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 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 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.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Has Heatley finally received the message? And, do we still believe it?

Did Dany Heatley finally get the message to shape up or get shipped out? Did Coach Mike Yeo finally get his message into Heatley's head?

And, do Minnesota Wild fans believe the message has finally sunk in?

That's the question this blogger poses today, after a week when the Wild went 3-0, outscoring their opponents 10-5 in the process.

The fact that the rest of the team has also stepped it up, following the Wild's 1-2-1 eastern road swing the prior week, hasn't hurt things, either.

It's hard to believe that Heatley has just turned it on, like a light switch. He finally got off the schneid with an empty-net goal in Thursday's 3-1 win vs. Carolina. Since then, at least Saturday night in Chicago, 'Heater' played with a little pep in his step. Perhaps the page has been turned, for a player who sometimes has needed a little extra motivation to succeed on the ice.

But, do Wild fans believe that the page has turned for Heatley? Or is it a combination of bad puck luck, changing on-ice partners and the opponents the Wild have faced so far this season, mostly either Eastern Conference opponents or (in the case of Winnipeg) former temmates of Heatley, who remember how he goes about his business on the ice?

Only time will tell for sure, but of the next eight games (6 of which are in St. Paul), seven are against Eastern Conference teams. The jury is still out for 'Heater'.

OW! Ow! Ow!

This all began on a night when not one, but BOTH starting goalies were pulled due to injury. 'Josh Harding night', featuring his 'Harding's Hope' charity, turned into 'Harding's Hurt' night, when the goalie, and his Carolina counterpart, Cam Ward, both left the game injured after long stretch-needing saves. Ward is out for a reported 3-4 weeks; Harding is reportedly day-to-day.

To see one starting goalie go down during the game is not normal during a NHL game. To see BOTH go down to injury, and not for poor performance, is very unusual indeed. It doesn't happen often, and when it does, you feel for them.

But that's why you carry two goalies, for situations like this. Unfortunately, the stress somethng like this sends shockwaves thru an organization. The fact that the Wild is relatively thin in goal in the minors doesn't help things, as goalies take longer to fully develop than other position players.

The Wild have to start thinking of the future. Think about goaltending. Backstrom is 35, and will not be around much longer; Harding will be 30 in January. Might it be time for the Wild to start ramping up some goaltender development?

Just a thought...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Time to rededicate the Popcorn Machine?

With his diminished play and soon-to-be expiring contract, this blogger asks if it's time to rename the Minnesota Wild press box popcorn machine at Xcel Energy Center after uber-underachiever Dany Heatley

Have we Minnesota Wild fans found the next human stalagmite (a.k.a. Martin Skoula)? Another Filip Kuba stand-around human pylon?

We just may have.

With his woeful offensive output and $7.5M cap hit, Dany Heatley just may be the next Wild player needing to learn how to make popcorn in the Al Shaver press box at Xcel Energy Center. The only bright spot (if it is that) is that his contract expires at the end of this 2013-2014 season, which may make 'Heater' attractive to a team on the rebuild.

Like, maybe the Buffalo Sabres, or Dallas Stars, or any team not based in Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division, or San Jose Sharks (but keep Marty Havlat, will you? Thanks.)

Heatley is a boat anchor on the Wild speedboat, a slow, plodding forward who's best days are well in the rear view mirror, who's attributes are marred by his lack of compete level, inability to find open space, and just flat out bad timing when in the offensive zone.

Saturday night, he was the third best defenseman the Florida Panthers (another team needing a rebuild) had, blocking two shots (one a near-sure-goal) from Mikael Granlund in the third period of the Wild's 2-1 shootout loss to the lowly Panthers, who are still looking up at nearly everyone else in the Eastern Conference.

Heatley has become more of a liability every time he steps onto the ice. A former 50-goal scorer, gifted with great hands, he hasn't used them like he has wanted to in the last two seasons. He should have received a compliance buyout last summer, but since he was injured in an end-of-game scrum in San Jose last April, Heatley ended the season on injured reserve, and according to the terms of the new CBA, compliance buyouts could not be tendered to players on IR.

And now, the Wild are paying for that injury. And how. Talk about paying it forward; the fact that Heatley is not having success to justify that massive contract is hamstringing the Wild, whose anemic offense has only scored 5 goals in the last four games, going 1-2-1 on a four-game Eastern road trip which, based on the current overall talent level of the Wild, they should have gone no worse than 3-1.

So what to do? Heatley has become the single largest liability the Wild have. And one of the toughest to deal with, as his massive contract precludes any type of a major deal. The NHL would immediately throw up red flags at any type of a 'salary dump' deal. The other team in any Heatley trade would as quickly incur the wrath of their own fans, as this albatross of a forward plays the schedule out at half-speed. Or slower.

For all those Ottawa fans who have booed Heatley over the years (he wanted out of Ottawa, and got his wish) for not being a Senator, and the San Jose fans (when they aren't beating each other up) who also boo Heatley when he returns to NorCal, the Wild would probably say 'If you want him, you can HAVE him. Cheap.'

Peyton Place, meet 317 Washington St., St. Paul. As that's what Dany Heatley has made his hockey life in Wild country.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

What Hath Wild Wrought: After one week...

After one week,of the regular season, we know this about the 2013-2014 Wild:

1. They start slow. The Wild definitely need to pick up the pace, before the opponent does. Both LA and Anaheim found that by getting the first goal (or, goals), they could put the Wild behind the proverbial '8-ball' for the rest of the evening. The first ten minutes of the game are as important as the last 10 minutes of the game. Wish some on the roster would remember this.

2. Haven't we seen this before? Two seasons ago, the Wild started the season with a great power play offense, scoring nearly at will when given the man advantage. Of course, the flip side of the coin that season turned out to be a dearth of goals on the power play later in that season. The Wild have scored power play goals in both games played so far (two vs. Anaheim, one vs. LA). They have shown they can score at 5-on-4; now, can they score more at even strength, 5-on-5?

3. OT/Shootout: new season, same old problems. As we have all witnessed the last three days, the same old bugaboos for the Wild that have plagued them since the departure of Jacques Lemaire have reared their ugly heads once again; namely, the inability of this team to figure out how to win in extra time. Thursday, the fact that the game went to a shootout played right into the hands of the LA Kings, as the entire NHL knows that Niklas Backstrom is the NHL's worst goalie in extra time. On Saturday night, the Ducks' Mathieu Perrault made Backstrom look like a midget goalie, floating a backhander thru Backstrom's five-hole as time ran out. Now, maybe that was a blessing in disguise, as now maybe Josh Harding will start in Nashville on Tuesday night, as the Wild play the new divisional rival Preds for the first time under the new divisional format. And speaking of which...

4. You really don't have time to straighten it out. Six of your next 11 games (including the next 3 in a row) are against divisional opponents. If the Wild continue to falter as they have, they definitely will be on the outside, looking in towards those teams they let slip away from them in October as the season progresses. You can work as hard as hell in practice, but it's in the games where you need to improve. You need to start winning. In regulation time.

