Friday, May 23, 2014

'The Six-Pack of Suck', Volume VII: Six that got away (literally)

I know, Minnesota Wild faithful. I'm looking at the glass and saying it's half-empty. But, in the words of the bard himself, William Shakespeare, 'Those who do not remember from history, are thereby doomed to repeat it.'

And so it goes for the seventh edition of 'The Six-Pack of Suck', six games that really should have gone the Wild's way, but the hockey gods (along with some really bad defense from the local six,) conspired to think otherwise. The lack of offense didn't help things, especially in the crucial holiday period, where visions of sugarplums danced in their heads, instead of visions of victories.

Oh, we go...

1. October 5, 2013. Anaheim 4 at Minnesota 3 (OT). In this, Anaheim's only regular-season appearance in St. Paul, the Wild managed to lose in the last five seconds of the OT period after Mathieu Perrault (who the Ducks had just acquired from Washington) went in on Niklas Backstrom, and just like in the (supposedly) upcoming shootout, five-holed Minnesota's opening-season starter after both Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon failed to stop the Anaheim rush. Not even the lack of Teemu Selanne (held out by Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, as the next night Selanne would be feted in Winnpeg, where Selanne started his career) held back the Ducks, who started their season on a 3-game road trip.

2. November 27, 2013. Phoenix 3 at Minnesota 1. The Thanksgiving season has traditionally not been a good one for the Wild, and 2013's Thanksgiving Eve game was yet another served-up turkey, as the Wild basically stopped skating against the hungrier Coyotes. Zach Parise had been injured the previous game in St. Louis, taking a shot off his left instep; Mikael Granlund joined him on the IR after the first shift of the game, when he took a head shot and gained a concussion. This really started the Wild's downward spiral, which lasted most of the next six weeks.

3. November 29, 2013. Colorado 3 at Minnesota 1. 'Black Friday' took on a whole new meaning for the Wild, as the hottest team in the NHL in the first 60 days of the season -- the Avs -- rolled into the 'X' and basically laid down the law, as old Wild nemesis J. S. Giguere moved onto an easy victory, as the Wild went 2-2 on Black Friday in the last 4 full seasons. Matt Duchene, Nathan McKinnon, and an empty-net goal made sure the Wild would have rather gone shopping, than play hockey.

4. December 29, 2013. NY Islanders 5 at Minnesota 4. The Wild jumped out to a 3-goal lead on the Islanders, then sat back and watched as Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Okposo (two goals) and Thomas Vanek (two assists) brought the Isles all the way back, in this Sunday night stinker. Wasted in this snooze-fest was Mikko Koivu's two-assist night and Nino Niederreiter's goal and assist. The Isles would win their third straight in a eight-win-in-nine-game stretch, to propel themselves onto the cusp of the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Wild, at this point, lost their fifth straight, and the future of Mike Yeo as Wild head coach was in jeopardy after this one.

5. January 14, 2014. Ottawa 3 at Minnesota 0. Following the Islanders game (listed above), the Wild went out and won five of the first six in 2014, and then were soundly brought back to Mother Earth, by a Senators' squad in a game which was exciting as watching paint dry. The Wild only managed three shots on goal in the first period, allowing Ottawa goalie Robin Lehner a virtual night off as the Sens went home victorious. 'We weren't moving our feet', said Mike Yeo after the game. No kidding, Mike.

6. March 11, 2014. Edmonton 4 at Minnesota 3 (SO). In the midst of a four-game homestand, with every point crucial in the Western Conference playoff race, one would think that a three-goal lead after 16 minutes would be a good thing for the home team, right? Think again, as the Oilers came back to tie the game, then win it in the shootout as the Oilers went 3-for-4 in the deciding session, sending Darcy Kuemper and the Wild off with an in-your-face, four round shootout loss. Despite Edmonton drawing a penalty with :09 left in regulation, the Wild fumbled, bumbled and blew a 2-goal lead in the last 8:54 of regulation time. Ugly loss, especially after blowing the big lead.

So, there it is. Six games, 10 points blown, and all home games! If the Wild want more noise and more fans in the seats, they cannot come up with games like these against inferior quality opponents. Only two of the six opponents listed even made the Stanley Cup Playoffs; and, no thanks to this group of lousy games, the Wild were relegated to wild-card status. If the Wild wish to take their coming of age seriously, they cannot have games like this affect their season. Two points are two points, regardless of when you get them. November points are just as good as March points.

I really hope the Wild gets the point when it comes to letting inferior teams off the hook. Next season, you can't do that. Just play better. Every night.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Decompression...and remorse...after a Wild playoff run

By Wild Road Tripper

Well, folks. Even I finally have to admit it.

It's Over.

The Minnesota Wild season is over. Shoulda been a Game 7 last night, at the United Center in Chicago. But, alas, such was not to be. The fact of the matter turned out to be, though, that good teams generate their own puck luck. And, the talented, uber-successful Chicago Blackhawks are that good. They generated the luck to get that OT goal in Game 6, to end the Wild's season after two rounds.

