Saturday, November 21, 2009

Respect your elders

It wasn't the most solid victory, but it got the job done. The Minnesota Wild faced off against the New York Islanders friday night at the Xcel Energy Center and pulled out a 3-2 win. Owen Nolan broke a 2-2 tie with just over a minute to go in regulation.

This was my second game of the season watching the Wild boys in person. The result was good, which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have attended over the years. As a special treat, the "sellout" crowd had the pleasure of watching 5-year-old YouTube sensation Josh Sacco perform the traditional "Let's Play Hockey." What a cutie!

The Wild were starting the game minus a few forwards, and with minor league call-ups as additions. Not making excuses, the hometown boys came out with another fairly slow start. I believe they did not register a shot on goal until about seven minutes into the first period.

Five for fighting
One highlight were a couple of good hockey fights. The first involved the Wild's Nathan Smith, who was playing in his first game since being called up from the Houston Aeros. It came at a good time when the team, and the building, needed some energy.

The other fight involved Shane Hnidy, and subsequently an absurb list of penalties assessed to the Wild's defenseman. From my seat, Hnidy made a good, clean hit along the boards on an Islander. Not long after on the shift, Islander Tim Jackman was duking it out with Hnidy.

I didn't quite see the start of the fight, since I was watching the puck, but I have a pretty good guess as to what happened. Jackman wanted to stick up for his teammate, so he decided to make a go of it with Hnidy. Predictably, the pair received five-minute majors for fighting. Not so predictably, Hnidy got hit with a two-minute minor for instigating, and a 10-minute major for game misconduct.

The problem for fans in the stands was that only the first two penalities were announced in the arena. So my mom and I were puzzled as to why Hnidy spent a good chunk of the second period in the box. These penalties just add to the list of bad calls the Wild have seen lately.

Hockey fan etiquette
Nolan gave the Wild a 1-0 lead in the first period. I wish I could write some more details about the goal, but I don't have a very good firsthand account. Let me explain.

A note to all novice hockey fans out there: please wait for a break in the action to leave or return to your seat. This means, don't get up to get yourself another beer and nachos while there's play going on. When you break this hockey-fan-etiquette rule, you block the view of those behind you and may cause them to miss important plays.

Yes, I am bitter. And yes, I missed seeing Nolan's first goal of the night because I was just getting settled into my seat after standing up to let a gentleman go back to his seat.

Back to the game
The Islanders took the lead with two unanswered goals, one appearing to be another soft goal given up by Niklas Backstrom. The score remained 2-1 for quite sometime, and I was getting worried that I had missed the Wild's only goal for the night. After all, they weren't playing the most commanding game, but it was a pretty good match with the Islanders, a team with 23 points in their division.

Wild captain Mikko Koivu scored a beauty to tie the game, and I did not miss that one. Things kept moving along after that, and it looked like we were about to see some more extra hockey. I was already praying the game wouldn't get to a shootout because the Wild had not scored a shootout goal in their past two games where they had the chance.

But the 37-year-old Nolan showed the younger guys how it's done. After taking a couple high sticks and then getting cross-checked and held down by the goalie in front of the net (all of which apparently did not warrant penalties), Nolan was in perfect position to score the game-winning goal with just 1:07 left in regulation.

It was a much-needed win for them, especially after what sounded like a very frustrating practice the day before. Sticks were flying, hitting the glass and being crumpled into sawdust. After that, you need an inspiring win.

They're off until Wednesday, when they hope to also have more injured players returning. Sometimes long breaks in between games can be good, or bad. Let's hope they can come up with some kind of momentum and get a few more wins under their belt, especially when they are on home ice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tommie football: Pride and passion

I went to my first University of St. Thomas football game as an alum Saturday. It was the regular-season finale at O'Shaughnessy Stadium in a non-conference contest with Northwestern College.