Yes, I realize that this is a long season, and that it's only 2 games in. But, with the compressed schedule due to the Sochi Olympics, you really don't have the time to stop and rework what is, in order to reclaim points lost due to inattentiveness, and a goaltender who is a world-beater for 60 minutes, then becomes Egg Beaters for the extra 5. I know that this goes against the grain for goalies; 'You're shattering their confidence', and so on, but at some point, you have to try something different, if the rest of your team cannot get the job done in regulation time. The inattentiveness? You need Sigmund Freud himself to explain why the last 10 seconds of OT becomes a tropical vacation for some guys. And, as for the goaltending in OT/SO?

Put in the other guy when OT starts. For the good of all your goalies. Don't let the team waste 60 minutes (or somewhat less) of effort, by staying with a goalie that can't stop a beach ball in extra time.

Fix what you can. Now. Before the snowball starts downhill and you can't stop it. For another last week of the season looms larger every day as this season unfolds.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

It's that time of year...again

NHL training camps open this week. What to expect from the Minnesota Wild in the next three weeks?

A few things:

1. Very spirited competition, the likes of which head coach Mike Yeo never had last season. Yeo, not unlike most NHL head coaches, hated last season's 48-game 'shotgun start' regular season. The fact is that the Wild never had a real opportunity, after the lockout was settled to sort out all the talent on the roster to see who was NHL ready, and who wasn't.

2. The end of an era for some players? Marco Scandella, Tyler Cuma, and a few others on the first wave of the 'bandwagon of youth' need to figure their games out. And quickly. Because, there's others coming up thru the system to push these 'older' players aside. Scandella especially, as he already has had two cracks at the big time, and hasn't made the most of those chances. Time to either step up or pack up, Marco.

3. Will the new talent help finally take the Wild to the next level? The first full season of Jason Pominville. Minnesotan Keith Ballard quietly trying to rebuild his career after having been signed as a UFA after a stint with the Sedins in Vancouver. And then, there's the man you really love to hate, Matt Cooke. (I still can't believe he is a member of the Minnesota Wild.)

4. Will the real Mikael Granlund please finally step up? The most-hyped Euro in five seasons didn't live up to the lofty expectations that Minnesota fans put upon his young shoulders last season. Hopefully, the grind which was a season in the AHL last year will put some of the hunger back, into a young man who's been spoon-fed a bit much in the last three years.

And, speaking of the farm club...

5. Will the Wild take full advantage of having their farm team less than 250 miles away from St. Paul? By the Alexanders not renegotiating a proper lease in Houston, the Aeros have moved to the Wells Fargo Center in Des Moines, Iowa for 2013-14. Renamed the 'Iowa Wild', the club is only a 3-hour drive from the 'X', which is both good and bad. Good for the 'big club' as they have ready access for help, when they are at home. Bad for that Des Moines is not a hub for any major airline, unlike Houston's Bush Intercontinental. Getting players up to the Minnesota Wild roster when the parent club is on a long road trip will be a real challenge; all moves will have to be made either via MSP (on Delta) or Chicago (American, United).

The logistics of call-ups and send-downs are somewhat daunting, especially when you consider that the final destination is, indeed, Des Moines. Not exactly a hot spot for anything, unlike the hustle and bustle of Houston, the largest city in the US without a pro hockey franchise on any level. Should make for interesting conversations in the Des Moines Register between Iowa Hawkeye and ISU Cyclones seasons.

So what happens next? We'll all find out together, starting on Thursday. So hang on for the ride.

Monday, September 2, 2013

New road sweaters: Upon further review

After Sunday's 'reveal' (which really wasn't, thanks to a late Saturday 'leak') of the Minnesota Wild's new road white sweaters -- the last ties to the early, expansionist days of the 14-year-old franchise -- a few thoughts come immediately to mind:

1. They retained the large 'head' logo for the chest, instead of going to the 'circular logo' emblem which is the centerpiece of the red home sweaters. That logo is also retained as a shoulder patch on both shoulders, leaving a perfect place for the patch for, say, the 2015 NHL Winter Classic. The 2/3rds-sized head logo, which was on the chest on newer, Reebok versions of the now-retired old style white jerseys, is officially retired to the 'patchwork' of history.

2. The red numbering is also retained, albeit in a somewhat boring, standard font, with the green, wider bordering reminding one of mid-2000's Carolina Hurricanes sweaters (only the 'Canes were in black trim, not the Wild's 'Forest Green').

3. The neck, with the 'Minnesota' on the inside, has a green lace to offset the ocean of white on the front of the sweater.

4. The striping at the bottom of the road sweater mirrors that of the green 'third' sweaters as to style and width. The only difference is, of course, the offsetting color (green) against the base white.

Overall, if the Wild needed a new look (and they did) in order to show further improvement, this was probably the best compromise that they could come up with, between the 'traditionalists' and the 'modernists', while staying with the Reebok GIII-template, which all NHL teams must adhere to.

It will take time for the new design to 'grow' on Wild fans. It took time for the others to do that, also. The fact is that the look was getting somewhat dated (mid-late '90's) and that fact, combined with the need to keep the cash registers going, combined to drive the new design.

Overall: B+.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

PRED-atory pricing in Music City

Nashville Predators, taking advantage of Chicago Blackhawks' popularity, forces Hawks fans to buy tickets to games they'll never see

Chicago Blackhawks fans will feel a little bit like fans of da Bears in Nashville this season. As in, ripped off to see their team on the road.

The Nashville Predators have instituted a 'pairing' system for games against the Blackhawks this coming season, in order to sell a few more tickets to games OTHER than against Chicago, whose easy access for Hawks' fans, who cannot afford the sky-high prices for Blackhawks games at the United Center, makes road tripping to Music City USA an irresistable target.

The Predators anounced that they were pairing the Hawks' games with games against less-popular teams of their choosing (read: Edmonton, Calgary and Colorado, teams which traditionally don't draw flies in Nashville). Now, if you don't want to go to that paired game, there are Preds-approved ways to get rid of those unwanted tickets (and take a financial bath in the process, IMO).

You can give them to charity (supposedly, you receive something you can take to your tax advisor), put them on the Preds' Ticket Exchange (so the Preds can re-sell them and make the profit, not you) or you can give them away to a Preds-approved military group of your choice.

That is, if you can even GET tickets.

See, the Preds are going to a staggered system to sell single-game tickets online; should your ZIP code (which they will ask for) not start with 36, 37 or 38 (the three assigned to Tennessee), you will be SOL for nearly a week after they go on sale in Nashville, at Bridgestone Arena.

Mind you, the Preds are not alone in their pricing scheme for Blackhawks fans. NFL teams do this as a normal course of their business (the Vikings do this to Green Bay and Chicago annually; but unlike the NFL, where each divisional team plays each other once a season home and away, the Hawks and Preds play each other 5 times this season alone.)

But for a team like Nashville to do this? Yeah, I suppose I can understand that you try to spread out the 'pain' of having thousands of Chicago fans in your arena, but they will come regardless: ask Winnipeg Jets fans, who have made the band-box-sized MTS Centre the toughest ticket in the NHL to get into. There were still thousands of Habs, Leafs, and Rangers fans in the stands when they showed up in the 'Peg. There will be thousands of Hawks fans in Winnipeg this November, too, when the Hawks finally play their first-ever regular-season game in Manitoba.