But what about the season that just ended? What about the 2013-14 campaign, one that came to the precipice of utter disaster, following a Dec. 29 Sunday night disaster at home against the lowly New York Islanders, where the Wild came out, and utterly stunk out the Xcel Energy Center?

But that's for another time, another column. (Don't worry, I'll still provide the 'Six-Pack of Suck' in a few weeks. Need to get over our playoff run first.)

But think back and remember fondly what the Wild did accomplish this seaosn:

1. Going thru goaltenders faster than commercial jets go thru tires. Seven different goaltenders started at least one game for the Wild this past season. Seven. Had you told me that was going to happen last October, I'd have said you need your head examined. But, alas, that's exactly what happened. Thru Niklas Backstrom's 'core muscle' injury, Josh Harding's battle with Multiple Sclerosis, Darcy Kuemper's 'Bells of St. Mary's' routine, both in the regular season and in Game 5 in Denver; the emergence (and demi-lucidity) of Ilya Bryzgalov; John Curry's twirling to a win in the stretch drive, just to name a few.

2. They won and thrived, despite Dany Heatley's lack of contribution as he muddled his way thru the last season of his $7.5M contract; Kyle Brodziak reverting to form after his 'contract drive' of late last season; and so much lack of contrbution from virtually every other player on the roster at one time or another. The fact is that the Wild won at times in spite of themselves, as much as their efforts had any effect on the outcomes.

3. The emergence of so many of the young guns that GM Chuck Fletcher has assembled over the past 4 years. Mikael Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, Charlie Coyle, Eric Haula, Justin Fontaine, just to name a few. And you have Matt Dumba and Christian Folin waiting in the wings, as well as Raphael Bussieres, the injured Jason Zucker, and so many other talent 'in the larder', as it were, that the Wild are now in a position of strength, where they can afford to trade for top talent, and actually have players that other teams want, for one of the few times in franchise history.

4. I tweeted just before the first Wild home playoff game (Game 3, vs. Colorado) that the Wild need to give the fans something to cheer for, and they will cheer. Loudly. And, they did. I was among them, for all six home playoff games. Yes, the Wild wish you could get this kind of response on a mid-January night vs. Edmonton, Calgary, or Carolina, but with 41 home games in the regular season (and 2 or 3 pre-season games), you're just not going to get that response every night. Meanwhile, the fact that the Wild can fill the building as they have, despite stretches like the holiday period of 2013, is a continuing testament to the faithfulness of the fanbase.

5. The national media finally admitted that the Wild are not the only NHL team playing 'the trap' anymore. Begrudgingly, the Wild have earned the respect of the national hockey media (E. J. Hradek, and Sirius XM NHL Radio notwithstanding) thru their two-round playoff run. The fact of the matter is that the Wild franchise is finally coming of age...again. The only other team from the '99-00 class of teams that has gone beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, more than once, is still only one: the Minnesota Wild.

So, with all that behind us, Wild fans turn to the future. And it's a very bright future, indeed. With all the talent assembled, and the position of where the Wild is as an organization, the future is where the Wild are at. You still have a little dead weight on the team (Brodziak, Stoner) to get rid of; some of the rest of it (Heatley, Matt Moulson, Prosser) will become UFA's by themselves. Other than at the goaltender position, you got to like where the Wild are at, talent-wise.

Mike Yeo's future as the head coach of this franchise was assured by their playoff run; I would, however, do some kind of an audit on your training and medical staffs, as there were too many injuries, at too many of the wrong times, by too many of the wrong players. Some of it was, yes, game-related; but a lot of it were developing injuries, over time, while the medical staff waited for the inevitable to occur. A little more proactive effort is what's needed, IMO, to stem the tide of injuries.

Next up: NHL Draft, June 27-28, at 'The Rock' in Newark. Go for it, Chuck Fletcher.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wow. Just Wow.

Minnesota Wild defeat Colorado, go on to face Blackhawks in playoff round two

Well, that was a fun ride, wasn't it?

The Minnesota Wild, after their Game 7, 5-4 OT win last night over the Colorado Avalanche at Denver's Pepsi Center, now face even a more formidable task in the Second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the defending Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. Fact of the matter is, the only time the Wild were ahead all night, was the one time when it counted: at the end.

Despite the Avalanche racing off to an amazing start in their first 20 games, despite the divisional championship the Avs won this season, none of that carried over into the 'second season'. The Avs, and the Wild, won all their home games. Until last night, that is.

So, with that as a background, how do the Wild take on Chicago, who's basically been on cruise control for the last 2-3 weeks? Does the Wild take on the Hawks, head-on? Or do they go after the Hawks, the same way they dispatched Colorado in the just-completed last round?

And what am I saying, anyhow?

I really kind of wonder at times. Now, after this point, there is no local TV of Wild playof games; all games will be on the networks of NBCUniversal (NBCSN for Game 1 on Friday night; the mothership, NBC, on Sunday afternoon; then sent off to CNBC, for Tuesday's Game 3, an 8 PM CDT start).

Beyond that? Even the networks don't know for sure.

So a little friendly advice from your Road Tripper; sit back, relax for a day, and enjoy the ride. The heavy traffic will begin again, soon enough. Enjoy what already has happened. Minnesota hockey fans have earned this.