Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wild after eight games: on track, on time

Well, folks, the Minnesota Wild's first western Canadian road trip is now history. And, it didn't turn out all that bad. Could have been better, but in reality, any time you can pull 3 of a possible 4 points in the standings out of the Alberta/BC meatgrinder, you've done relatively well.

Now, granted, the Edmonton game was 1.2 seconds away from disaster, and the Vancouver Canucks should give Marco Scandella a bonus, for that nicely-timed screen he threw in front of his own goalie at the end of overtime yesterday -- but that is why they actually play the games.

The season is 10 per cent over. Yes, folks, the Wild have played 1/8th of their schedule already. (Has anybody noticed?) And, for those who worry about such things, the playoff race is already on. For every point earned now is virtually worth a point and a half come March, and the playoff drive.

The Wild are no better, and no worse, than most teams in the Western Conference, with 18 goals for, and 20 goals against. Four games have already gone to overtime, and the 1-0-3 record after 60 minutes have already been played means that the Wild are actually staying with it thru the end of regulation time, something which could not be said frequently the last two seasons.

The Wild open their new week in 7th place in the West -- actually, tied for 6th place, but thanks to yesterday's Canucks win, Vancouver has one more win (4-3-1) that the Wild (3-2-3) -- with four of the next five games at home (Anaheim, Detroit, Vancouver, St. Louis) and the lone road game at Detroit (which works to the Wild's advantage, as three of the four Wild-Red Wings games will have been played by Nov. 2).

The Wild are starting to be banged up, as injuries to Guillaume Latendresse (groin) and Greg Zanon (groin) held them out of Saturday's game at Rogers Arena. Throw in Mikko Koivu's skate-slicing episode in Edmonton Thursday night, and Mike Lundin's imminent return off his season-opening back spasms (Lundin has yet to play a regular-season game in Iron Range Red), portends that the roster will continue to be in flux for the forseeable future.

This team is slowly -- SLOWLY -- coming around to the philosophies of head coach Mike Yeo, despite falling into their old habits all too frequently (such as the third period of the Vancouver game, where they did not have a shot on goal for over 15 minutes). The fact of the matter is that when they play as the coaches want them to, they win. When they don't, they lose. The road ahead is a long, winding journey, as we've all seen already, and it will definitely not be an easy journey to take.

But, for now, this train is on track and on time for the playoffs. We'll see if they can stay on schedule.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

So Far, So...?

Middling start reminds one of disasterous 2010-2011 Minnesota Wild campaign

Well, it's been five games. Yes, you're right. Only five games. But some onerous comparisons to the disasterous 2010-2011 season for our favorite NHL team are already rearing their ugly heads:

2010-2011 record after 5 games: 2-2-1
2011-2012 record after 5 games: 2-1-2

Yes, this does include the two NHL Premiere games in Helsinki, Finland. But this also includes games against Columbus and Edmonton both seasons; and Detroit (this season) replaces Vancouver (from last season) as the opponent for game 5. Game 5 last season, the Wild shelled the Canucks 6-2, one of the worst beatings the Canucks would face, en route to their eventual Stanley Cup Finals choke job, at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

2010-2011 record, second 5 games: 2-2-1
2011-2012 record, second 5 games: ?-?-?

The second five games last season started with a western Canadian road swing to Edmonton and Vancouver, respectively, then three home games vs. LA, Washington, and Chicago. Win at Rexall, followed by a 5-1 drubbing at Rogers Centre, Vancouver, then a SO loss at home to the Kings, a 2-1 home win vs. the Caps and a 3-1 loss to the Blackhawks which left the team disgusted and confused.

This season's next five: Home vs. Pittsburgh, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, home vs. Anaheim, home vs. Detroit (again). Now, hopefully, the Wild will play better next week than they did this past week, Last week showed that young, speedy teams (NY Islanders, Edmonton) can have success against the older, slower Wild. It's not that the Wild haven't embraced a youth movement, either; we all know that the blueline after the first three (Schultz, Zanon, Zidlicky) averages about age 10 (my wife said that.)