And, don't tell that to the unabashed kings of NHL road tripping, the Detroit Red Wings, whose sheer numbers of fans seeing them on the road confirm that there is no one left in Detroit to see them play in the regular season. (OK, I kid.) But the fact is that most teams put the Red Wings in their 'Premium' category for tickets (i.e., jack the prices up), due to the Wings' proven ability to draw away from Joe Louis Arena.

So, here's hoping all those 'paired' tickets get used. By fans of THOSE other teams. Because, Nashville Predators, you've done nothing but bring it on yourselves.

Friday, July 19, 2013

First thoughts on the 2013-14 schedule

After sifting thru the 2013-14 Minnesota Wild schedule, just released today, one thing is clear:

This upcoming season ain't gonna be easy, Wild fans.

Four four-game homestands (Two of those with the four games within seven calendar days).
Playing every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday between Dec. 29 and the 16-day Olympic break (Feb. 6). Four games per week on three of the last 5 weeks of the regular season. Twenty Thursday games (10 home, 10 away). Fifteen Tuesday games (8 home, 7 away). Eighteen Saturday games (8 home, 10 away. Five different starting times (1:00, vs. Detroit, March 22), 5:00 (3, including St. Louis on New Year's Eve), 6:30 (twice, both Wednesdays for TSN), 8:00 (once, 'Hockey Day Minnesota' vs. Dallas, Jan. 18) and the other 35 games are (for now, we'll see what TV wants) at 7:00 PM.

And, to top it all off, the last five games of the season: Pittsburgh at the 'X', at Winnipeg, then three more home games (vs. Boston, St. Louis, and Nashville on the season's last day).

The Wild's press release says the Wild travel over 44,000 miles this season, which is actually less than they have previously, as Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary are no longer divisional rivals.

More on this later in my next post; I still need to get my head around this schedule after last season's 48-game scramble. But for now, let's suffice it to say that the NHL schedule makers still don't have a soft spot in their hearts, for our locally-based sextet.

More later...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

It's amazing what one man can do...

Minnesota Wild start 2013 free agency season with a trade and a big Bang

This is almost geeting too eerie, isn't it, folks? Fourth of July weekend, everyone's out celebrating and then...

BOOM! Once again, here comes GM Chuck Fletcher and the Wild, marching across the local media landscape like Sherman thru Georgia, with another 'I can't believe he did THAT'-type of free agency blockbuster.

Well, the master of July hockey fireworks did it again last week, as the Wild, after trading away restricted free agent Cal Clutterbuck to the Islanders for Nino Niederreiter, cleared out veterans Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, both of whose contracts were expiring, and, via trade with Winnipeg, Devin Setoguchi, then picked up ex-Vancouver Canuck (and Florida Panther) Keith Ballard, and then, shortly after 6:00 PM Friday night, Fletcher turns around and drops 'the Big one' on Wild fans, by signing the NHL's Public Enemy No. 1, uber-pest forward Matt Cooke, who was an unrestricted free agent after not being re-signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

What to make of all this movement? Of all this upheaval and change? Of the NHL's all-time cheap-shot king, making Minnesota his in-season home for the next three seasons, at $2.5M per?

The jury has just only begun to deliberate. Not all the facts are in, either.

We just don't know which Matt Cooke will actually show up at the 'X' in September: the one who, supposedly 'reformed', played as a servicable winger on the Penguins' 3rd line for five seasons; or the 'love-to-hate' player, who was along with Jarkko Ruutu (now with Ottawa). Cooke and Ruutu were, at least in their Vancouver years, two of the most despised players in hockey, along with Todd 'Big Bert' Bertuzzi.

Both Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo had Cooke in Pittsburgh during their pre-Wild tenures, and they both swear up and down that Cooke has reformed his game, that he's not all about the cheap hits and the after-the-whistle stickwork anymore. But, for players and fans alike, old habits are hard to break. And there's the images, such as from 2003, when Matt Johnson took a stick butt-end to the groin from Cooke, and then, Cooke ran, precipitating a fight which spilled over into the stands at then-GM Place (now Rogers Centre).

And, there may be even rumblings that the fun hasn't ended yet, as supposedly Zenon Konopka is being shopped around by the Wild before the pre-season has even started.

So what to think?

Just My Opinion, folks, but... Let's actually see what Cooke does bring to the table in the fall. The cheap stuff aside, the guy does hit, does go into the corners and can score. The Wild need every scorer they can get, and if he happens to play the third line, all the better to spread the goals around. If he can keep his nose clean, and stay out of the post-whistle scrums, he can be a reasonable alternative on a 3rd or 4th line.

According to Russo's depth chart on his 'Russo's Rants' blog, Cooke will play one side with Niederreiter on the other side, and Kyle Brodziak at center. This could be a pretty good third line, with the 6'2" Niederreiter, who has shown he can score at every level of hockey except the NHL, learning defensive skills from the likes of Cooke and Brodziak, both of whom are considered defensive specialists; Brodziak has the big winger on his one side he has never really had on his third line; and Cooke, the hitter, gets to ply his trade with two guys that will probably be there all season, unlike in Pittsburgh, when his linemates routinely stepped up to play alongside both Crosby and Malkin at times last season.

There's a lot to think about, as the Wild plods on thru the rest of the summer, looking for the right combination to take this team towards where we all want them to go. The fans want a winning team, Can the Wild hierarchy say that they have all the tools necessary to get them far in the playoffs on a consistent, year-after-year basis?

Only time will tell for sure.

Monday, June 10, 2013

'Six-Pack of Suck': The Light edition

Honestly. We couldn't do this even though we are still disappointed that the Minnesota Wild didn't do more against the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. But, since everyone else is putting the season away, I thought I might as well do the same.

But, we also have to be somewhat fair. The Wild only played 48 regular-season (and 5 post-season) games. About 60% of the regular season schedule. So, with less of a pool of games to choose from, there are less games to really say 'God, they sucked that night.' And so, with all that as a backdrop, here is the 'light' edition of the Six-Pack of Suck, or three games the Wild really wished later they had won:

1. February 14, 2013. Colorado 4, Minnesota 3 (SO). In front of a raucous, Valentine's Day crowd of 18,822 at Xcel Energy Center, the Avs came back right after Mikko Koivu put the Wild ahead with just eight minutes remaining in regulation. On the next shift, Colorado's Matt Duchene tied it up as the Wild once again tried to lay back and cruise to a win. Not so, as the Avs went 2-for-2 against Niklas Backstrom to win it in the extra session. The Wild would go on to win 4 of the next 5, but really, Valentine's Day would have been that much better with a 'W' by the home squad.

2. April 21, 2013. Calgary 4, Minnesota 1. The last week of the regular season started with this God-awful showing by the Wild, who managed to bumble and stumble their way to losing at home to a Calgary team, which was 2/3rds Flames and 1/3rd Abbotsford Heat players, pushing the Wild's April loss streak at home to a sickening 5 straight games.

The Wild just couldn't get the deal done, as they threw away their chance to clinch a playoff spot (and also play either St. Louis or San Jose in the first round, as opposed to Anaheim or Chicago) with this lack of finish in this game.

