Sunday, March 23, 2014

Titanic syndrome on the Wild?

Is re-arranging the deck chairs (or the roster) enough to avoid the iceberg ahead (or the April abyss)?

Well, so this is what the 2013-14 season for the Minnesota Wild has degenerated into.

Happened yesterday, after the Wild managed to lose a 3-2 home game to the Detroit Griffins -- er, Red Wings -- a team so decimated by injury, that eight regulars were out of the starting lineup as the Wild played the first game of a weekend home-and-home, versus their old Western Conference rivals.

The post-game Mike Yeo press conference was delayed (enough so that the presser, normally in the team-produced radio post-game, was not on fans' radios as they sulkenly drove home afterwards, or even on the outstate feed provided by Clear Channel Minnesota). What they missed, or what they didn't, was this:

The start of the third straight Wild end-of-season meltdown. You heard it here, folks. It's begun. Officially. Yeo even defacto declared it yesterday, by trudging out a sheaf of notes, saying that the Wild have points in 10 of 11 games at home (the Detroit loss was the first regulation loss at home, since a 3-0 drubbing by Ottawa on Jan. 14), and that they have a point in 9 of the last 11 overall.

Two seasons ago, it was the 'first-to-worst' total implosion, as the Wild went from No. 1 in the NHL to completely eliminated from playoff contention in just 52 games' time. Last season, it was the final day back-in to the playoffs, as only a late comeback vs. the Colorado Avalanche, coupled with the end of the season troubles of the Columbus Blue Jackets, allowed the Wild to be cannon fodder for the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs.

This season? How about a 2-3-4 record since the trade deadline? How about 3 of the 4 games going to OT, finding the Wild having to come back from multi-goal deficits late in the 3rd period, only to 'achieve' the 'loser point'? And how about who(m) you've managed to do this against?

Things were looking pretty good after the Wild came off the Olympic break. A two-game road winning streak, with back-to-back victories at Edmonton and Vancouver, looking at 5 of their next 6 at home, time to fatten up for the end of the month, right?

Oh, hell no. Not with this bunch.

The month of March started good enough, with a less-than-stunning 3-2 win at home against Calgary. Then, March 5, the trade deadline, and the addition of Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick in the deadline deal which sent Torrey Mitchell to Buffalo. Since then?

Loss to Dallas on 'Mike Modano Night'. (And, yes, Norm Green STILL sucks.)

The next night began a crucial 4-game homestand for the Wild. Result? A shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues, the likely President's Cup winner for this season. Two nights later, Wild take a 3-0 lead after 16 minutes against the Edmonton Oilers, the worst team in the Conference, and proceed to pee it away, losing in the shootout 4-3. After beating the NY Rangers 2-1 on Thursday, the Wild then get 'BOB'ed by Sergei Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets, 2-1, in another shootout, one in which the Wild had a 2-0 lead in the shootout before the Jackets solved Darcy Kuemper three straight times to win.

A three-game road trip ensued; first, at Boston, the Bruins finally figured out how to beat the Wild, as the B's snapped their 6-game losing streak at TD Garden against Minnesota 4-2. The next night, as tens of thousands of fans back in Minnesota said, 'Where has this team been?', the Wild disposed of the lowly Islanders 6-0. Two nights later, as the hatred of Zach Parise overflowed at the Prudential Center in 'beautiful' Downtown Newark, the Wild came from two goals down in the last 10 minutes to force overtime, only to forget that someone has to take the man on the other side, as Matt Greene gave the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 win, which stole yet another point from the Wild.

Then, there was the home game vs. Detroit, a team so banged up, there is a sudden glut of short-term housing in Grand Rapids, as most of the Griffins' top players are up with the big club, as the Red Wings 'Lite' managed to beat the Wild (as they so often do in Minnesota), 3-2. Since the trade deadline, the Wild is now 1-1-3 at home.

The second half of the home-and-home is tonight, at the venerable Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Same conditions apply: Detroit is just as desperate; Minnesota is just as perplexed as they were into the first Detroit game.

And the head coach? Still refuses to see the forest; too many trees in the way.

The apoplexy that would ensue if, say, Dany Heatley were to sit out a couple games in the press box would reverberate throughout Minnesota. Heatley has managed to endear Minnesotans to his 'stand around and wait for something to happen his way' philosophy of offense, instead of using his 6'3" frame to create havoc around the net, using the Andrew Brunette model of 'Back that big ass up' to score goals with his hands (Heatley's stickwork is still good, even if his feet aren't motivated to move as fast as they used to.)

