Monday, January 31, 2011

Back to the salt mine

That is the theme of this week in the NHL, as all 30 teams go back to work, following the end of the five-day All-Star break.

For the Minnesota Wild, it will mean a 16-game-in-31 day grind, starting tomorrow night with the Wild's first home game in over two weeks, as the Los Angeles Kings visit the 'X' for the last time this regular season. The Kings are really up against it, as they start a 10-game road trip which keeps them away from STAPLES Center until well after the Grammy Awards, the event for which (by the admission of AEG, the arena's owners) the STAPLES Center was designed for. Their trip includes games at Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia, Columbus, NY Rangers, NY Islanders and then wind up the trip down I-5, at Anaheim.

After a two-game road trip to Colorado and Phoenix, five of the next seven games are where the Wild, by their play this season, do not want to play: at home.

And that, dear Wild fans, is the reason for concern. If this Wild team wishes to play beyond April 10th (the regular season finale vs. Dallas), they have to be able to take care of business at home, and without the use of overtime or the shootout. Since Thanksgiving, the Wild are a very, very pedestrian 5-6-1 at Xcel Energy Center. And, when you are desperate to sell every ticket in a bad economy, in the middle of a brutal winter, with lots of snow and cold, winning at home helps keep the turnstiles rolling.

In short, they have to play 60 minutes of consistently good hockey. In the last month, whenever they have played 60 minutes of good hockey, they've won, scoring 32 goals in the 8 wins in January (Phoenix at home, at New Jersey, at Boston, at Pittsburgh, Vancouver at home, at Edmonton, at Calgary, and the last game, the 4-2 win at United Center vs. the Chicago Blackhawks). When they haven't, however, they've been brutal (Dallas at home, at Nashville, Colorado at home, at San Jose), scoring only 5 goals in those 4 games (3 of those in the San Jose game).

You need to beat the Detroits and the Chicagos, granted. Vancouver is the best first-place team no one (outside of the Far West) has heard of. But you also need to beat Phoenix in the desert this coming weekend. You need to beat Colorado, preferably twice. St. Louis is this year's poster child for a beaten franchise, with all their injuries and the problems the Blues have had. Anaheim is a shadow of the team from 3-4 seasons ago. If you think you're good, prove it. Go out and beat them.

Do I think this team should go 10-0 in their next 10 games? No. That would be horribly unrealistic. But maybe 7-3? 7-2-1? That record, in their next 10 games, should be in the Wild's wheelhouse with the talent that a) they have; and b) the opponents have, and c) the way that the schedule has been laid out by the NHL.

Because, if you don't, may I mention another annual NHL 'event', one which will take place at the end of this next month?

The Trade Deadline, 3:00 PM Central Time, Feb. 28th, a mere 4 hours before the Wild take on the Blackhawks for the final time this season, a nationally-cablecast (Versus, TSN2) game which will feature two teams who will be in their final pre-playoff mode.

Who will be a buyer? Who will be a seller? Who gets bought, and who gets sold?

The next 10 games will answer a lot of these and other questions...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On the Road: Shamu and 'the Minnow'

On the road with WRT in Chicago for our seventh annual trip to the United Center, as giant whale and small defenseman combine as Wild beat Hawks

As Minnesota Wild road trips go, it was probably the easiest one around. Our seventh annual road trip to Chicago's United Center, as both the Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks played the last game prior to the NHL All-Star break.

We start at MSP Airport's Terminal 2 (nee-Humphrey Terminal) where we were about to board our Southwest Airlines flight to Chicago Midway Airport. The flight was no where near full (a rarity for Southwest), where even their 'DING' application never features the Twin Cities, when they call for last-minute fare specials.

As we begin to line up (by number; remember, Southwest boards by group and boarding number, not by row and seat) I look over and see our 737-700 aircraft, and it is none other than the Sea World-sponsored 'Shamu' aircraft, one of a phalanx of special planes in Southwest's over-600 aircraft fleet, painted for a specific attraction or state. Inside, 1/3rd of the overhead luggage bins feature a very large and famous whale, on the outside of the bin.

Our flight takes off nearly 20 minutes late (late arrival from Chicago) but some deft traffic control gets us into the gate (B-1, next to all the goodies) only 5 minutes late at 2:10 PM. Walking thru the airport en route to the Orange Line 'L' train to the Chicago Loop, we (wife and I) are feeling good about everything...but the game itself. We are hoping for the game not to get blown out by the high-flying (at least until this season) Hawks, who are also in the fight for the last four playoff spots in the Western Conference.