Despite outshooting the Flames 35-24 for the game as a whole, the Flames outshot the Wild 12-10 in the crucial 3rd period, as the Flames scored twice against Backstrom in the last 7:20 (one an empty net goal) as the Wild slunk away into the night.

The Wild ended the night three points ahead of the ninth-place Dallas Stars, a team which gutted its' roster three weeks earler at the trade deadline, as their April record waned to a wretched 3-7-1.

3. April 26, 2013. Edmonton 6, Minnesota 1. 'Fan Appreciation Night' at the 'X' turned into 'Fan Apprehension Night', after only 27 seconds in this one, where by that time, there was a Zenon Konopka fight, an Edmonton goal, and a Wild team in really desperate straits.

And it would only go downhill from there. I was so 'appreciated' by the half-way mark of this game, I walked out and did not see either of Nail Yakupov's two goals (on consecutive shifts, by the way). I wasn't alone, as the place was half-empty by the time Koivu scored in the 3rd, to break up Nikolai Khabibulin's shutout.

The only thing I could 'appreciate' about this game is that I could go to bed on time, as I was home well before the final horn sounded to end this turkey of a contest. The Oilers were going nowhere, and if not for the Wild's game the next day at Colorado, neither were the Wild going anywhere.

Jeff Rimer, the play-by-play man for the Columbus Blue Jackets, surmised that the Jackets would have been a better opponent for the Blackhawks than were the Wild. We can argue that forever, but I don't think that anyone could have stopped the Blackhawks in the first round, save for the Hawks themselves.

Bring on the post-season, folks. Time to remodel the roster.

Monday, May 13, 2013

It's over. Now what?

Taking a look into that Wild-colored crystal ball into the future

Well, folks, we've had time to decompress from the 5-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks. The fact is, that the Wild did themselves in with the April swoon, as they went a hapless 1-5-1 at home in the final month of this shortened NHL season.

It's not enough that they had to essentially 'back in' to the playoffs, having to win on the final day of the regular season in Denver to qualify for the playoffs; it's that the two teams that finished ahead of them both moved on to the second round, eliminating NW Division champion Vancouver (by San Jose, 4-and-out) and Pacific Division champion Anaheim (by Detroit, in 7 games).

It's not enough that the Wild get pretty much handled, by the President's Trophy champion Blackhawks, pulling out a win in OT (thank you, Jason Zucker) in what otherwise would have been a very depressing series. Top 2 goalies injured, down to the No. 3 goalie (Darcy Kuemper) and you're facing the one team, that can roll four great lines at you all night.

No. That's not enough. You get to sit home and watch, as the two teams that you should have been ahead of both win, and go onto the next round of the Playoffs.

Meanwhile, back in St. Paul, bags are packed up and good-byes said for the summer (or, in a few cases, permanently). Who knows what the Wild roster will look like in September, when the NHL 2013-14 season begins? There will need to be about $6 million pared off the current roster, between now and July 5 (the start of NHL free agency)?  Who goes, and who stays?

There may be a lot of roster changes netween now and July, as the Wild may use one (or both) of their 2013-agreed 'compliance buyouts' to get under the new, reduced salary cap. With a $64 million cap in 2013-14, the Wild will be hard-pressed to redistribute the wealth, in order to further improve the club while staying within the guidelines agreed to after the 2012-13 lockout.

So, do we dare look into the crystal ball and see what may happen ahead? Or, do we just wait, and wait, and wait some more, until the NHL draft (June 30-July 1, at Newark) happens, and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher maybe pulls another rabbit out of his hat?

The crystal ball looks awfully cloudy these days. Best just to wait and see.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

This 'n' That

I haven't done 'This 'n' That' in a while. While waiting for Game 4 to start, here's a few thoughts:

1. The next fellow Wild fan to attempt the Dustin Brown-on-Jason Pominville 'Chicken Wing' on me in the Hockey Lodge, might just wind up thru the display case at the entrance.

2. If you come to a playoff game, please warn your kids that mild swearing at the opposition and the officials is not only acceptable, but encouraged. If you go overboard with the 'F' bombs, however, the ejection cause is still in play.

3. For all you Chicago fans; sorry, but you CAN walk back to your hotel here. This isn't 1801 W. Madison, Chicago. But enjoy our hospitality while you're here. Minnesota needs your tax dollars.

4. Know what you want to eat BEFORE you get to the pay end of the concession lines, folks. Always helps.

5. Remember, there is no such thing as a shootout in the playoffs. You play until there's a winner.

6. Enjoy hockey in May, folks. This is almost as good as it gets.

Go Wild!


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Too close for comfort...and a prediction

With regular season behind them, Wild, Blackhawks get set to face each other in Round One of 2013 NHL Playoffs

By Wild Road Tripper

That was close. Too close.

The Minnesota Wild, who almost backed all the way out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, did manage to right the ship of state in time to save their season Saturday night at Pepsi Center, defeating the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As thousands of fans watched in angst at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets thought that their 3-1 win, over the Nashville Predators, would just be enough to qualify for their second playoff run in the franchise's history, the Wild managed to just squeak in as the No. 8 seed in the NHL's Western Conference.

The Wild will begin their best-of-7 series with the Chicago Blackhawks on either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the whims of the NBC Sports Network, who controls what games are placed in what order by the League contractually. NBCSN -- which used to be known as Versus -- would like to keep the League's stars (Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, the Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings) on their network as much as possible.

And, there is the question in the Eastern Conference of who will play whom, as there is one game to be played today -- the postponed Ottawa at Boston game, which was originally scheduled for April 15th, the date of the Boston Marathon bomb attacks. This game needs to be played, in order to determine playoff positioning for 3 of the 4 Eastern Conference series.

Until that game is played, none of the dates/times for any of the series will probably be announced, so it will be anywhere up to mid-late evening before the times might be known.

As the two teams prepare to enter the playoffs -- the pressure-filled, hyper-intense world of hockey beyond the end of the regular season -- the fact of the matter is clear: The Wild are the second-biggest underdog in the NHL playoffs. Only the New York Islanders -- who will end up facing the Pittsburgh Penguins, should Ottawa lose in OT or the shootout tonight in Boston -- would probably be a larger underdog.

Regardless of when the Wild-Blackhawks series starts, the best thing for the Wild to do is simplify your game. No more Clayton Stoner cross-ice passes to be intercepted by Marian Hossa. No Justin Falk missed checks leading to Patrick Kane odd-man rushes on goal. No more Tom Gilbert passes to the empty quarter of the offensive zone, only to be intercepted and shot down the ice, killing yet another chance. Don't expect Pierre-Marc Bouchard to Spin-o-Rama his way to a Stanley Cup. Or much from Zenon Konopka, Mike Rupp, or Torrey Mitchell, but for Mitchell, for the fact he has to play on the same line (Wild's 4th) with the other two.

Chicago's strength is that their four lines are better than yours, matched up line-for-line (1st vs. 1st, 2nd vs. 2nd, 3rd vs. 3rd, and 4th vs. 4th). Their defense is better than yours (especially the bottom three), and their goaltending has improved dramatically, as opposed to Wild workhorse Niklas Backstrom, who has played in 82% of the Wild's season.