And, after yesterday (especially), would it hurt if Kyle Brodziak joined Heatley next to the popcorn maker in the press box? 'Brodz' was on the ice for ALL 3 Detroit goals yesterday. Great -3 there, Brodz. Work on your defense. Or your shot. Or your footwork. Or anything that won't cost the Wild another goal.

Now, that would mean you would have $10.33 million in salary cap serving up corn in the press box. At that rate, maybe they could even afford real butter.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Perplexion in the 'Plex: One blogger's view

Strange things seem to happen when the Minnesota Wild play the Dallas Stars in Big D. Why?

It happened again last night. The Minnesota Wild were seemingly in control of a tough, hard-nosed game versus the former Minnesota franchise, the now-Dallas Stars, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Ahead by a 3-2 score early in the third period, the Wild were on track to win their 4th game since the Olympic break ended. And then, as has happened so often in Dallas...

...the Wild's train derailed, just outside 'Victory Station' of D-FW's Trinity Railway Express. Again.

The Wild have managed to craft an all-time 4-16-6 record in the Metroplex, including this year's two losses (a 4-0 whitewashing, on Jan. 21st, was the other disaster in Big D this season), against a Dallas Stars team which is struggling to stay in the Western Conference playoff race. A victory last night, and the Wild would have opened up a seven-point lead on the currently-8th place Stars; now, the Wild only have a 3-point lead as they head into tonight's home game vs. the St. Louis Blues, a team which is so hot, they may be able to be No. 1 in the Western Conference, and win the President's Trophy for best overall record in the regular season, if they keep up their winning ways.

The fourth home game in eight nights for the Stars was the best-attended game since Norm Green did his now-infamous Mayflower move, and hijacked the then-North Stars from Bloomington to Big D in 1993. The reason? 'Mike Modano Retirement Night', as his No. 9 jersey was retired and moved to the rafters forever. But even all that wasn't enough to stop the Wild, as Erik Haula did his best to keep the Wild in the game, until Cody Eakin tripped (and nearly slewfoot) Haula as he was going in against Dallas starting goalie Kari Lehtonen. The resulting crash knocked Lehtonen out of the game, gave the Stars a 5-minute, all-you-can-score power play as Haula was assessed a major and a game misconduct for his actions, and screwed the Wild out of any momentum for the rest of the evening.

Now, that wasn't the losing goal; Keith Ballard served that up, on a platter, when his errant pass hit Dallas' Erik Cole instead of Clayton Stoner, Ballard's defensive partner. The resulting breakaway turned into the margin of victory after Cole scored, leaving the Wild empty again in the 'Plex.

The question on the floor, then: Why does this keep happening? Why does the Wild have such an awful record in Dallas?

I can only come up with three possible reasons:

1. The way the schedule is set up, the Wild and Stars seem to always play when one or the other team is on a back-to-back. They may be thinking about the previous game, or the next one; but they sure aren't thinking about THIS one, and that's the problem.

2. The home team is always setting up some special event for when the other team is in town. Modano night could (doubtful, but go with me here) have been 'retaliation' for the Stars being offered up as the opponent for the Wild's nightcap apperance in 'Hockey Day Minnesota', the Fox Sports North-conceived celebration of Minnesota hockey. In fact, of the eight HDM's since the series started in 2007, Dallas has been the opponent more than any other NHL team (3 times), and holds a 1-1-1 record in those games (winning in a shootout in 2007, losing in regulation in 2012, and losing in OT this year on Nate Prosser's rebound, 3-2, on Jan. 18).

3. There really may be some actual animosity between the two teams building, as there already is amongst the fans of the two teams (Minnesota fans still equate today's Stars, with the Norm Green-era group from the mid-90's; Dallas fans hate anything Minnesota, going back to the Cowboys' heyday, and so on).

Wild fans (at least the older ones, like me) especially relish any victory over the former North Stars, it doesn't matter how, where, or when. Dallas fans equate beating the Wild with picking on baby brother: 'But Mom, it's just SO fun to see him like that'.

Someday, these two teams will meet in a playoff series. That will indeed be a series for the ages.

Here's hoping that day is soon.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Muddling along, Wild heads for Olympic break

After a 9-4-1 January, the Minnesota Wild head into the Olympic break after two games this week against very different opponents.

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times for the Wild in the month of January. With a record of 9-4-1, best in franchise history, the Wild turn into the Olympic break (beginning after Thursday's home game vs. Nashville) looking forwards instead of backwards into the 20-day Olympic break.