My wife has an idea to get some real, honest-to-God Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, and then meet us at our North Michigan Avenue hotel. So, I agree to go on to the hotel, with not only my bag, but hers as well, hers being lighter than mine due to no netbook, no C-PAP machine (I use it in order to sleep), and very little clothing (I think I had more than she did).

I check in, go up to our 20th-floor room, and barely get in the door when I'm asked by my wife to come down and get the pizza, while she goes a couple doors over to get beverages at a local Walgreens store (and before you ask; yes, CVS Pharmacy is right across the street).

We stay at this hotel (which she stayed at earlier in the fall when she took relatives to Chicago) because she wants to, the price was right ($81/night) and the fact that I need to do something to change my Chicago luck. (We've seen two losses in the last three games at the United Center).

And, across the street, is none other than the Blackhawks team store! (A definite plus.) A quick trip across the street yields two T-shirts, one long sleeve, with all four Blackhawk logos in team history; and the other one short sleeve, named 'the Failed Nine', with the logos of the nine NHL franchises which have folded in the modern era (that's post-World-War-II, for you young whipper-snappers out there in the blogosphere).

Anyhow, after my foray across the street, we get to game time, and the CTA #19 United Center Express bus. Now, despite the bus sign saying 'Go Bulls', we board and eventually we pick up a fairly good load (and one drunk asshole, who we let off at Wacker Drive). The bus seems to take forever, as the streets are, of course, full as it is the tail end of the afternoon rush hour. We get off in front of the cavernous arena and enter at 6:45 PM, 45 minutes before first puck drop.

We find our club-level seats, next to the TV camera pavilion, and see that no less than 6 cameras are working this nationally-cablecast game (Versus, TSN2) while the Hawks' fans are in full party mode as they settle in for the evening. At least, until the national anthem is sung. Then, the Hawks' fans go absolutely crazy, as Jim Corneilson belts out a wonderful rendition, nearly drowned out by the cheers of 21,247 UC patrons as his mother, an 88-year-old WAC member from WWII, stood next to her son. She had never heard her son sing the song, which he has become famous in the hockey world for, before last night.

After that, how could the young and still speedy Hawks not come out like gangbusters? But, after Martin Havlat's laser-shot goal opened the scoring, the Wild managed to survive the rest of a first period where Corey Crawford, Hawks' goaltender, looked like he had the night off, and was watching a game played on a half-rink. Two goals scored in the first (by Patrick Sharp and Troy Brower) by the Hawks and the Wild fans in the arena were wondering what was coming next.

What was coming next was 'the Minnow'... and no, we're not talking about the ship featured in the 60's TV series, 'Gilligan's Island', either. We are talking about the Wild's diminutive blue line find, Jared Spurgeon, he of the continuing to impress Wild brass, into a full-time NHL job. Currently playing for the injured Marco Scandella, it will be a very tough decision to send this kid back to AHL Houston, when the somewhat banged-up Wild returns to full health later next month. Spurgeon played against the speedy Hawks like an old vet, not taking chances with the puck, skating it out of the defensive zone when necessary, clogging lanes, you name it, he did it.

With the defensive side holding its' own (and Niklas Backstrom turning in another stand-on-his-head performance: the save on Brower in the first, after Backstrom was forced to slide across the crease on his belly in order to reach the puck, is a 'must-see') it was time for the offense to assert itself, much to the dismay of the big UC crowd, as Chuck Kobasew first found twine out of a Spurgeon shot (Spurgeon's first NHL point, BTW) and then with 3:47 left in the stanza, Antti Miettinen deflected Andrew Brunette's wrister from the boards, to make it 3-2 for 'the good guys', as White Sox announcer Ken 'Hawk' Harrelson would say.

The third period was a lot like the second, as the Wild took the game to the Hawks, especially after Pierre-Marc Bouchard's wrap-around goal made the score 4-2, up to the end, save for one spot when a Jonathan Towes shot was blown dead when referee Stephane Auger, with whom the Wild have had a few run-ins with previously, lost sight of the puck. Since the referee lost sight of the puck, it is NOT, by definition, a reviewable decision by the Toronto 'war room', the decision stood, despite a vehemous protest by Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, and the game played out, to the Wild's good fortune.

Post-game, we make our way thru the sullen crowd to a line of four CTA 'big bend' buses, ready to take passengers back into the Loop. One big difference than normal, though; normally, there is a steady line of people waiting to get on the buses in order to get onto trains going home. Not last night. A lot of them bailed out on the Hawks after Bouchard's goal, leaving the rest of the crowd to see the finish, of what was a very competitive hockey game. We board, find seats, and watch as the usual crush-load of Hawks fans get aboard. This is a very quiet bus (for once) as we make our way past Oprah's Harpo Studios, down Washington and towards the railroad stations, Ogilvie and Union, and the Loop.

