Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Will the real Wild please return to St. Paul?

Watching the Minnesota Wild lately is like watching the NFL during 'replacement football'. Fans are just waiting for the real players to return to the arena, and start playing.

What? You mean...these ARE the real Wild players?

You're kidding, aren't you? Where is the team that took 'come-from-behind' as a mark of pride, a mantra for working within 'the system' and having the proper 'battle level' to succeed?

You mean they were all injured? And half of them still ARE off the active roster?

The fact is that the Wild, dear people, have indeed seen the highs and lows of life in the NHL. In the same month. Like a bad stock market, volatility reigns supreme right now at 317 Washington St., St. Paul.

The injuries continue to mount, as now in nearly every game at least one Wild player winds up on the injured list. Setoguchi, Latendresse, Stoner, and now Spurgeon. Every game, another pain. Every game, another way to lose. And this from the team which just two weeks ago was creating new ways to win. And now, the final, ultimate indignity: the Vancouver Canucks, winners of 15 of their last 17 games, have overtaken the Wild atop the Northwest Division.

The Wild's month on top has officially ended, as most of us thought it would eventually, with a resounding thud.

Were the Wild playing 'over their heads'? Perhaps. But the fact that this team came off the top of the mountain in such a spectacular fashion, to a group of teams that, mostly, they really should have defeated, is as much a condemnation of how the NHL as a whole plays these days, as the individual failings of its' players.

Think about it: if the season ended today (Dec. 27), 5 of the 7 teams the Wild have lost to would not make the playoffs. The only two that would (Chicago and Vancouver), are now 1-2 in the Western Conference. The other five teams (Winnipeg, NY Islanders, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado) are a combined 78-for-177 (.441 winning percentage), and the two losses to the lowly Islanders -- hockey's second worst team (only Columbus is worse) -- are especially telling, as the Wild did not look like they even wanted to play in either game.

The Wild play 12 games between now and the All-Star break; eight of those 12 are on the road, including a pair of games (at Philadelphia and Toronto) against two of the hottest teams in hockey. With only three home games in January, the Wild need to pull out of this funk. Now. Before the road gets so long, they find themselves on the outside, looking in, once again. For if that happens, the Vikings won't be the only Minnesota pro sports team in need of a total rebuild.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Limping along at the top

(Revised and updated, with status of Wild injured)

Sorry, Vancouver Canucks fans. Your team still isn't in first this morning.

Despite injuries which have taken more than 120 man-games away (as of Saturday night's game vs. the NY Islanders), the Minnesota Wild still have managed to limp along in first place in the entire NHL.

Despite losing four of their top six forwards (Mikko Koivu, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse) to various and sundry ailments (leg, knee, face and concussion, respectively), the Wild continue to earn points, despite a week where the hockey gods did not exactly smile good fortune on them.

In the last game of a 5-game road trip, the Wild finally played a game in their own time zone, losing to the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 at MTS Centre, in front of 14,904 Jets fanatics (and about 100 Wild fans, spread out thru the arena, including this blogger). In that game, Casey Wellman, filling in for the ailing Setoguchi, was slashed in the second period by Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian, another injury that was totally missed by the game officials (no penalty was assessed on the play). Then, with 1:06 left in the 3rd period, Bogosian tried to obliterate Bouchard by running him into the dasher separating the boards from the glass as Minnesota was pressing for the tying goal in the Winnipeg end. Bogosian was assessed a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for the act, but no supplemental discipling was assessed later, while Bouchard was left to bleed all the way back to Minnesota.

Wednesday, the Wild came back twice from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to take the Chicago Blackhawks to (and thru) overtime and into the shootout, where Patrick Kane out-deked Niklas Backstrom to win the game for the Hawks. In that game, Koivu injured his leg late in the third period, right as he scored the tying goal to send the game into overtime. Latendresse also suffered post-concussion syndrome symptoms, after a hit on Chicago's Viktor Stalberg midway thru the first period. Latendresse has since been put on injured reserve.

Saturday night, vs. the lowly Islanders, the patchwork lineup that the Wild presented at the 'X' was decidedly 'Houston-heavy', as no less than four Aeros call-ups permeated the roster. Unfortunately, the four call-ups and Backstrom were the only reasons the Wild were still in the game after two lacklustre periods, and a booing off the ice by the faithful at the end of the second period.

Newly-minted Wild-killer Al Montoya was easily stopping everything loosely thrown at him, as there was no sustained effort by the Wild offense to press the attack in the Islanders zone. The fact that the Islanders are the worst team in the East, did not stop the Wild from playing down to their level thru the first 35 minutes of the game. That the Wild got a point out of this snoozer of a contest, is as much the work of Backstrom, as anything any forward or defenseman did.

And now, the Wild take to the road for their third (of 4 this season) western Canadian trip, the only one where they travel to all three cities (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, respectively), in as bad a condition physically as they have been in for years. The Canucks just finished a five-game Eastern road trip where they went 3-1-1, including wins at Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Calgary is on a 3-game winless streak (not including Sunday's game at Chicago) of its' own, while the Oilers are 1-5 in their last six games (not including Monday night's home game vs. Detroit).

Koivu and Bouchard will both travel with the team on this trip; Koivu may not play in Vancouver, but is expected back vs. the Flames. Setoguchi may begin practicing while the team is on the road trip.  Bouchard is day-to-day. Latendresse will be sidelined for a while with his PCS problems.