The No. 10-ranked Tommies didn't hold back. By the end of the afternoon, they had a 63-14 win under their belts, tying their modern school record in points. If you're hungry for more records, they broke school season records in points (409), touchdowns (58) and rushing (2,472 yards).

Even more impressive was the 9-1 overall record, with the lone loss coming against those pesky Johnnies in an away game. The record is the team's best since 1983, and it's the third time in school history it had a nine-win regular season. With the win, the Tommies are also 9-1 at home in the two seasons under Coach Glenn Caruso (that loss again to St. John's last season).

It was a brisk, cool fall day for football. I hadn't been to a game all season, but I'm glad I went to this one. St. Thomas came flying out of the gate with two touchdowns in just the first few minutes of the first quarter. They were making it look easy and taking it to the Northwestern team (5-5).

Possession after possession resulted in a touchdown for the Tommies, while Northwestern's punt team got its workout for the day. It was 42-7 at the half. A big kudos to the referees, and I suppose the discipline of the players too, for only a couple called penalities.

This kid's got skills
The highlight play-of-the-day for me would have to be sophomore Fritz Waldvogel's 50-yard punt return. He caught the punt in the air just inside St. Thomas territory. He made a short run to about midfield, where I thought the play would soon end as his opponents were ready to pounce. I was wrong.

Waldvogel has shown much skill and talent in his time so far at St. Thomas, but this play was nothing short of spectacular. It started out looking typical enough, but this kid can really maneuver on the field. He spun around, ran and twisted his way out of three, four, I'm not sure exactly how many tackles (In hindsight, I wish I would have been keeping closer count).

He broke through the tackles, found a few holes and made a dash for the end zone. It was the greatest play of the game that brought many Tommie fans to their feet. He also had an 86-yard kickoff return, but that was nothing compared to his first return.

What a turnaround
It's amazing to see what Caruso has done with this football program in just two seasons. He came in with the reputation of being a rebuilding coach, and it definitely shows. The team's 2007 record was 2-8. A year later they had a changed attitude and a changed record, 7-3.

From the beginning, Caruso emphasized two things: pride and passion. He instills these core values in his players, and it shows on the field. Regardless of the wins and losses, Caruso turned this program in the right direction.

Watching the Northwestern game proved yet again how much the Tommies pride themselves on their play and conduct on the field. It's great to see success with St. Thomas football, following suit with the rest of the dominant sports at the school. But it's also refreshing to see the campus excited about football again.

The Tommies will most likely receive a NCAA at-large bid to continue their season into the playoffs, something that's escaped them since 1990.

Now with so many goals achieved and positive changes, in my eyes maybe one of the biggest items on the St. Thomas football checklist that needs to be fulfilled: beating those stinky rats from St. John's.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pouliot versus Sheppard

As high as the Minnesota Wild were flying after their back-to-back victories out east and four-day layoff, they crashed hard. They came out flat and uninspiring in a 5-2 loss to an injury-riddled Vancouver Canucks team.

I saw the first few minutes of the game, and some of the third period, but that was enough. After I watched the young James Sheppard spin around in his own zone and blatantly turn the puck over which led to the first goal, I left for the gym.

From what I heard and read, not much good happened for the Wild. Niklas Backstrom was pulled after two periods and four goals. Martin Havlat is still looking to set up that highlight-reel goal. Kyle Brodziak was the only bright spot as he provided the team's only offense.

This team has the abysmal Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to thank for not occupying the NHL basement. The plus/minus numbers for the Wild players are pretty tough to take. No one is exactly lighting things up on the ice, so it may be unfair to single out players for their performances. But I'm going to anyway.

My birthday buddy
I'm here to defend Benoit Pouliot. I feel a bias connection with him because we share the same birthday. Yes, the actual day - Sept. 29, 1986. I just think it's a cool little tidbit, I guess.

Making the Wild roster out of training camp this year, Pouliot was given another chance to prove himself in the NHL. I would guess that he and everyone else knew that it was his absolute last chance. And to his credit he has shown some life and turned his game up a little notch.