The Wild will make this an interesting series, and may just sneak a win out of the United Center. Maybe. But then, under the pressure of the home crowd, with 20,000 people at Xcel Energy Center (they will try for this number of tickets sold, for each game in this series) screaming 'SHOOT' every time the power play stalls and become a pass-fest, the Wild will eventually wilt under the relentless attack of the Blackhawks. What the Hawks are, is what the Wild wants to achieve. They just aren't there...yet. But, they're getting there. At least the Wild are, finally, on their way.

PREDICTION: Hawks in 6.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How 'bout a little help for the Wild?

If the Minnesota Wild could scream something at the rest of the NHL this Sunday morning, it very well could be saying:

'Thanks for nothing, guys!'

The fact of the matter, however, is that whatever team needed to lose in various games last week in the NHL, didn't. In fact, of the 12 non-Wild games I mentioned last week on this blog, only 4 of the 12 turned out the way that the Wild could eventually take advantage of, and 3 of those 4 were that the game didn't go to overtime or shootout. The only game that didn't go OT/Shootout that turned out the way the Wild would like was Calgary's 3-2 win at home Wednesday against faltering Detroit.

So, having said all that, we turn to the final seven days of the Western Conference race, where the race will finally and mercifully (for some teams, at least) end. The last four games of the season will feature three teams who are out of the race (Calgary, Edmonton, and Colorado) and one team -- Tuesday's home game vs. the LA Kings -- who has already clinched a playoff spot.

Update: 11:30 AM Sunday: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, of the Edmonton Oilers, is reportedly having shoulder surgery in Cleveland this coming week, ending RNH's season.

Do you think the Wild have a better chance this week? Let's find out...

Sunday, April 21: Wild at home, must beat Calgary
                              Colorado must beat St. Louis
                              Dallas at LA Kings cannot go OT/SO
                              Columbus at San Jose cannot go OT/SO

Monday, April 22: Chicago must win at Vancouver
                               Phoenix at Detroit cannot go OT/SO

Tuesday, April 23: Wild at home, must beat LA Kings
                               Phoenix must win at St. Louis
                               Dallas at San Jose cannot go OT/SO

Wednesday, Apr. 24: Detroit must beat LA Kings
                                   San Jose at Phoenix cannot go OT/SO

Thursday, Apr. 25:  Nashville must win at Detroit
                                Calgary must win at St. Louis
                                Columbus at Dallas cannot go OT/SO
                                Anaheim must beat Vancouver

Friday, April 26: Wild at home, must beat Edmonton
Saturday, April 27: Wild must win at Colorado
                                Chicago must win at St. Louis
                                Edmonton must beat Vancouver
                                All other Western Conference games must not go OT/SO

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wild playoff qualification plan: Win..and get help

Reeling Minnesota Wild need to turn it around, help from others to make playoffs

Good Morning, Wild Nation.

Your team sucks as bad as the weather outside (at least in the Twin Cities, anyways.) A three-game homestand, which should have yielded at least four points (read the last post, folks), came within 3:15 of not producing any points at all. Without Jason Pominville's late third-period, power play rebound goal, the Wild would currently be 0-fer April at home.

As it is, with two weeks, and seven games left in their season, the Wild need help -- big-time, somebody-else-has-to-beat-your-rival, high-school-grade help --in order to even make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not only do the Wild have to sweep the last seven games, but they need the following to happen, just this coming week:

Today: Chicago needs to win at St. Louis (on NBC)
            Nashville needs to beat Detroit

Monday: Wild needs to win at Calgary
                Chicago needs to beat Dallas
                San Jose needs to win at Phoenix
Tuesday: Wild needs to win at Edmonton
                Vancouver at St. Louis cannot go to Overtime/Shootout

Wednesday: Calgary needs to beat Detroit
                     Anaheim needs to beat Columbus

Thursday: Wild needs to win at San Jose
                 Phoenix needs to win at St. Louis
                 Vancouver at Dallas cannot go to OT/SO
                 Columbus at LA Kings cannot go to OT/SO

Friday: Dallas at St. Louis cannot go to OT/SO

Saturday: Chicago needs to beat Phoenix
                Detroit at Vancouver cannot go to OT/SO

Sunday April 21: Wild, at home, needs to beat Calgary (again)
                             Dallas at LA Kings cannot go to OT/SO
                             Columbus at San Jose cannot go to OT/SO
                             Colorado needs to beat St. Louis

So, dear reader, you can see the kind of crater that the Wild have dug for themselves. The biggest thing, however, is that the Wild must sweep the week. It's that simple. Keep your eyes on the prize, and the rest should take care of itself.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wild goal: Eight out of five?

Are fans asking for too much from the Minnesota Wild? Or are expectations changing as team changes?

Eight points in five games. Is that too much to ask?

The end is near. Or so the guy with the hand-made sign on the street says. So, I ask you, dear blog reader: is eight points for the Wild in the next five games (basically, a 4-1 record) too much to ask from the boys in Iron Range Red (or Forest Green, vs. Chicago)?

With 11 games (including Sunday's 5 PM tilt in Columbus) remaining in the shortened, compressed NHL season, the fact that the Wild are in position to even make the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a testament to the determination of this team to make it work, despite the NHL's worst travel schedule and nine back-to-backs. The Wild head into Columbus and the first home game for ex-Wild cherry picker Marian Gaborik in his new home with the suddenly successful Blue Jackets, who have not lost in Nationwide Arena in nearly two months (Feb. 10, in fact, vs. Edmonton). The Jackets start their last meaningful home stand today; when they meet again this coming Saturday in St. Paul, the Jackets will have embarked on a six-game, 13-day forced march thru Minnesota, Colorado and the Pacific Division, meeting every team except Phoenix away from Ohio. So every point they get at home will be as critical for them as the points are for the visiting Wild.

As of today, the Wild have 7 games with 4 of the bottom 6 teams in the NHL's Western Conference, including home and away games with lowly Calgary, somewhat-fading Edmonton and the Blue Jackets, and one game (the final regular-season game) at Colorado. Fortunately, the Anaheim Ducks, the Wild's chief pain in the collective side, are not on the schedule the rest of the regular season. Single games remain at home vs. Chicago, St. Louis, and LA; the Wild are still scheduled for one more visit, to the house of horrors known as the HP Pavilion-San Jose, to face the Sharks.

Are fans expectations changing as the team changes and gets better?

I, for one, do expect more as the team gets better. Yes, I know, I should learn to 'manage expectations' better, but as this team adds talent to the roster, the expectations should, conceivably, rise to the occasion of the talent level. I grow tired of the 'maybe we'll make the playoffs, and maybe we won't' expectation, season after season. The fact is that this team is in a good state right now; the team's upper management, and ownership, has proven to the players (and fans) that they will do what they can in order to win.

Now it's up to the players -- the guys who are actually 'in the room' -- to get the job done. Show the fans that you are as committed to winning as those you answer to are. Yes, the fans have every right to still be a little bit skeptical as to whether or not you will even MAKE the playoffs, much less go far in them. But that's what fans are. After four seasons of not making the playoffs at all, a little skepticism goes a long, long way. And after the spectacular crash-and-burn which occured about this point last season, just holding on for dear life isn't going to help you at all, Minnesota Wild.

