Saturday, January 30, 2010

I'm proud of our guys

Normally, I'm not a huge follower of the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher athletics. I'm not an alum of the school, and I have other sports I keep up with at the professional level, so the Gophers aren't high on my priority list.

But in my efforts to continue to learn and watch more sports, I have been paying a little more attention the past couple of years. The Gophers are a Big Ten school, which is a big deal. The Twin Cities is fortunate enough to be a hub for professional sports teams, but for other places around the country, college athletics is what gets towns excited.

From my view, Gopher football has never been a Big Ten powerhouse. Mediocrity might come to mind for some of the eras. Currently, they are under the Tim Brewster era. He has three seasons under his belt at the U as a first-time head coach. His overall record? A not-so-stellar 14-24, and 6-18 in the Big Ten.

Brew gets another two
It looks as though Minnesotans will have the privilege of watching this coaching master for a bit longer. He reached an agreement with the U and will soon sign a two-year contract extension. Meaning that he will be gracing The Bank with his presence through the 2013 season.

Athletic Director Joel Maturi (who is a source for some of the U's athletic woes, in my opinion) thinks Brewster deserves the chance to be able to coach his recruits. Back in December when Maturi hinted at an extension, he said the coach had "earned" it. My question: How?

Losing back-to-back Insight Bowls the past two seasons can't be it. Or the 6-6 record the Gophers used to stumble into a bowl game this year on the technicality rule that a team is bowl eligible with six wins. So what can it be that the wise Maturi sees that the rest of us don't?

Woes of '09
Before the 2009 season, Brewster fired one offensive coordinator, and hired another one. Without consulting with Maturi. It would be one thing if the move paid off and the offense exploded, but it was really just the opposite.

Quarterback Adam Weber did not look very sharp for a junior. And I did see an awful lot of receivers dropping footballs for virtually no reason. Plus, they did lose key player Eric Decker early on to injury.

Maybe things weren't clicking for some of the athletes on the field, but when a Big Ten team goes more than 11 quarters (168:51 of game time, to be exact) without an offensive touchdown, that's a problem in itself.

The AD says he loves Brewster's "passion and his belief in Minnesota and the program. I'm optimistic." I'd say over-optimism and not enough realism is hindering the program right now.

Drinking the Kool-Aid
Brewster lays it on so thick whenever the media is around that I can hardly stand to listen to the guy. After bad losses, embarrassing losses, or wins they snuck by with, the most common phrase out of Brewster's mouth was, "I'm really proud of our guys."

I'm all for building up confidence in your athletes, and letting them know when they've done something good on the football field. But these are Big Ten football players. You can't sugarcoat things.

If your team didn't get enough first downs, turned the ball over too many times or failed to get in the end zone, you talk about that. You don't pretend it didn't happen and just focus on how hard your players fought that day. Who learns from that?

Of course, what we hear from press conferences may just be a big show. Things could be completely different behind the locker room doors. Who knows? That's between the team and the coaches.

But fans aren't stupid. I don't know how many of them are drinking up the Brewster/Maturi optimistic Kool-Aid, but I am not even taking a sip. Remember how Brewster made claims when he was hired about this team getting to the Rose Bowl?

Only time will tell what happens with the Gophers. Maybe the overall record will start to turn around. Maybe they'll turn into a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. Maybe Weber will have a fantastic season. I hope that happens. But if everything continues to go south, at least we can take comfort in the fact the Mr. Brewster will be with us for a couple more years.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Free Petr! Veteran Sykora sits out

After a powerful four-game win streak at home, the Wild went on the road only to lose three straight against St. Louis, Phoenix and Dallas. I'm not really sure what happened, but I'm also not here to talk about their road woes.

Petr Sykora is a veteran in the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had a great gig going for him in Russia, but came to Minnesota after talking with formerly-Pittsburgh-associated Chuck Fletcher and Todd Richards, the Wild's general manager and head coach.

Like a few of his new teammates this year, Sykora suffered a concussion (after an earlier groin injury) and was sidelined for 24 games. But he's healthy now, and the result has been a seat in the press box as a scratch for a handful of games before he got the nod Monday in Dallas.

Just a note with healthy scratches, they might belong to a player who isn't producing, or a guy who's just the odd man out that night in favor of players who are playing well.

Who's in, and who's out
Wild players who have played while Sykora was studying his peers high above the ice? James Sheppard (2 goals, 3 assists), defenseman John Scott (who has proven he's an enforcer with some mental lapses) and rookie call-up Robbie Earl (3 goals). Not exactly your biggest class of offensive weapons.