The month included statement wins at Los Angeles, vs. Chicago at home, and at Anaheim (who had only lost once previously at home in 2013-14); and soul-crushing losses: Two vs. Colorado, vs. otherwise lowly Ottawa at home, at Dallas (a 4-0 blowout), and an overtime loss at San Jose, when the Wild were ahead 2-0 at one point.

And, that's part of the problem right now; with the NHL's Western Conference as tight as it is, every loss is a soul-crusher, as no team can really afford to lose any points, especially in overtime or in the shootout. You can't get anywhere if your opponents are getting points every night. That's why the OT/SO games are so inherently evil in their effects on the standings. With both teams getting points, no one can break free of the pack that is the Central Division.

Yes, the Wild are probably resigned to the fourth spot in the division, which means they will play one of the two No. 1 divisional seeds in the first round, either Anaheim (Pacific Division) or Chicago or St. Louis (Central). St. Louis plays Chicago twice yet, both games at the United Center in Chicago, following the Olympic break. Needless to say, the Wild will be keeping an eye on those two games very closely.

The Wild still have three games (two at home) vs. St. Louis; one game (April 3) at Chicago, and are finished (thankfully) with the Colorado Avalanche. Chicago still has two games (one home, one away) with the speedy Avs; St. Louis also still has two games (one home, one away) vs. Colorado.

But let's stop the schedule watch for now; look into the crystal ball (as it were) for this week's two games...

Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay: thank goodness Steven Stamkos is still out of the Lightning's line-up, as the Wild would be a team that the third-year star (who broke his leg three months ago) would feast upon. As it is, the 'Bolts still have Martin St. Louis, who can light up any given team on any given night. Wild fans better hope that Tuesday isn't 'the night.' In the only other meeting this season, the Wild barely showed up in a 3-1 loss at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa Oct. 18, the third game in a 1-2-1 Atlantic Division road swing.

Thursday, vs. Nashville, will be the last game before the Olympic break. The Wild are giving away T-shirts (mine will be too small, guaranteed) as it's 'Polar Vortex' night, when the Wild will wear their white road jerseys and give away posters with the Wild's five Olympians (Parise, Suter, Niederreiter, Granlund and, if his lower body allows, Koivu) on it. Most NHL teams are doing this poster of their own Olympians this week. (St. Louis has 10 Olympians; Chicago, 8). Granted, the Predators are not the Preds of old, but they still present a frustrating style of hockey, that the Wild do not handle all that well. Wild are 1-1 vs. Nashville so far this season, losing in October and then shutting out the Preds in their last meeting, in Music City three weeks ago.

The Wild need to win in regulation on Thursday (at least); it would be nice if they swept the week, allowing the Wild to go into the Olympic break with points in eight of their last 10 games prior to the break. A 6-2-2 record into the Olympics is a record that many NHL teams would be satisfied with. And, that record will help the Wild keep pace with those teams ahead of them, should one of those teams falter down the stretch.

And that's all Wild fans want. Be competitive. Don't back into the playoffs (or, back all the way out of them, like what almost happened last year in April.) The season isn't over yet.

Just taking a breather for a few days...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Wild needs: Sweep the Week

The Minnesota Wild have played themselves into a corner. They need to sweep this week's 4 upcoming home games. Or else, ...?

The facts are clear. Clear as mud, granted. But they are clear.

The Wild cannot win a game away from the 'friendly confines' of St. Paul. And for a team as talent-laden as this one is, that's not a good thing.

The fact that they are such a Jekyll-and-Hyde team away from Xcel Energy Center belies the fact that this is a young team, which needs to get younger yet (buh-bye, Dany Heatley) in order to achieve anything, like what the management and ownership wants them to achieve.

You can't change the players, especially when nine of them have no-trade/no-movement clauses. You will move up to five players thru free agency, simply by not re-signing them; making the Wild a premiere target on Trade Deadline day, should the Wild's precipitous fall in the NHL's Western Conference standings continue into the New Year.

As the calendar turns into the New Year, Wild fans are looking at another near-.500 month in January, with the team having a chance in 6 of their 7 games next month (you REALLY think they'll beat Chicago, the way they are rolling right now?) at home; and losing 6 of the seven road games (the only game they may have a chance at is at Nashville, but even that is the second of a back-to-back, the only one next month, and as we all know, the Wild do not do home-and-away back-to-backs well ).

So, going into the Olympic break, the Wild will barely be on the cusp of a playoff spot. Barely. And looking at the NHL's 16-day Olympic break (Feb. 9-25) and wondering...