So, to go back to my original point; is eight points in the next five games too much to ask? Let's take a look ahead:

Game 1 -- today, 5 PM CDT, at Columbus -- Wild either win close or lose in OT/SO. Too close to call. But, since the point is to manage expectations; we'll manage them to a Wild win, as Nate Prosser is relieving Tom Gilbert on the blue line today. When Nate plays, the Wild win. Simple as that. Two points for the visiting Wild.

Game 2 -- Tuesday, 7 PM CDT, vs. Chicago -- nationally-televised game in which the Wild should do well in. (Hopefully better than last month's disaster in the United Center, where the Wild basically laid an egg, losing 5-3.) Chicago already assured home-ice in 1st round with that 24-game unbeaten-in-regulation streak. Wild win. (2 Points.)

Game 3 -- Thursday, 7 PM CDT, vs. St. Louis -- Blues will be on 3rd game of 4-game roadie (at Detroit, Nashville, Minnesota, Columbus). This is the game that scares me. Which Blues team will show up Thursday night? The one that lost 4 of 5 prior to the last game last week at the X? Or the one from earlier on this season, which won 6 of their first 7? With Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold both now on the Blues' blue line, this could be a trap game. This is the one I think Wild lose. (Hope I'm wrong, but...)

Game 4 -- Saturday, 7 PM CDT vs. Columbus -- Marian Gaborik's revenge night. Unlike when AJ Pierzinski and Kevin Garnett left Minnesota, folks, Gaborik brought nothing back when he signed as an UFA with the Rangers in 2009. It's OK to boo lustily whenever he touches the puck (which, we hope, won't be often.) Wild win this one. (2 Points).

Game 5 -- Monday, April 15, 8:00 PM CDT, at Calgary -- the Flames have basically thrown in the towel. GM Jay Feaster sold off Jarome Iginla, Bouwmeester, and almost sold off Curtis Glencross, have been told Mikka Kiprusoff is not returning after this season, and the rebuilding has, indeed, started in Calgary. Wild should win this game, too. (2 points).

That's my thoughts. Let's play the games and see how it all shakes out. Remember to manage your expectations, also. Doug Risebrough would expect nothing less.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Three months down, one to go

Minnesota Wild playoff drive approaches last month, critical mass with California trip looming

March has been a fun month, if you've been cheering on the Minnesota Wild. With an 11-4 month of March (equalling a team record), the Wild enter April a mere 11 points from the supposed 'promised land' of 55 points, the level at which most pundits think will be enough to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With a game in hand versus Vancouver, the Wild enter April on Monday facing a difficult challenge, as 3 of their first 4 April contests are away from St. Paul, while Vancouver has 3 of their first 4 at home prior to their potentially killer, 5-game road trip starting April 10th.

The Wild's upcoming California road trip will be yet another 'acid test' of how the Wild have changed this season, with games in San Jose and LA before jetting east across the country to an appearance next Sunday in Columbus, against the improved (and still on the cusp of the playoffs) Blue Jackets.

LA is somewhat kinder to the Wild, where the Wild actually have an all-time winning record (10-8-4) vs. a less-that-scintillating 8-12-2 record in San Jose.

The fact is the West Coast trips for the Wild are long, sapping killer trips that expend considerable energy out of visiting teams, as the home teams are used to the California lifestyle and the 2-3 hour time difference. And, usually the Wild are rapping these games around those in Anaheim, where the Wild are nearly a .500 hockey team (10-11-1). But not this trip. This trip, the Ducks will have their hands full, playing three straight games against Dallas, the last three ever as divisional rivals, prior to their April 7 game at home vs. the Kings.

You can see how the NHL schedule intertwines the contenders and the pretenders as the compressed schedule goes down to the last 14 (or so) games. Every team in the West playoff race has at least one killer road trip left; how they deal with the adversity, away from home, will be the key to playoff qualifying, Or not qualifying.

So make sure your NHL Center Ice subscription is paid up. Get ready for some late night hockey. And remember to get your sleep. For this coming week, Wild faithful, you'll need it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Keep On, Keepin' On

Is the five-game winning streak for real? It will get tested this week

Are the Minnesota Wild for real? Are they actually going to make the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs? Or are they going to fold, like they did last season? And who will be there to heckle them, as they do?

Well, we hate to break it to you, folks, but this team is for real.  With five straight wins, including wins at two of the NHL's toughest venues, Vancouver's Rogers Arena (ex-Canada Hockey Place, nee-General Motors Place) and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the Wild seem to be wanting to be that team that breaks away from the nine-team pack in the Western Conference, and join the likes of the Conference's two front-runners, Chicago and Anaheim, not only to make the playoffs, but to secure home ice advantage in the first round, something the Wild have not experienced since their Northwest Division championship season of 2007-08, the only earned banner that hangs in the rafters of Xcel Energy Center.

This Wild team, the most talent-laden club in the history of the franchise, has finally started to play like the talent they actually have. The kids that were brought in by GM Chuck Fletcher (Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker) have turned out to be great additions to a primarily veteran-laden roster, one with enough depth that when one gets injured (as hockey players do over the course of a season), another one can be plugged in and the level of play does not significantly suffer.

And that does really not set well with a lot of NHL people.

The lack of respect that the Wild are getting is borderline appalling. Now, some of that is indeed deserved, as the team hasn't qualified officially for anything...yet. The fact of the matter is that the league's media outlets, mostly tightly controlled by the league's Toronto offices, refuse to accept the fact that a team not based in British Columbia, might actually win the final Northwest Division title.

The League has stated that the Wild will not participate in any special event games (Winter Classic, NHL Premiere in Europe) until -- and unless -- they start making the playoffs. The Wild are particularly adept at getting pushed down the line in League-operated media, such as the 'NHL Tonight' highlight package TV show, on the NHL Network. The fact that they are in the Western Conference in an Eastern Conference-based media doesn't help; no national respect is coming for this Wild team. But as long as they are in the same division as perennially-whiny Vancouver, whose fan base -- like the team itself -- cries after every game, win OR lose, the Wild will always be treated like the country cousin who never gets any respect, even after they have re-invented the wheel.

The Wild now heading into a particularly dicey stretch of the season, with 6 of the next 7 games (and 7 of the 8, including yesterday's game vs. San Jose) against teams in the Pacific Division, a division which currently is Anaheim, and then, everyone else. Six points separate second-place LA from last-place Phoenix; the current trend for the division (excluding Anaheim) is 2-6. The old adage of  'it's not who you play, it's when you play them' may just work in the Wild's favor here. The fact of the schedule being what it is, with two games vs. the Dallas Stars with the lone visit to Minnesota by the Phoenix Coyotes thrown in the middle, is not fun, but the alternative -- a two-game 'mini-series' in the Metroplex vs. the Stars -- might just have been that much worse. And, at the back end, the Wild will finally face the LA Kings, for the first time this abbreviated season, at home on Saturday.