He has one goal, two assits and is a minus-3 in 10 games this season. That's not exactly an eye-bugging performance, but again, no member of the Wild is standing out for lighting the lamp these days.

Picking on Sheppard
Now here's where I single a guy out: James Sheppard. He is a minus-6 with zero points in 14 games. But those are just the numbers. Watching him on the ice isn't exactly fun either.

Here's my beef: Why was Sheppard in the lineup the past few games and not Pouliot? Despite the whole team needing some work, these two seemed to have the most to prove and establish themselves on the ice. In my book, Pouliot was doing a better job than Sheppard at this task, yet Coach Todd Richards keeps dressing Shep while Pouliot watches the games from the press box.

I'm not exactly sure what is going on here. Obviously there has to be healthy scratches when the roster allows, but why are you going to single out one player on a team that is consistently sub-par this season? You'd think that if you are going to scratch the same player for a few games, that his performance is not living up to what it should be. This instance includes most of the Wild bench right now.

Time to step up
We'll see what Richards decides to do with the roster and dishing out playing time the next few games. But maybe it would help Sheppard to watch a few games from upstaires too. Or the entire team, for that matter.

The Wild need to step it up a notch in many areas of the game right now. That's obvious. I hope they do, but I also hope they start putting Pouliot on the ice. He's finally starting to take advantage of his last chance. Let him show us what he's got.

Note: While I was putting this entry together, Star Tribune beat writer Michael Russo had some very well-written and interesting pieces that gave me some insight into both Sheppard and Pouliot, as well as another issue involving Brett Burns. Read the latest on these players who are currently in the spotlight. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Winning the games you shouldn't

It's no secret that the Wild have struggled, and probably will continue to struggle, this season. That's what makes the past two wins by the team even more puzzling. Not that I'm complaining.

They lost a 4-3 game to the also-struggling Nashville Predators at the X before Marian Gaborik and his New York Rangers came to town. But true to Gabby's form, he injured his knee earlier in the week and didn't play against his former team, turning his reunion into a melodramatic affair.

New York had a good start to the season, but has cooled off as of late. Case in point: Friday's game against the Wild. The hometown boys beat the East Coast fellas 3-2. Maybe Gabby would have been the extra edge the Rangers needed to come away with a win. Although, the game was at the Xcel Center, where the Wild have been successful this season.

Odds against you
The very next night, the Wild headed out to Pittsburgh for their last appearence in the Igloo to face the defending Stanley Cup champions. A very unlikely place for the Wild's first road victory of the season, right? Well, that would have been the way to bet, but things turned out a little differently.

The Penguins were down a couple of key players, which gave the Wild a little bit of luck. And Marek Zidlicky got under Sidney Crosby's skin and goated him into a fight. "Sid the Kid" lost his cool a bit and spent a good chunk of time in the penalty box. Keeping the dominant scorer off the ice certainly helped the Wild.

All the scoring happened in the first period, with Eric Belanger firing in the eventual game-winner with just 0.6 seconds remaining in the period. Talk about a momentum feeder.

All that matters is the 'W'
The final score ended up being 2-1 in favor of the Wild. (Former Wild player Pascal Dupuis had the lone tally for the Pens.) But boy, they were lucky. Very lucky. Getting brutally outshot 35-15 is not a good way to try and win a hockey game. Not to mention that the Wild played the majority of the third period in their own zone, basically using the trying-not-to-lose game plan.

Niklas Backstrom started in goal for the second night in a row and was phenomenal. He had to be to stop the constant rushes and flurries in front of the net from the Pens. I am still surprised they didn't punch in a tying goal and send the game into overtime, or finish it off in regulation.

So the game in the Igloo will be marked as the Wild's first road win of the season. Maybe it was just a sign that bounces will start going Minnesota's way. Or maybe it was about time to end the losing streak.

Whatever the case, this was one of those games where you are lucky to come away with two points.