Sunday, December 19, 2010

Road Warriors, Home Alone

Two very different movies. Two very different settings. Two very different results.

Sounds like the Minnesota Wild of late, doesn't it?

On the road, away from the distractions of family, home, expectations of their own fans, etc., the Wild have quietly built a 3-1-1 December road record. The only game in which the Wild looked bad was the blowout last weekend at Anaheim (not entirely unexpected, given the Wild's history at the Arrowhead Pond/Honda Center), where the Ducks relentlessly gave the Wild a well-deserved 6-2 pounding.

On the other hand, when the Wild are at home, in the Xcel Energy Center, they proceed to continually lay more eggs than an Eggland's Best contractor farm. They relax, play with absolutely NO urgency whatsoever, let the other team get out to a lead, then get beat by continuing to not play well, and basically anger their most loyal followers, their biggest stakeholders, their season ticket fan base, by their continued lack of offensive punch.

The Wild are a paltry 1-4-1 in their last six home games, for a grand total of three -- THREE -- points in the standings. Three points at home, while the rest of the West administers drubbing after drubbing. There is no rhyme nor reason for this. The good teams -- the teams that will actually make the playoffs in April -- play their best hockey at home, where the fans are friendly, the routine familiar, the cooking not in a restaurant (recent call-up Jared Spurgeon notwithstanding), the bed after the game their own.

Maybe the Wild and the Minnesota Vikings -- the NFL's 'prodigal sons', who may never go home (to the Metrodome) again -- should change places. The Wild should stay on the road, and the Vikings should move into the 'X' and play. The Vikings have only one road win since October, 2009, and that was two weeks ago against Washington. Maybe the Vikes should just play at home, and the Wild should go on a 50-game road trip to end their season.

Then, the Wild might just have a shot at the playoffs. Maybe. Or, maybe, just maybe, the Wild should really get the act together, come out during the holidays and beat some of the upcoming teams, teams that they SHOULD BE ABLE to defeat in regulation time.

The next five home games for the Wild:

Calgary, Monday (Dec. 20) -- this is the same Flames team that YOU JUST WON against in the Saddledome. Put some effort into this, and sweep the back-to-back.

Detroit, Dec. 26 (Sunday) -- play better than you have in your last month at home. This will be the first game for both teams after the Christmas holiday break. What better way for Wild fans to celebrate the end of the Christmas holiday, than to boo the hell out of Todd Bertuzzi, instead of their own team? Or, to watch as the 'X' is over-run with Red Wings fans, a good number of whom will spend the entire day coming down from Michigan's UP.

San Jose, Dec. 29 (Wednesday) -- this is NOT the San Jose team of the recent past. This team is beatable, but you have to shadow the Sharks' top line (Thornton-Heatley-Marleau) to keep the Sharks in check. But, at least they no longer have Evgeni Nabokov to worry about in goal.

Nashville, Dec. 31 (Friday, New Years' Eve) -- too bad this opponent doesn't generate the same excitement as the evening. In a party mood, this crowd probably will be more amped up than either of the teams will. Nashville head coach Barry Trotz will have his New Years' Eve costume on ... Oh, wait: that ISN'T a costume? That's his real face??

Phoenix, Jan. 2 (Sunday) -- Just hours after the end of a disasterous Vikings season, the Wild's season could very well also end, if the Wild don't pull a win out of this game, as the Wild will end their 5-games-in-8-days holiday hockey marathon, with the final visit this season by the up-and-coming Coyotes, who have shown that they can beat any team on any given night.

So win now, boys. Because after the Phoenix game, 8 of the next 11 Wild games are back in the 'friendly confines'...of the road.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How long...will this keep goin' on?

Like the old song, we ask this question of Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher:

'How long...will this keep goin' on?'

The Wild enter this week with a morbid 1-5-2 record since the OT win in Detroit on Nov. 19th (and 3-7-2 in their last 12 since the Atlanta disaster on Nov. 11, the date I have been using for the last month to show the ineptitude of this Wild club).

Yes, there is reason for optimism (Martin Havlat's sudden upsurge, the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, the continued goaltending of 'Backodore') despite the number of bad goals against them lately, most as a result of inopportune screening by the Wild defense.

But, therein lies the rub. The problems of the Wild, as many of them as there are, in my opinion:

1. Not enough shots on net. You don't win if you don't score, and you don't score if you don't shoot. You shouldn't have 13-15,000 people at the 'X' screaming 'SHOOT!!!' and then still wind up passing the boards, because the forward moved to set up for a shot. I've seen this all too often this season. And the next time I see no one in front of the net, when the puck is ready to come out from behind the goal, I may just be besides myself.

2. Too many players are moving too slow. Granted, some of this is due to age (Andrew Brunette, as an example), but a lot of it is players taking the night off, for whatever reason. The first line (Brunette, Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen) especially has looked slow and erratic the last two weeks. None of those three wish to go after a puck in the corners. The lack of speed and/or urgency in their game has cost the Wild dearly, as they either get penalized after they get caught, the Wild generate no offense, or at worst, the Wild give up yet another easy goal.

3. Someone want to shake up the third line? The John Madden-Eric Nystrom combination is getting beat up fast, especially when the Wild are shorthanded (they are both -11 as of now). This is where Miettinen should reside, until either he is traded or the unrestricted free agent-to-be is allowed to go elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that the third line needs help, and right now they're not getting it.

4. I'll say it: Cam Barker is a STIFF. How can you be that well paid, and yet that much of a lumbering oaf on skates? This week, rookie Jared Spurgeon has been paired with the Human Pylon II, which has made on-ice life very difficult for the young defenseman, who some have called 'minnow'. Barker, a -9 as of today, has really worn out his welcome with his passive-non-aggressive play, and his standing at the blue line, too inept to do anything, allowing opposing forwards to spring free for breakaways.

5. We fans all love the shot-blocking exploits of Greg Zanon. However, maybe, just maybe, sometimes the right play doesn't always mean sacrificing the body to block the puck. Especially when your defensive partner (Marek Zidlicky) is on the ice more for offense, than defense.

Zanon is a good defenseman. He deserves to be a top-4 on any NHL club. Zidlicky, for all his known problems, is actually having his best season as a member of the Wild. Maybe not statistically, but in overall play, he has never been better. Any defensive pairing works better when both members are upright and skating. Zanon has been getting caught out of position way-y-y too often, then tries to make up for it by blocking shots. If the Wild are to get better, they must play better positional hockey. Starting with the No. 2 defensive pairing.

The Wild now have four days off until their Thursday night game at Phoenix, against a Coyotes team who came into St. Paul, and exposed every weakness of the Wild in one pathetic evening of puck. After that, the Wild make their annual December visit to Southern California, two arenas (STAPLES Center, Honda Center) which the Wild have not fared well in over the last few seasons.

Will the winds of change blow thru St. Paul this week? The best answer is...'we'll see'.