'What if we had beaten the Jets back on Dec. 27 in Winnipeg?'

Please, Wild. Prove me wrong. Sweep the week. This week.

Monday, December 23, 2013

'Yeo woe' hits new low as Wild bumbles, stumbles towards holidays

Second-worst offense in NHL stumbles thru Metropolitan Division as holidays approach; no end in sight

The facts are clear. The Minnesota Wild stink right now. And there's absolutely no way to sugar coat that fact, as the Wild wrap up a disasterous 3-game trip thru Pennsylvania and New York City, just in time to gift-wrap two points to the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers.

With the No. 31 offense in the 32-team NHL -- only the gutted-for-rebuild Buffalo Sabres are worse at scoring right now -- the No. 31 road offense in the NHL limps (literally) into the mandatory three-day holiday break after a pair of disgusting, lacklustre, 5-2 and 4-1 losses at Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers, respectively, into the NHL's nastiest arena for visiting teams, as the Flyers are given the gift that keeps on giving -- the Wild -- at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday night.

This team needs offense. Desperately. The shuttle between Des Moines and St. Paul has had enough grooves in it already to resist snow plowing; another move was made prior to Monday's game, as Stephane Veilleux was called up and Erik Haula was returned to the Iowa Wild, whose own roster belies the up-and-down nature of a farm team of a desperate big club.

When you peel back the cover just a bit, you have a lot of problems; two lines that cannot score no matter what; a power play that cannot score on a 5-on-3, or even get a shot on goal during a power play; a No. 2 goalie who can't stop much of anything when he sees it right in front of him; and a No. 1 line that would rather pass than take a shot on goal, like it's a mortal sin if they did.

Dany Heatley needs to take a seat in the press box. So does Kyle Brodziak, and anyone else whose lack of effort does not warrant dressing for games. This season is careening out of control; will anyone in the Wild organization be able to stop this skid in time, in order to salvage a playoff spot?

I guess we all find out...together.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Into the abyss: the dreaded 'Yeo Woe'?

And Minnesota Wild fans wonder why their team gets no love or respect; weeks like the last two are reasons why they will not be eligible for NHL prime events, like the NHL Winter Classic, until they can do one thing consistently: win.

Some things, like the calendar, happen at the same time every year:

The swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
The buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio.
Macy's Parade happens on Thanksgiving Day in NYC.
The Vikings implode onto police blotters, all over the Twin Cities' west suburbs.
(OK, I went a little too far there. But very little.)

And the Minnesota Wild begin their annual fall out of the top of the NHL Western Conference. OK, it didn't take three full months, like it did in the 'first-to-worst' season of 2011-12; nor did it have a short season to fall down upon, like last season's end-of-season, near-complete crash-and-burn directly out of the NHL playoffs.

But it's happening. Again. And, may I say, as a life-long Minnesotan;

Just like every Minnesota sports team. It happens to all of them.

And Wild owner/CEO Craig Leipold wonders why his team and market get passed over for major NHL events, like the Winter Classic, and the NHL Stadium Series.

Your team can't score right now, Craig. You have a $7.5M human 'boat anchor', Dany Heatley, who can't score unless there's no goalie in the net (unless he gets a bounce of the puck), playing on your 4th line. The center of the 4th line is out because he got a puck inadvertantly in the face...by one of his own players. Your third line is centered by a player who can't seem to play the puck unless it's perfectly placed on his stick just so (don't even think to ask him to look in his skates for the puck.) Your second line center just had his brain injured twice...in eight days. Your first line center is deathly afraid to shoot the puck, so much so that he passes up scoring chances, in order to pass the puck away. An assist is worth more to this guy than a goal is. Wide open net? Pass the puck. Breakaway? Pass the puck. Any other decent scoring situation? Pass the puck.

God forbid that you actually shoot at the net. Your countrymen, back in Assist-land, would not be pleased.

And Minnesota fans wonder why the NHL gives them no love whatsoever, why they are always second-to-last on NHL media, like 'NHL Tonight' and other NHL-produced shows.

So, someone (namely, Nick Henry, he of the 'Hitting the Post' blog) coined the phrase which so rightfully fits the Wild's mid-season malaise; namely, the 'Yeo Woe'.

The Wild can't score. The Wild can't shoot. The Wild can't stop other teams from scoring. The Wild can't forecheck, because they're backchecking all the time. Blah, blah, blah...