We get dropped off directly across the street from our hotel, and we end the night, happy and feeling that it was definitely well worth the effort, to go to the Windy City for a night of really good puck. All in all, it was an effort well worth doing, even though the trip home was uneventful (despite an absolutely full flight). I wish all trips were like this.

Maybe the next one (Feb. 5, at Phoenix) will be as successful. Who knows...?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Short Week for the Wild...

...and the rest of the NHL, as well, as it's the All-Star break. Time for Vegas casinos, and beaches all over the Carribean, to be populated with hockey players (and, in some cases, their families, as well.)

For others, those who are 'lucky' enough to be nominated to play in the ASG, a trip to bleak and chilly (for them, anyhow) Raleigh, North Carolina, is in order to play in the ultimate 'pick-up' game of 'shinny', to be televised on Sunday (Versus, 3 PM Central Time start ).

The new format -- whereby the teams are chosen by the captains from the pool of available players -- is designed to draw interest into a game which has become stale and predictable (as all such exhibitions of this type are). The fact that the players get to pick other players will be the interesting part. Which players will be picked last, will be the subject of considerable debate, much more so than which players will be picked first. The game itself is the culmination of the three-day All-Star Weekend, the de facto lead-in to the stretch drive for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which will include the Trade Deadline day of Feb. 28th.

The ASG may be the lowest TV-viewed game of the season, but it won't be the lowest watched sports event of the day:

The Pro Bowl, the NFL's All-Star game, begins at 6 PM, live from Honolulu. Just sayin'.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Home sweet Home...for one game

Wild rout Canucks at home, inconsistent team leaves on 4-game road trip

OK, so I called it wrong for yesterday's Minnesota Wild-Vancouver Canucks game. So totally wrong.

Yesterday's 4-0 shutout by the back-up's back-up, Anton Khudobin, evened the season record to 11-11-2 at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild depart today for Edmonton, and the start of a 4-game road trip that will lead up to the All-Star break. And, if the Wild had played more like they did yesterday in previous games, this team would actually be a contender for a playoff spot.

But they haven't, and that is the crux of the argument with this Wild team this season. I'll say it again, like I have most of this season:

The most consistent thing about the Wild this season is their inconsistency. Fans can count on always wondering: Which Wild team will show up on any given night?

If they played more like they did against the NHL's best team, the Canucks, yesterday, most fans would be more than pleased. On the other hand, if they played more like they did last week, when they were out-scored 13-2 over three games (two of which were at home, BTW) the fans could look forward to a trade deadline day which, for once, might actually be fun to see what moves GM Chuck Fletcher would be able to do, in order to shed some more of the dead weight off this over-burdened roster.

The four forwards who would make up the trade bait for the Feb. 28 trade deadline -- Kyle Brodziak, Andrew Brunette, John Madden and Antti Miettinen -- represent $8 Million in cap space, or about 15% of their total salary cap. These four and the player who, in my opinion is the NHL's biggest stiff -- Cam Barker -- make up the basis for trade season. The Wild have to get out of paying $3-4 million for third-and-fourth-level players, even though they may play on your first line. Pay for performance? You wish these guys would perform. Brunette is getting paid based on past performance, but he is slowing down as his career winds down. Madden and Brodziak were brought in as short-to-medium term solutions. Barker's contract was one of those which cost ex-Chicago GM Dale Tallon his job, just as the Blackhawks were beginning their Stanley Cup run last season. And Miettinen would be a great player, if only he didn't have to shoot the puck, or occasionally throw a check.

Yesterday in the first period, was yet another Miettinen classic, as he had a wide open net to shoot at, yet he shot the puck over the top of the net. Yes, indeed, Antti Missedthenetagain. That should say all that is needed about this guy.

I wonder how much it would cost to put a barn picture in a goal for Miettinen to use as a target...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reality sets in for .500 Wild

4-game win streak one week, 3-game loss streak the next typifies 2010-11 season

The week that was, was a very bad one for the Minnesota Wild. As a .500 hockey club, with a better record away from home than in front of your own fans, the season has come down to hoping the team gets out of town OK, on their Monday charter flight to Edmonton.

The Wild are only one game away from pulling an 0-fer at home in January, the first time that feat will have been accomplished, in the same month at home, in team history (the Wild are winless in their last 4 home games, going into this afternoon's potential blowout vs. Vancouver, the NHL's best team, a 5 PM start at the 'X'.)

