Saturday, April 11, 2009

Game #82: Wild 6, Blue Jackets 3; Lemaire steps down

Jacques Lemaire wins last game coaching Wild

The Joker character in the 'Batman' movies -- the late Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, whatever your era's 'Joker' may be -- always asks the rhetorical question about the Caped Crusader's crime-fighting gadgetry:

"Where does he get all those wonderful toys?"

Jacques Lemaire, head coach of the Minnesota Wild, had to be asking himself that same question when talking about his hockey club. From out of nowhere, the Wild managed to score 17 goals in their last three games, while putting together an end-of season three game winning streak, as the Wild closed out the 2008-09 campaign with a crushing 6-3 win Saturday night over the playoff-bound Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena, in the final regular season game for both teams.

The win by the Wild throws the lower half of the Western Conference playoff picture into flux, as the Jackets are currently seventh in the West, after Anaheim's shootout loss to Phoenix in the desert Saturday. Now, they must wait for the result of the St. Louis-Colorado game to be played Sunday afternoon in Denver, in order to determine first-round playoff pairings.

The real surprise came shortly after the game, when Lemaire told Wild radio color anaylst Tom Reid that he would be stepping down as Wild head coach. "Well, you're right," Lemaire said. "I think it's time for the team, the organization, to get a new coach [and] get a new voice. You know, try to bring this club to another level."

"When I first started," Lemaire continued, "[I] always said that there would be a time, a time that I'll have to go, and I'll see it, and I saw that time. And it's now."

Lemaire, the only head coach the Wild has ever had, leaves after eight seasons with the club. The 63-year-old Lemaire won 11 Stanley Cups, 8 as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, 2 as an assistant coach with the Habs, and one as head coach of the New Jersey Devils.

Jacques took the expansion Wild -- basically, a list of cast-offs, career 3rd & 4th liners, and over-the-hill veterans -- and made a cohesive, defense-first minded team out of them. As the talent in the pool got better, so did Lemaire's flair for defense-first hockey. This past season, however, was exasperating, as over 250 man-games were lost due to injury. Three of the team's top nine players (Brent Burns, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and Nick Schultz) were not even in the line-up the last week due to concussion symptoms.

If Jacques told his line-up before they took the ice at Nationwide, then there would be reason for how the team played the last two periods. After Rick Nash and Jarret Boll scored for Columbus in the first period, the Wild stormed back to score the next five goals unanswered, led by Marian Gaborik's 2 goals, Kurtis Foster's first goal since returning from a year-long recovery of his broken femur, and Martin Skoula's fourth goal of the season. Mikko Koivu's short-handed, empty net goal, his twentieth of the season, sealed the fate of the Jackets, who have lost two straight since clinching a playoff spot on Tuesday night. The Wild's win is only their third three-game win streak of the season; the other two were in October and mid-November.

Bottom Line: As much as I hate to see Lemaire go, I can see him tire of coddling Gaborik constantly while trying to maintain discipline over the rest of the roster. It is my sincere hope that he would stay involved in the Wild organization, in a role suited to a semi-retired status, something possibly akin to the 'Roving minor league instructor' role in an MLB organization. Lemaire loves to teach, he wants to teach, he just tires of the day-to-day strain of being a head coach. He's 63. He wants to retire. (Can you blame him?)

Stud: Yeah, there were a few, weren't there? Gaborik, Koivu, Bruno, even Skoula you could make a case for tonight. But, let's give it to the man most deserving; Foster, who's goal and assist, and +3 rating for the night, launched the final victory of 2008-09. He deserves a medal of some type, even if he gets passed over for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded for sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey, for the living hell he has been thru since that night late last season in San Jose.

Dud: There was a dud? No. No duds tonight.

Next: The Off-Season. The NHL 2009-2010 schedule is released July 15. The draft is in late June in Montreal. And, of course, there's free agency day, July 1st. (TV: NHL Network, I'm pretty sure!)

WRT (waiting for that next Wild game...)

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