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.