A few chilling statistics should tell you the direction this afternoon's game should -- SHOULD -- be headed:

The Canucks have only lost one game (Thursday, 1-0 to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden) in regulation since Dec. 5th. (They are 15-1-3 since then.)

The Wild have not won a game at home since Dec. 29th (5-3, vs. San Jose). In fact, the Wild have won two games at home -- TOTAL -- since Dec. 1.

The Canucks have 3 players (Tanner Glass, Aaron Rome, Aaron Volpatti) who are listed as minus in the plus/minus statistic. Only Glass plays regularly; the other two shuttle between Vancouver and their AHL affiliate in Winnipeg. The Wild have four players on their roster who are NOT in the minus column of plus/minus. And, if you want to draw this stat out a bit, the Canucks have nine players -- that's half of their roster -- who are a +10 or better, including 4 of their six defensemen and both of the despised (because they are so good together) Sedin twins.

The Wild, on the other hand, have six players who are a -7 or worse, including 2/3rds of their top line, two of their top 3 checking forwards, their All-Star Game representative (Brent Burns) and, in my opinion (and that of many, many others) the single biggest stiff in the NHL, Cam Barker (tied for worst at -13).

The Wild are the second worst home team in the Western Conference (10-11-2), and are in danger of breaking team records for the most losses at home (16, 2005-06), fewest points at home (41, 2001-02), longest losing streak at home (the Wild will tie that streak with a loss today), and longest winless streak at home (8, Feb.-Mar., 2001).

Fortunately, the Wild leave the not-so-friendly confines of St. Paul (where booing and jeering at the end of periods has become commonplace) for the sanctity of the road, where they will be until the All-Star break (with games at Edmonton -- the only team with a worse home record than the Wild; the last game of the season vs. Calgary; and games at San Jose and Chicago), all winnable games, as long as they aren't played in St. Paul, before the home losing begins again, on Feb. 1 against the LA Kings, who themselves just went thru a 2-6 homestand at STAPLES Center.

So go away, Wild. You're bothering your fan base. Get some wins, then come back and see us. Show your fans that their support is appreciated. Win at home.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A moment, while we inject some reality into your Wild playoff run...

(Updated 1-10-2011 with updated second game total after Dallas game.)

Fans of the Minnesota Wild have enjoyed the first week of 2011 immensely. Four games in the New Year, four wins (three in regulation, all on the road), eight points, and the Wild have finally managed to pull themselves off the scrap heap of the NHL's Western Conference.

To what do we attribute this largesse? The system instilled by the coaching staff, led by second-year head Coach Todd Richards? Better talent obtained by GM Chuck Fletcher? Better play inspired by the likes of Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Cal Clutterbuck and the now-injured Marek Zidlicky?

The fact of the matter is that all of it contributes to the sudden surge in Wild success. But so does one more important overlooked except in hindsight after games have been played:

The old facet that 'It's not who you play, it's when you play them', comes into play after the games have been played.

Would the Wild have been better off playing the New Jersey Devils right after their NHL Premiere experience in Finland? Or in January, after the Devils' ship of state took on so much water it looked more like the Andria Doria than a hockey team ready to win games?

Are the Wild better off that three of the four games against the Phoenix Coyotes have already been played?

Were the Boston Bruins looking ahead to their game Saturday night in Montreal, when they played the Wild Thursday night at TD Garden?

We know the Wild caught a major break against the Pittsburgh Penguins, when Sidney Crosby got his clock cleaned not once, but twice, in the week leading up to last night's 4-0 Wild win, the second worst game in the STK era for the Pens versus the Wild. Crosby did not play last night as he was diagnosed with concussion symptoms after the second bell-ringing, which took place in their Wednesday night 8-1 drubbing of Tampa Bay.

When the Wild catch a team at or near full strength, especially in St. Paul, they have frequently had their lunch handed to them, as in New Year's Eve's 4-1 drubbing against a Nashville Predators team at full strength; a Detroit Red Wings team which came in on Boxing Day, and in Grinch-like fashion, wrested a 4-1 win from the Wild in a game so bad, the fifth-largest crowd in Wild history booed the team off the ice after the second period; an Ottawa Senators team who came in to St. Paul and used two power-play goals to earn a 3-1 comeback win, their fifth straight against the Wild; the Coyotes' first visit into the 'X', as lifeless a loss (4-2) as you could get; and the two straight home blowouts in November, the easy (for them) 5-2 NY Rangers win, and the 6-1 Philadelphia Flyers drubbing, two of the worst home games in Wild history.