Josh Harding was the savior vs. Detroit on Saturday night, comitting robbery several times throughout the game, desperately keeping the offensively-challenged (again) Wild in the game. But, as the Red Wings have usually done, they simply turned it up a notch, and won the game in overtime. Some have predicted the demise of the Red Wings; 10 of their 24-man roster were born before Jan. 1, 1980. But they continue to do one thing well: they continue to find ways to win hockey games. Whether it be deflecting pucks, drawing penalties, timely passes to players who seemingly show up out of nowhere, whatever...the Red Wings know what to do to win. And, keep winning. Be consistent winners.

That's what the rest of the NHL wants to be. That's what the Wild (and 29 other NHL teams) aim for. But only Detroit has achieved it. To the credit of the Wings' management and staff, to do it for as long as they have, at that level, especially in that Detroit environment (Joe Louis Arena is now the oldest venue in the Western Conference, and 3rd oldest in the NHL), is a testament to the entire Detroit Red Wings organization, from owner Mike Ilitch on down.  The Wings just seem to plug in veterans and sprinkle rookies in, and just keep winning. They never seem to have a 'down' season.

Yes, we all know that Doug Risebrough 'left the cupboard bare' when he was dismissed following the 2008-09 season, that Chuck Fletcher has worked hard to restock the shelves, both with the Houston Aeros and with the big club as well. The Wild scouting staff has been shaking the trees and raking the leaves to try and find talent, taking 'late bloomers' out of the college ranks who are otherwise free agents to try and rebuild the roster. And, the days of trading draft picks for aging veterans who are, literally, on their last legs are over.

But one question looms large. One question that nearly every NHL team asks, except one. One question which they haven't asked in Detroit, in more than a generation.

When do we have an 'up' season?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

One Down, 81 to Go

Well, we've finally seen the 'new and improved' Minnesota Wild. One question after the first game:

Does anyone still not believe that we don't have an improved hockey team?

The play of the team in last night's season opener vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets was the proverbial 'proof in the pudding' as the Wild played like Wild fans haven't seen in years. The first line pressed the attack all night. The second line actually was scoring. The third and fourth lines? Handled their assignments brilliantly.

The much-maligned defense, with three youngsters on the blue line? How does a goal and two assists and only two goals against (one well after the game was out of reach) sound to all the nay-sayers out there?

Yes, it was only the first game, and a raucous, sell-out full house (19,040) at the 'X' will be back for more, especially if the Wild continue to play like this. No second-period letdown. No shifts off. No stopping and rolling over, like Wild fans had been accustomed to the last two seasons. The only bad point in the game was the B.S. call the Wild incurred when Pierre-Marc Bouchard's stick found the face of Columbus' Matt Calvert, which might get PMB suspended for a few games. Of course, not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, Calvert high-sticked HIMSELF with Bouchard's stick when Calvert lifted his stick, which was under Bouchard's. Columbus head coach Scott Arniel supposedly was livid after the game over the incident, while his moribund team drops to 0-2 in the Central Division, where his team will probably be the only one in that division to NOT make the playoffs.

For the Wild, the road doesn't get any easier as they travel to Long Island and Ottawa (where Dany Heatley will be sure to get a rousing reception; Heatley, an ex-Senator, is soundly reviled in Ottawa from his playing days there) before returning home for three games, vs. Edmonton, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Let's all see what the next week brings. Because the first week has been pretty darn good.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Starting Anew...once again

Well, it's Opening Week. No longer Opening Night, the NHL schedule is so spread out, it's now Opening Week. With special 'events' in Boston (where the Bruins begin defense of the Stanley Cup), Toronto (the so-called 'Center of the Hockey Universe'), Winnipeg (home of the NHL's newest franchise, having just escaped from Atlanta, the so-called 'Capital of the New South', after last season), Stockholm, Helsinki, Berlin ( with NHL Premiere '11)...and so on.

So everyone starts fresh. Will the 'new look' Minnesota Wild have done enough remodelling of their roster to warrant a playoff spot after April 7th?

