on the road, we're going to win a lot of hockey games," said MacTavish. "The last game was the first game we were under 50 per cent and I don't think it's any fluke that that's the game we lost." The Oilers lead the Northwest Division by a point over the Wild and Canucks and put their undefeated record at home on the line against Dallas tonight... Defending league goal-scoring champ Jarome Iginla is not too concerned about his having just one goal in five games, nor the Flames' overall scoring ineptitude. "It'll come," Iginla told the Calgary Sun. "(Against Dallas) was a better game for us as far as the defensive side and that's where our focus is now. We'll get chances. The better we play in that end, we'll feel more confident." The Flames have yet to score in the first period and head coach Darryl Sutter is getting frustrated by his team's lack of jump in the opening frame. "I'd like to score seven, eight, nine, 10 goals in the first or something like that one of these games," Sutter told the Calgary Sun. "I'm happy we came back but I'm not happy we didn't come all the way back. To get that far and get one (point) is good but when you get that point, then you want the other one."... Rookie defenceman Dion Phaneuf had a big game against the Stars, crushing Mike Modano with a big hit and then bloodying Bill Guerin in a second-period fight. Guerin was left with a black eye and a healthy amount of respect for the newcomer. "I was figuring out that if he's 20, he was five or six when I broke into the league," Guerin told the Sun. "I'm pretty impressed with him -- he's a pretty tough kid. He's got a good reputation coming into the league. You can tell he is a good player and he's going to be around a long time."