Now, this afternoon, the Dallas Stars, another team which the Wild have precious little success with (9-7-2 all time in St. Paul, and an absolutely hid-e-ous 3-11-4 in 'Big D') play in a 5:00 PM start, Dallas having rested on Saturday, while the Wild were in Pittsburgh. The Stars have three players (Karlis Skrastins and Minnesotans Matt Niskanen (Virginia), Toby Petersen (Minneapolis) ) on the injured list, as do the Wild (Guillaume Latendresse, Niklas Backstrom, Zidlicky) so what does that portend?

The 1-6-3 record of the Wild this season, in the second game of back-to-backs, should speak volumes. The fact that Dallas rested yesterday, while the Wild flew back from Western PA, should speak volumes. The fact that Backstrom, the Wild's No. 1 goaltender, is possibly facing more hip surgery, maybe putting him out for the rest of the season, should speak volumes. The fact that the West is so tight (the Wild will be within two points of the Stars in the West if they win in regulation time today) should speak volumes, also.

What it speaks volumes OF, however, is subject to debate, specualtion, and of course, blogging!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Brand New Year, Same Old Wild Problems

New Year's. Time to re-start everything. Time to turn the calendar over, and renew your committment to making your life better in the New Year,

Oh, how I really wish the Minnesota Wild would follow that philosophy.

The fact of the matter is that despite their recent success (two wins vs. Calgary, wins vs. Colorado and San Jose in the last two weeks), this Wild team is, at best, a .500 hockey club. A testament to middling performance. A team which, if this season so far were made into a commercial, would come out like the Education Minnesota union ad during the elections -- "Mediocrity, Mediocrity, ME-DI-OCRITY!"

The reality is that until the Wild can once again upgrade their forwards to a level of, say, a St. Louis, or the LA Kings, or even this afternoon's opponents, the formerly-lowly Phoenix Coyotes, the Wild will be mired with a Calgary Flames team which is on the verge of a total rebuild, and the near-perpetual bottom feeders, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers, teams who are destined to be cannon fodder for the likes of the Detroits and Chicagos of the Western Conference.

How bad are the Wild viewed, especially away from Minnesota?

CBC's Pierre LeBrun, with Kelly Hrudey commenting on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night from Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, where they were doing the Washington-Pittsburgh Winter Classic, came out and said that the Wild are 'not a sexy team' right now, and do not even deserve hosting the Winter Classic (although they wouldn't have had the warm weather problems they did in the Steel City yesterday). He also said that Philadelphia (home of Comcast, who will purchase NBC from GE later this month) and Colorado (who's Invesco Field at Mile High would be an 80,000-seat bonanza, for a game vs. either the Detroit Red Wings or the Dallas Stars) are the current front-runners for the 2012 game, a game which the Wild ownership covets dearly.

LeBrun's comments should have been viewed as an alarm bell, ringing throughout 317 Washington Street in Downtown St. Paul. It's time to get serious as to what direction the Wild need to go in to get where they really need to be -- the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- and soon.

They have to get involved this season at the trade deadline. And at the rate this team is going, they certainly would not be construed as 'buyers'. No way. They need to unload salary, and quickly. Antti Miettinen, Andrew Brunette, Chuck Kobasew all need to be shown the proverbial door. Two other Wild players -- John Madden and Jose Theodore -- are also unrestricted free agents at the end of this season. But there are two Wild players who's output underscores the fact they need a change of scenery.

Cam Barker and James Sheppard, your taxis are waiting to take you to the airport. One-way.

Sheppard, injured in pre-training-camp while ATV'ing in Colorado, needs a new start. Somewhere else. The second biggest draft day bust in Wild history (behind A. J. Thelen), the only thing Shep is doing right now for the Wild, is dragging down the team's salary cap to zero. They won't get anything out of him this season. Anything you get in return for him, (even a used puck bag), should be considered a plus for the Wild. Just get his name off the books.

Barker, acquired in the Kim Johnsson-Nick Leddy trade from Chicago, has probably been the single biggest stalagmite since Martin Skoula departed after the 2008-09 season. He doesn't hit. He doesn't check. Quite frankly, other than take up space on the roster, he really doesn't do much of anything, which is evident in his -12 plus/minus rating, worse than the rest of the Wild defense combined.

And who(m)ever told the Wild forwards that the fans don't want 'garbage' goals at home? The way that this team doesn't score, we fans can't be begging for the 'pretty' goal. Beggars can't be choosers. The Wild faithful will take goals, any way the Wild can deliver them.

Let's hope the New Year will right the Wild's ship of state. Because, the dinghy is still leaking...