What does all this mean? There may be -- MAY be -- light at the end of the injury tunnel. As the team goes into the holiday break, the schedule will actually turn and FAVOR the Wild, as the long western road trips will have been put behind them; in fact, only 6 games in the New Year will start after 7:30 PM (and after January 7, no games will start later than 8:00 PM Central Time). The injuries will subside (hopefully) and the Mike Yeo-inspired system, ingrained into this group of players, will propel them towards a playoff spot.

Hang on, Wild fans. Better times are indeed ahead. Patience is indeed a virtue.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wild sweep thru California, finally get noticed by NHL 'Glitterati'

Four-game Western road sweep finally gets Wild noticed by mainstream hockey media; next stop Winnipeg

In my last entry, we opined on the fact that the NHL's media machine, while over-focusing on the upcoming Winter Classic game in Philadelphia on January 2, Sidney Crosby's concussion troubles and the lack of respect Alexander Ovechkin gave ex-Capitals coach Bruce Bourdeau, was giving very short shrift to the team that was at the top of the League's standings, the Minnesota Wild.

As the media darlings who call California home finally come around to the fact that Minnesota does have a team that can be competititve away from St. Paul, the begrudging acceptance has, albeit very slowly, been finally coming. Even NHL.com, the League's on-line outlet, tweeted this morning:

1 hr Did You Know? The #1 team in the is the AND they've won 7 in a row. You should!

From The Hockey News: "Wild life: Meet Minnesota, the best team in the NHL."

Two ratings (NHL.com, THN) have Minnesota as No. 1. Two others will release their weekly rankings on Monday.

And the best thing about all this? There's still more than half the season left to play, which means there's plenty of time for Wild fans to really get behind this group of young, talented players.

The bandwagon still has plenty of room. And then, there's the on-line group for the true Wild fanatics:

"The Church of Yeo." Look it up online. You know you REALLY want to.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wild Wild West: NHL media can't deal with Minnesota, ignores them on radio, TV

While still promoting Caps, Flyers, Rangers and Penguins, NHL, accompanying media all but totally ignore Minnesota Wild 2011 season success story

By Wild Road Tripper

Hey, Minnesota! You have a team that's in first place this morning. One small problem, however:

They don't wear purple, and they sure as hell aren't asking begging for threatening to leave for Los Angeles if they don't get wanting a $1 Billion stadium.

Your Minnesota Wild are in first place in the NHL's Western Conference today. They are one point (as of Sunday morning, Dec. 4) out of first place in the entire National Hockey League. And this is with a talent level which most NHL pundits say are all smoke and mirrors.

Yet, watch NHL-produced programming. Watch 'NHL: On The Fly', the nightly show produced and shown on the NHL Network. Watch 'Hockey Night in Canada'. Watch any NHL-produced program. What do you see?

Sidney Crosby. Sidney Crosby, and Ovechkin. Ovie, and Brandon Dubinsky. Dubinsky, and Scott Hartnell. All Pens, all the time. All Rangers. Caps ad nauseum. And the NBC Sports Channel (soon-to-be-formerly-called Versus) may as well be 'the national channel of your Philadelphia Flyers.'

Yes, the VERSUS schedule has featured the Wild, but only to feature the stars of the opposing team (Tampa Bay, Chicago, San Jose, Washington) or just to fill a time slot (Colorado in January and March, Anaheim in February, LA in February). Not one game against any Western Conference opponent that would actually feature the Wild's up-and-coming stars, as opposed to the likes of Sid The Kid, Vinny 'I got shut out in Minnesota' Lecavalier, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Joe Thornton, Ovie, et. al.

Even when the league's TV outlets do get around to showing the Wild, it's only as supposed 'cannon fodder' for teams such as Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Chicago, San Jose, and Washington, or to fill a late time slot (such as two games in Colorado, and two home games in February against the two Southern California teams) with something that would be palatable to (very few) US hockey fans.

Not even on the NHL's radio outlets do they get any respect. The Wild frequently get trashed on HNIC radio on SIRIUS and get dissed daily on XM's 'NHL Home Ice' channel. They are routinely dismissed as 'the team that still plays the Trap', years after Jacques Lemaire left the organization, after which they move on to such exciting subjects, as what STK had for breakfast, or the latest (false) Bobby Ryan trade-to-Toronto rumor. When they do run out of real NHL news, they may get to the Wild, only after their latest regurgitation of James Reimer's save percentage, Patrick Kaleta's face-off stats, and after a rambling, 15-to-20-minute phone interview with the latest Ranger to get lost en route to their Rye, NY practice complex. Just don't say a word about Niklas Backstrom or Josh Harding, though. That team is playing way-y-y-y over their heads. Never utter a word about Matt Cullen's season, or the kiddie-corps defense in Minnesota. But, we'll be back, right after this Andrei Markov update, live from his surgical suite...

Wild fans will know when this team has been 'accepted' by the NHL media. Just keep winning, guys. Just keep winning, and angering the likes of the uber-Wild-haters, such as E. J. Hradek of NHL Network, and the Denver Post's Adrian Dater. Just keep winning, guys. Because, they all hate you. They hate the fact that the Wild are winning. They hate the fact that statistics don't lie, and that the Wild are at the top of the Western Conference. Sorry, but the Sedins are no longer the be-all-end-all in the Northwest Division.

Maybe, someday, even Gary Bettman will actually like the Wild. (Nah. I doubt that will ever happen.)