The Stars are the '2' in that 2-6 Pacific Division streak trend I mentioned earlier. They have taken a patchwork lineup of players on their last go-rounds (Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, Vernon Fiddler, Stephane Robidas) and have kept themselves relevant in the Conference, despite the presence of Anaheim in the same division. The Stars will not play between Monday's game vs. the Wild, and Friday's rematch at American Airlines Center. The Wild will be hard-pressed to win one, much less both, of the two games. But they can do it, IF they play their game like they have shown they can in the past five games.

Wild fans just keep on hoping, that the joy ride doesn't end for a long, long time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't look now, North America; Wild are in 1st

Yes, it's fleeting, but it's still the truth as shortened schedule passes half-way mark

Sorry, North America, but we really hate to break this news to all of you:

The Minnesota Wild are in third place in the NHL's Western Conference, and lead the Northwest Division this Monday morning. Now, granted, it might not be that way for long, but for now, the Wild have the most wins of any team in the division, and that tie-breaker (with Vancouver) means the Wild are No. 1. For now.

With a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, the Wild have pretty much proven the naysayers wrong, despite the overwhelming feeling about the offseason signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter by the Wild. Yes, it's taken time, and a lot of Wild fan angst, but it looks like the Wild may -- MAY -- have just possibly found themselves in time to salvage the season and possibly break away from a lot of the 9-team middle-of-Conference pack that currently exists in the West. The Wild may also have a hand in the deciding of the Pacific Division as well; they have 10 games remaining against the Pacific, starting with Tuesday night's season-series finale with the current Pacific Division leaders, the Anaheim Ducks.

In fact, Anaheim will be only the second team in the conference the Wild will finish with (Nashville the other) before the Wild go on their next road trip, a 3-game trek to Colorado, Vancouver and Detroit, starting with the game Saturday afternoon in Denver. On the other hand, the Wild have yet to face either of the other two California teams, the San Jose Sharks and the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings. In fact, on the NHL Trade Deadline day (April 3) the Wild will conveinently be in San Jose, so if Wild GM Chuck Fletcher makes a move, any player that can be moved can be easily dispatched to whatever point on the NHL compass the trade winds take them.

But, between now and then, there's 11 games (6 home, 5 road) to be played, another nearly 1/4 of the season. So there's time for players to play themselves into, or out of, the day-to-day lineup. Or, should the so choose, all the way off the roster. But the fact is starting to stare at all 30 NHL teams, that the last chance to dump salary (of potential UFA's to be), or get anything of value for players whose welcome has worn thin (or totally out) is coming upon them like a bad storm across the prairie.

Especially this season, this shortened season, this last season before divisional re-alignment, the Trade Deadline day should, in my honest opinion, yield a few surprises along with a couple of shocker moves; the number of medium-level free agents-to-be almost demands that some blockbuster trades happen.

The Wild need to dump salary. They would like to do so and actually get something in return. The franchise is finally getting out of the Risebrough era, albeit slower than most Wild fans would like them to; this summer should finally close the books on the DR reign of the Wild. Now, some of that will be tough (how do you give up on Niklas Backstrom, for example, the way he has played for most of the season so far?) and some of it will be easy (Pierre-Marc Bouchard), and some others will be tough to swallow for some (if Matt Cullen is moved, as example) but the fact is that the Wild are positioned to get younger, bigger and even more talented than they are now. And most followers agree, that this is already the most talented Wild roster in their history.

So what to do? This team needs to make the playoffs -- THIS season -- in order to show Minnesota hockey fans progress towards the success that this market has for so long craved. Even if the end result this season is a one-series 'one-and-done', even that would be considered progress. Then, and only then, would this season be worth it for Wild fans.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What to think?

Minnesota Wild delve back into division play as team continues to struggle

Make no mistake about it. Saturday night's 2-1 OT win over Nashville, was the hockey equivalent of hitting the relief valve on a pressure cooker.

With the Wild finally winning in February (1-3 since Feb. 1, folks) the Wild now take to the Northwest Division, for their longest stretch of the season (6 of their next 8) against the likes of Vancouver (who handled the Wild easily on Thursday night), uber-speedy Edmonton with all that young talent, an improving Colorado team, and Calgary, whom the Wild will be classified with -- IF they don't get this funk turned around, and start putting biscuits in baskets.

Despite the goal by Devin Setoguchi last game, the fact is that the Wild need scoring for the nights when the likes of Parise, Koivu and Heatley just cannot get the job done. It was nice that Clutterbuck got his 2nd goal of the season, but that's also part of the problem; he only HAS 2 goals this season. Granlund is now finding out that playing in the NHL is markedly different than the SM-Liiga, the league that made him the heartthrob of Helsinki.

The fact that Kyle Brodziak has been so missing in action, that they may want to start putting up posters around the 'X' ("Have you Seen Me?"), hasn't helped his linemates. The fourth line, not expected to score bountiful goals, is almost as good as the second line.

The next seven games -- with three games vs. Calgary, and single games vs. Edmonton, Vancouver, Colorado, and the Detroit Red Wings -- will be a make-or-break point for this roster, as everyone knows that the Wild are about 4 or 5 consecutive losses from being on life support. No team can afford three-game losing streaks, and the Wild just went thru their second one already. One 3-game skid in this short season sets teams into panic mode. Two? Welcome aboard, Wild.

Almost unbelievably, the Wild are still only two points out of a playoff spot, despite the seeming inability to win games, especially away from home, where the Wild are an embarrassing 0-3-1 so far in this season. Now, would this be a 41-game full road schedule, 0-3-1 would be a spot for concern, but not the outright panic which the team management has conceded. But, with a condensed, 24-game road schedule, with 6 of their next 9 (and 8 of the next 12) away from St. Paul, the fact is that this Wild team needs to get better in hostile environments. Especially in the Saddledome (it has improved over the last two seasons), and Rexall Place (it's gotten worse, since all those speedy kids showed up on the Oilers roster).

So, we send the Wild off on their first western Canada trip of the season, buoyed with some hope that the season can hold up until the Wild get back home. And the second western Canada trip. And the second West Coast trip. And...and...and...

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Back to earth...sort of...

February rough start vs. Anaheim believed no reason to panic; Coyle gets his shot at Wild roster

It hasn't been the best of times for the Minnesota Wild lately.

After the Anaheim Ducks did what they normally do to the Wild at Honda Center -- namely, beat them into submission, then turn those mistakes caused by the opposition into goals -- the Wild arrived into Phoenix early Saturday looking at a few days in the Arizona desert, with only practice staring them in the face.

And, according to most observers, including the coaching staff, practice is what they really NEED right now. As the 4-3-1 Wild prepare to face the 3-4-2 Phoenix Coyotes -- soon to be the NHL's version of Nomads, if what is being said around the game is to be believed -- on Monday night at Arena in near-bankrupt Glendale, they have help coming to replace the injured Matt Cullen, who crashed (with help) into the boards on Friday night.

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the real reason they traded Brent Burns in 2011. Charlie Coyle, welcome to Minnesota. Coyle, who lit up the QMJHL in the half-season he was there after he left Boston College, was called up by the Wild on Saturday afternoon following their off-day practice, to replace the injured Cullen in the line-up for Monday night's tilt. Coyle, who has 14 goals, 10 assists for AHL Houston this season, is called a 'power forward' by the Wild, and his 6-foot-2, 222-lb frame has been called the prototypical size for that position.