Wild fans are tired of the excuses. Wild fans are looking for results. Or, do the Wild become the next version of the Buffalo Sabres, who are blowing it up and starting over?

The Wild have lost three straight (and 4 of their last six) while only scoring 12 goals total in that time. Twelve goals. in nearly two weeks. Certainly, that kind of 'production' won't get you far, at least in today's NHL.

So what to do? With the Wild right up against the lowered salary cap, they can't go out and trade for that player(s) they need, unless the net effect is to lower their salary cap number. And, quite frankly, that means moving Heatley, whose contract expires at the end of this season. Due to last season's end-of-season injury, suffered at the end of a 6-1 blowout loss at San Jose April 18, the Wild were prohibited from tendering a buyout of Heatley's massive contract over the summer. Now, the Wild are really paying the price, for carrying 'Heater' on the roster.

No one will take 'Heater' off the Wild's hands for any reason whatsoever. The rest of the NHL knows he is damaged goods; the Wild are stuck with him. Would the Wild be better off just flat-out sending him down to their AHL affiliate in Des Moines? We probably will never know.

But it would be interesting to find out...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meaty, meaty, meaty, meaty...

Wild start 16 game-in-30-day marathon tonight vs. Jets: Another goalie in their future?

Venerable Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Michael Russo likes to use the term, 'meaty', when the Minnesota Wild face a particularly tough stretch of their schedule. Now, he's used it for years, and normally, he's pretty much spot on when he's used it.

So, in that respect, the next 30 days are, indeed, four weeks of 'meaty' games for the Wild, as they delve headlong back into Western Conference play after mostly feasting on the weaker Eastern Conference for the last 2 1/2 weeks.

And, they do so, at least for the time being, without one key cog in their lineup; goaltender Niklas Backstrom, whose concussion is the aftermath of Toronto's Nazem Kadri going Hanson brothers on Backstrom during the first period of Wednesday's 3-2 Wild victory, over the otherwise hapless Maple Leafs at Xcel Energy Center. (Nice forearm shiv there, Nazem. I see Colton Orr has taught you well.)

The fact is that as long as Josh Harding can hold up physically, the Wild should at least stay in most games in the next month; after all, they have the fourth best record in the Central division, which has proven to be the NHL's toughest, up to this point. But what recourse do the Wild have should Harding go down again, like he has each of the last two seasons?

They have to sign another goaltender, and soon. They cannot depend on their Iowa Wild tandem (Johan Gustafsson, Darcy Kuemper) to play full-time backup; the revolving door on I-35 between Des Moines and St. Paul can only go so fast. The name most mentioned is ex-Wild (and Canadiens, Avalanche, Capitals, Panthers) keeper Jose Theodore, who reportedly is working out near his South Florida home.

With four back-to-backs in the next four weeks (including two in a nine-day stretch), two home and away, two with both games away, the Wild's schedule gets ridiculously tough going into the next few weeks. Three games vs. Central co-leader Colorado, two games vs. Winnipeg, two vs. San Jose, and single games against Montreal, Ottawa, St. Louis, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Chicago, Columbus, Anaheim, Vancouver, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This is a schedule that would decimate most clubs, especially when 10 of the 16 games are away from St. Paul, where the Wild have become the most dominant team in the NHL. The only home blemish in regulation time is the 'Monday Night Massacre', the Oct. 28 nationally-televised 5-1 drubbing by the Chicago Blackhawks, the game after the Wild went into Chicago's United Center and routed the 'Hawks 5-2 two nights earlier.

It will be a real test for the Wild to go from a speed game (vs. Colorado), to an almost brutal game vs. Philadelphia, back to a speed game vs. Chicago, to a control game vs. Columbus, and so on. Different teams will present different challenges for the Wild, be it P.K. Subban, Eric Karlsson, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, Mike Smith, or 'Jumbo Joe' (Thornton) and 'Little Joe' (Pavelski) with San Jose.

As versatile as the Wild have had to become so far, they bettter start honing their game. Very much so, and quickly. As the Western Conference is prepping to leave the Wild in their dust, the Wild need to amass a large number of victories in this next 16 games -- in my opinion, nothing less than 11-5-0  (22 points) will do -- which means they need to win all their home games during this stretch, and be at least .500 on the road.

Should the Wild still be in contention by the Christmas three-day holiday break, four of the first five games after the break will be in the 'friendly confines' of the 'X' -- and a good way to start the New Year.

But, until that time, the schedule is, indeed, 'meaty'. So enjoy the banquet, Wild fans. Or at least try to.