Let's look at everyone else first (two column-line limit here, people):

Anaheim Ducks: Will the Teemu Selanne Farewell Tour extend beyond April 7th? Will Jonas Hiller be able to stand up to what other teams will throw at the Ducks? Kurtis Foster and Cam Fowler on D (that will screw up TV announcers across North America for sure!)

Boston Bruins: Can anything this team does top last season's Stanley Cup run? Can Tim Thomas repeat what he did last season? How long can Zdeno Chara remain the dominant force in the East?

Buffalo Sabres: The best team no one's heard of...yet. Finally, Thomas Vanek gets some help. Drew Miller gets some help. Western New York gets some hope. Toronto fans get even more jealous.

Calgary Flames: Flames faithful will go where Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff will take them. Jay Feaster is trying to right the ship that became a virtual dinghy after the Sutters got done with it. There's a lot of work still to do, however. Have patience, Calgary. You'll get better.

Carolina Hurricanes: Did the 'Canes do anything this summer? Nobody really knows, do they? Not much news eminating from the Triangle this summer.

Chicago Blackhawks: Still re-tooling from 2010's fire sale, the Hawks still have two of the best forwards in the West (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews) and that will take them a long way in what will be a fun-to-watch Central Division.

Colorado Avalanche: With four D over 6'2", 210-lbs., the Front Range will be exactly that for most teams. Climbing those mountains might be a real stretch for smaller opponents. Add J. S. Giguere and Semyon Varlamov to the mix, and Pepsi Center will be a fun place for the local six this season.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Wild have seen them twice already in the pre-season. The BJ's are sneaky in places; not so much in others. The biggest obstacle is everyone else in their own division.

Dallas Stars: The first full season in the post-Mike Modano era finds the Stars in bankruptcy court, the line-up aging and turned over, and the Stars not looking all that good right now. And, with all the turn-over, the Stars still have Steve Ott. 'Nuff said.

Detroit Red Wings: When will this team ever have a bad season? Niklas Lidstrom is pushing 42 years old, and 12 Wings were born prior to Jan. 1, 1980. How long can they keep up being as good as they are? Yes, they probably will win the Central division, but this may be their last hurrah. Really.

Edmonton Oilers: there are so many co-stars of TSN's 'Oil Change' that are so bad, that they overshadow the good players (Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) that the Grease have. The Oil were so desperate, they even signed Wild reject Cam Barker. Worst in the NHL is not out of the question.

Florida Panthers: How many ways can a team suck? This team has managed to discover most of them, as they enter their eighth straight season without a playoff berth. Despite Jose Theodore's presence on the Panthers' roster, it will be a playoff-less season in South Florida once again.

Los Angeles Kings: The Drew Doughty soap opera is over; now can they get back to getting deep into the playoffs? Good goaltending with team Jonathan (Bernier and Quick), decent defense, and Anze Kopitar up front. Not too bad.

Montreal Canadiens: Hockey's answer to the Keebler Elves can really create havoc, but only if they can put the biscuit in the basket. The goaltending is there; the defense is there; now can the offense help out the effort?

Nashville Predators: Another Central Division team that did the best thing by re-signing their own player (Shea Weber) over the summer. Barry Trotz and Co. will be there when the playoff bell rings. Maybe as No. 8 seed in the West, but they will be there.

New Jersey Devils: Will the beatings inside the Prudential Center out-do the beatings outside 'the Rock'? Devils' faithful (what few there are left: sorry, Wysh) will be watching not-so-patiently, as Generalissimo Lou & Co., figure out salary cap hell. Not to mention the team is in bankruptcy. Sounds like Mike Emrick bailed on the Devils at just the right time for the NBC/Versus gig.

New York Islanders: Another team that you look at and ask, 'What did they DO over the summer'? The only major addition they had was Brian Rolston, and that was only because the Devils tried to send him to the minors last season for salary-cap reasons. Twice.

New York Rangers: the NHL's version of 'Nomad', as the renovation of MSG nears completion, the Rangers start with the entire month of October on the road. If they survive the October marathon, the rest of this season will be easy for the Rags. How will the Rangers look in the post-Boogaard era?