Richards is the one pulling the strings on this one. Now, I'm not here to rip into Richards, who is in his first year as a head coach. It's been a transition for the team from the players to coaches to the front office. But in sports, we analyze, question and critique, and this is no different.

Sheppard isn't getting it done
Let's face it, Sheppard was a project of the fired-GM Doug Risebrough who preached that this kid (now age 21) was going to be a big star. He was up with the big boys for most of last season, a point that has been debated by many who thought he should have spent more time in the minors to develop.

I gave Shep the benefit of the doubt last year. But this year has been a different story.

I don't see the potential in him that apparently some do, including Richards. I've already expressed my displeasure with Shep getting the starts while Benoit Pouliot (now with Montreal) was the one scratched. His unproductive numbers speak for themselves, and I just don't see an on-ice spark from him.

Richards did scratch Sheppard lately, but he also played when Sykora was still sitting. He played against the Blues and Richards said afterward that he thought it was a good game for him because he stood up physically to David Backes. That's all fine and good, but that doesn't help put goals in the net.

In my opinion, Sheppard is one of those players that's turning into a coach favorite. And so is Earl. Why is a rookie playing in consecutive games over a veteran with more than 300 goals? Richards has said he liked Earl's speed and skating ability.

Tweeting frustrations
Sykora's agent Allan Walsh got this issue going with some of his comments on Twitter, upset that Sykora wasn't getting playing time. The main defense from the head coach on this issue was he didn't want to break up the top lines, and putting Sykora on the fourth line didn't seem to be productive either.

After the first two losses on the road trip, Sykora finally got the start in Dallas. The lines were scrambled after a not-so-great game in Phoenix. But Sykora took a hooking penalty early on, which resulted in an opposing goal.

This may have also been why he played just 11:28 in the game. Only Andrew Ebbett, Derek Boogaard and Scott had less ice time, and the last two are the team enforcers.

Trade bait
If Sykora continues to get scratched, whatever the reason, you've got to think he will become trade bait at some point. As much as I think it's a huge asset to have a Stanley Cup winner on your team, if the team doesn't allow him to play, trading him might be the best benefit for both parties.

The Wild can try to get someone in return for a guy they apparently don't have room for, and Sykora can go elsewhere and play where he's appreciated. But just in case I haven't been clear, I'd rather see Sykora in a Wild uniform.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This is some good hockey

Another Wild game, another victory. The fans of the state of hockey have been treated to some exciting victories recently. And I was lucky enough to be present for two of their latest wins.

It started when they ended their four-game skid last week with a win against the Calgary Flames. For an encore? They pulled off the greatest comeback in their history, and one of their greatest regular-season games ever, with a 6-5 shootout win Saturday night against NHL-powerhouse Chicago.

"Sid the Kid" is in the house
Some might expect a bit of a letdown after such a great comeback, but the Wild brought their A-game Monday night when the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins came to town. It was a spirited and well-played game that ended in a 4-3 Wild victory, bringing their winning streak to three games.

The boys were wearing their dark-green jerseys, and they looked good, in more ways than one. They put on quite a show for the more than 19 thousand fans that packed the Xcel Energy Center.

There must have been a few bandwagons dropping off Pittsburgh fans, because I saw more than a few Sidney Crosby No. 87-jerseys walking around the concourses. And "Sid the Kid" did not disappoint them with his performance on the ice. Not wasting any time, he put the Pens on top less than two minutes into the game. He added another goal later in the game as well.

Latendresse is clutch again
Undoubtedly the No. 1 star that was shining brightly all night for the Wild was no surprise: Guillaume Latendresse. He had a career-high four-point night with the game-winning goal and three assists. He has done very well in Minnesota after being acquired from Montreal

It was an evenly-paced game, with neither team really running away with things. However, the men in stripes did get a little jeering from the fans due to some uneven penalty-calling. Cal Clutterbuck, the Wild's heavy hitter, took a few hits and a shot to the back of the neck in between the benches without any arms being raised.

Hittin' dirty
It took an ugly hit (later called "dirty" by coach Todd Richards) delivered by Sergei Gonchar to Clutterbuck that got the referee's attention. Gonchar jumped him from behind with a big shot to the head. Our tough guy was alright, but as a result, Gonchar received a five-minute major penalty for interference. That's pretty unheard of; it's the first time I've seen a five-minute major called for something other than fighting. Unfortunately, the Wild weren't able to capitalize.