Coyle was included with Devin Setoguchi in the NHL Draft night trade in 2011, when the draft was at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Traded for defenseman Burns, who has been in-and-out of the Sharks' lineup since then, Coyle is in his first full season as a pro, and has played 44 games for the Aeros this season.

Power forward, you say?

The position of power forward -- the guy who is not afraid to mix it up in front of the net, to create as much havoc as possible, in order to get nice juicy rebounds and deflections -- is somewhat a novel concept for the Wild. But, it hasn't been like it hasn't been tried before.

Andrew Brunette, slow as he was, is probably the best example of a power forward the Wild has ever had on their roster. Guillaume Latendresse was supposed to be that next version of that, but his concussion problems last season, and his contract status did not allow that to succeed. Zach Parise has some of that in him, but the fact is, he's better than that (we've already seen it). Others that you could put in that category are LA's Dustin Brown, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, St. Louis' David Backes, Boston's Milan Lucic, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, and when healthy, Ryan Kesler of Vancouver.

The combination is one that is tough to get, and one that is even tougher to keep up, as the number of players that who have tried to play the position and have failed are many. Teams that have a good power forward are normally teams that go relatively far in the playoffs. And that is where the Wild want to be on the evening of April 27th. Going relatively far. In the playoffs.

Next 5 games: Key Stretch?

Are the next 5 games a key stretch of the season? With three of those five games on the road -- where the Wild only have one point after three games so far -- the next nine days will tell much about the Wild's real chances to not only make the playoffs, but to gain home ice advantage in the first round.

Two games vs. Vancouver (home and away), and games at Phoenix, at Calgary, and the second (of two) games vs. Nashville at the 'X' round out the next five games on the schedule. Do the Wild have a chance to put some points in their column before the season gets too out of hand? Or will the combination of their brutal travel schedule and the shortened season get the better of the roster?

Will Chuck Fletcher have to pull the trigger on a trade, in order to infuse more offense into what has been an underperforming bottom 2/3rds of the roster? Can the roster even respond without a trade being made? And what would be the best trade to make? Do you look towards the future and effectively 'salary dump' UFA's to be before the April 4 trade deadline? Or is 'the future is now' the prevailing view at 317 Washington St., St. Paul, MN? Do you keep the two primary future UFA's (Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard) or do you move them? Does UFA-to-be goalie Niklas Backstrom remain to see the playoffs, should the Wild make it into the post-season? Or do you 'let it ride', like a shaky poker bet, past the trade deadline?

Like the rest of us fans, I just wait and see what will develop. And worry, like some of you do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thoughts on a 4-point weekend

Back-to-Back wins leave Wild fans wondering, 'Could this be for real?'

Two down. And only 46 to go.

As the abbreviated NHL season of 2013 unwinds across North America, three things are becoming apparent:

1. The Vancouver Canucks are in serious trouble. As are the Detroit Red WingsNY Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, and any team whose games are shown on NBC twice in one weekend.

2. The Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues are as good as advertised. And, the Calgary Flames are as bad as feared.

3. The Minnesota Wild are living up to the lofty expectations to which the franchise is being held to by their fans. So far, anyways.

The Wild, having dispatched the Colorado Avalanche 4-2 Saturday night, then turned around and then made Zach Parise's first goal with the Wild stand up to a 1-0 win Sunday night against the Dallas Stars, in no small part due to the shutout work of Josh Harding, backup goalie extraordinaire. Harding's 7th career shutout came with 25 saves against a Dallas team who had won at home the night before.

So, what to think? Or, is it just too early to have any opinion whatsoever?

The next six games should separate wheat from chaff, as the Wild play the Nashville Predators, Red Wings, Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks, and Anaheim Ducks. In the next ten days. With three of those six games in St. Paul. After eight games, or 1/6th of the schedule having been played by then, the cream should rise to the top in the Western Conference.

At least, we HOPE it will. The contenders and the pretenders will sort themselves over the first half of this abbreviated season; then March and April should be about playoff positioning.

All this, while teams are still trying to sort things out. The lack of a real pre-season has not helped any team. The West, especially, is already starting to sort itself out. That's why winning early is key. Every win now is worth two (or more) in April, in my opinion.

So, Wild fans, sit back, and relax. Until the next game. Because it will come sooner, much sooner than even WE are ready for.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Grudge? WHAT grudge?

Overwhelming support for Minnesota Wild return runs Ticketmaster out of seating for Wednesday night inter-squad scrimmage

What would happen if the Minnesota Wild held a scrimmage, one where they actually flew in the Houston Aeros on a charter, opened it up for free, and then no one showed up to see it?

We definitely won't know this week. And, we may never know.

The Wednesday night scrimmage, the second (of two) scheduled this week at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild start their abbreviated training camp, has run out of General Admission tickets. Literally.

The Wild announced shortly after 7:00 PM Sunday night, that there were no more tickets available for the public, as they were holding the rest back for Season Ticket Holders, many of whom would not be able to get to their Wild accounts until they arrived at work on Monday.

The fact that the Wild ran out of seats for the public, might show that 'all is forgiven' for the 113-day lockout, which officially ended late Saturday night as the NHL and the NHLPA agreed to a new, 10-year (hopefully) labor agreement. Then again, it just might be the $10 food voucher that attendees will receive upon entering the arena.

So, with a full house of 18,000-plus expected, the Wild enter the shortened 48-game season with unbridled optimism, as this season features the most talent this team has seen in its' 13-year history.

So we will see what will actually happen on Wednesday. We may see you there. If you're lucky enough to grab a seat.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

We're baa-ack! (Sort of...)

The lockout is over.

Labor peace has washed over the contentious relationship between the NHL and its' players. But as many others already this morning have mentioned, there are no winners in this protracted, farcical scenario. Only losers.

The NHL Owners have lost the trust of the players, the very employees that they make their obscene amounts of money off of, possibly forever. The turning of the owner-player relationship at the highest levels of the sport, into an adversarial exercise in 'He said, He said', dragged the dispute into rarely-seen levels of discourse.

The NHLPA have also lost the trust of the owners, to help build and expand the reach of the game thru their own efforts, and the fact that the game was taken away from North America's hockey fanbase with very little apology or rancor has little, if any, effect on any player or players' agent.

And the fans? Those who pay the freight for both sides to enjoy the record revenues of the last five seasons?

BOTH SIDES ignored the fans. BOTH SIDES ignored the facts. BOTH SIDES ignored reason, and all sort of common sense.

And the fans are the ones coming out the worst in all this. Yes, we hockey lovers are a very gullible lot; we will return whenever they throw open the gates. But we are, indeed, jaded about the sport we love as we wait for the revised, 50-game schedule to be released (sometime today or, more likely, tomorrow). "Oh, this will be the BEST hockey."

Yeah, right. Now show me that you care. Show me that you want me back. Show me that you, Craig Leipold, Wild CEO, want me to keep spending my entertainment dollar at your establishment.

Or, just let me get my money back after the season ends, and let's go our separate ways.

Time to put up, or shut up, Minnesota Wild.