Ottawa Senators: Seven players on the Sens' roster were born before 1980. Daniel Alfredsson is now age 39 (Dec. 11) . Filip Kuba is still on the roster. Recipe for disaster. These guys are not the Detroit Red Wings, although they're aging just as fast.

Philadelphia Flyers: Daniel 'Car Bomb' Carcillo is no longer on the Flyers. Unfortunately, 'Stompin' Chris' Pronger still IS on the Flyers roster. FA acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov may finally stop the Flyers' three-ring goalie circus. Now, if they could only do something about Scott Hartnell...

Phoenix Coyotes: One foot out the door, the other on the proverbial banana peel. The NHL can't wait to move this bunch to Quebec City after this season. The Quebecor money sure is tempting, isn't it, Gary Bettman? And the end will come for hockey in the desert, April 7 at Xcel Energy Center, vs. the Wild. (Last trip for the Wild to Phoenix: March 8th).

Pittsburgh Penguins: Their fortune is -- literally -- in the head of Sidney Crosby. If he recovers from his concussion, the Pens will do well. If not, in my opinion, they don't. They have the talent, but not the drive, without Sid the Kid.

San Jose Sharks: should they bring the Sharks out onto the HP Pavilion ice to the strains of the late 80's tune, 'Wild Wild West'? With all the new blood coming west from Minnesota, the Sharks may just contend for the whole thing. Then again, the SODR factor may just be off the scale in Silicon Valley.

St. Louis Blues: If they can stay healthy, the Blues might just keep up with the rest of the Central Division. But, as Blues fans saw last season, that's a mighty, mighty big 'IF'. David Backes' captaincy will mean a lot for this young roster.

Tampa Bay Lightning: As Steven Stamkos goes, so go the 'Bolts. Hopefully, Dwayne Roloson can stay healthy this season. The same can be said for Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Leafs fans deserve better than this group of mutts. There are a few bright spots, but way-y-y too few. Another season of mediocrity.

Vancouver Canucks: probably will win the Northwest Division again, but really, that ain't sayin' much. They'll run into yet another buzzsaw, implode in the playoffs, and the streak of no Stanley Cups will continue. Will the streak of post-playoff-ouster riots continue as well? Stay classy, Vancouver.

Washington Capitals: As Ovechkin goes, so go the Caps. Hopefully they've improved their defense in the off-season; they definitely have improved in goal, with Tomas Vokoun backing up Mikael Neuvirth. The Caps will go as far as the 'Gr8 One' will take them.

Winnipeg Jets: This team could go really great guns or could totally implode; the killer travel schedule (as an Eastern Conference team this season) could be their undoing. Good young team, was improving in Atlanta, now with TNSE's money and the whole province of Manitoba rabidly behind them.

And, finally...

Minnesota Wild: New coach, new first line, rebuilt second and third line, upgraded fourth line, and the best part: the absence of Antti 'missed the net again' Miettinen and James 'I've been playing hockey since I was 3' Sheppard. The regime of Mike Yeo has already improved the outlook of this team, as the new first line of Mikko Koivu-Dany Heatley-Devin Setoguchi is a quantum leap over last season's Andrew Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen line.

The defense, with the top 4 from last season all returning, remains somewhat of a question mark because of the rebuilding of the bottom three defensive spots. The goaltending is still as good as always; Josh Harding has proven to all who saw in pre-season that he has indeed returned from last season's knee injury at St. Louis.

This Wild team will be in contention all season for a playoff spot. Will they make the field of 16? They cannot afford a start like last season's horrible October-November, nor a finish like last season's 'March to Hell' playoff run, in which the team basically quit after the March games in Nashville and  Dallas.

And now, my predictions for this season:

Western Conference: San Jose Sharks
Eastern Conference: Washington Capitals

Stanley Cup Champions: San Jose Sharks

Minnesota Wild: Could finish anywhere from 7th to 10th. My choice: 8th, play Vancouver in first round. We'll see from there...