That all took place in the third period, and from then on, the crowd let Gonchar have it with a chorus of "boos" each time he touched the puck. So far, it doesn't look like the NHL will punish Gonchar further with a fine and/or susupension, but they do review all incidents of this nature.

Niklas Backstrom bounced back well from being pulled the previous game against Chicago. He has a great track record against the Pens, and it showed Monday. He made 35 saves, and one spectacular one late in the third that was an absolute game-saver. It was an outstanding glove save that brought many fans, including myself, to their feet in appreciation.

The Wild look to keep their mini-streak alive this evening with a home game against a tough division rival, the Vancouver Canucks. Minnesota is 0-3 this year against the tough rival. But while the Wild are riding high, the Canucks have lost a few and are struggling on special teams. As usual, it should be a fun and physical game.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Putting out the fire

A five-game winning streak and a four-game losing streak made a head-on collision Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center. Both teams were coming into the second game of a back-to-back. One team is on top of the division, the other near the bottom. The Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild: Game on.

Fire burns early
Fireworks started when the game wasn't even two minutes old, with a goal from Olli Jokinen. Going down 1-0 early isn't the way to start off a game, especially when the Wild have been giving up at least four tallies in their past few games. Luckily, this was the only speed bump in the Wild's eventual 4-1 win over the division leaders.

The first Wild strike came later in the first period off a redirection - on the power play, where the Wild have struggled lately. Eric Belanger was the goal scorer. It was the first of two beauties on the night for him, a special one because it marked his 600th game. He couldn't have asked for a better one.

It was all knotted up at one apiece as the teams headed to their locker rooms after the first. The game had a great pace to it. Lots of offense, good skating and an overall exciting game. The Wild took a 2-1 lead and never looked back, notching two more goals off of veteran goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Shots were plentiful too, with 35 for the Wild and 25 for the Flames.

Friendly rivals
My only disappointment of the night was there were no fights. All the ingredients were there between the physical teams: The Boogeyman and John Scott in the lineup, the Hit-man Cal Clutterbuck, a division-rivalry game that usually brings out the spirited rough stuff and the usual suspects for the Flames as well.

No fights, and not really any close calls either, unless you count Clutterbuck getting a hand white-wash to the face, which resulted in a penalty. But really, that's often how it goes. Games you think will provide a ton of extra-curricular entertainment don't, and then there's a game that gets quite physical that no one sees coming.

A solid win over the red-hot Flames to end a losing skid was just what the doctor ordered for the Wild. With the victory, the Wild move a game above .500 with a 21-20-3 record.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's been way too long

Wow. I absolutely did not mean to neglect my blog for a month. At least I had a good run of keeping it updated once a week or so. December was one of the busiest months I've had in quite awhile. A lot has happened, and I wanted to share everything here. Don't worry, sports is involved, so I'm not writing anything totally off-topic.

We all know how busy the usual holiday time can be each year. It's so busy and stressful that at some point you wish the holidays would just get themselves over with so you can go back to the normal routine. For the first time ever, I have never had the "I want it to be January" feeling more than I did this December.

I mean this all in a good way. Early last month, I was spending some quality time with my laptop conducting the never-ending job search. I found a listing on Star for a part-time sports copy aide. Within a few days, I was hired.

I was very excited to be working at the Strib. It was almost like a dream come true, if you want a sappy line. When I received the phone call, I literally couldn't stop smiling for a few minutes. It felt great.

My job is to answer calls and take boxscores for all the high school games, mostly focusing on basketball and hockey. I also update statistics from the results of the games. I have met some great people and enjoyed my time there thus far.

While I spent my nights at the Strib, I was still working as an intern during the days. Throw in the usual holiday hustle and bustle, plus multiple car problems, and I had one hectic month. Now my schedule is settling down a bit, which has left me with some breathing room and a chance to update this fine blog.

Always time for hockey
I did make it to the Wild game the day after Christmas. In a fairly average game, they pulled out a 4-3 win against the St. Louis Blues, even after giving up a late goal. It was another good game, and fun to be there with the family.

We're going to the game against division-rival Calgary Wednesday night. The Wild have been sliding a bit lately, including a 4-1 loss this evening at Chicago, so let's hope they turn things around and come out on top over the Flames.

I hope to write about the game, or at the very least I'll be sure to keep this blog up to snuff again.