Friday, February 26, 2010

USA against Canada. It's on.

As the Olympics in the land to the North begin to wind down, I think it's fair to say I've had my fair share of hockey viewing. Yesterday alone there were four games in the men's medal-round of the tournament, and I managed to watch at least part of all of them.

The gold medal game is all set: USA versus Canada. North American hockey fans, hockey fans in general and especially NBC could not have asked for a better match-up in the final game. USA beat Canada 5-3 last Sunday prior to the medal rounds. Canada is now looking to follow the lead of the women's team, which beat USA for gold on Wednesday.

For Canada to win gold on both the men's and the women's sides of the puck in the country where the game was created, there is nothing better. Even though the Canadians haven't had quite the overall medal success I think they were hoping for, it has been clear from the start that a gold in men's ice hockey would be the ultimate prize.

USA takes it to the Finns
Team USA won handily 6-1 over Finland in the semifinal game Friday, routing the Finns for six goals in the first period. In the process, Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff bascially took himself out of the game after the fourth goal and was replaced by the Minnesota Wild's own Niklas Backstrom.

It wasn't just the goaltending that was causing problems for Finland. They looked flat the entire first period, typical of a team that "didn't show up," as they say. The first period was really the story of this game.

The final two periods were good to watch, and a bit more even. USA goalie Ryan Miller, who has been stellar throughout the tournament, was given a break with a few minutes left in the game. This was mostly to give Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas a shot to play in the Olympics. He gave up a goal to the Wild's Antti Miettinen.

Making it through to the final
Canada played the evening game on Friday against Slovakia. (I once again forgot that this game was on, because I was busy watching the other Olympic coverage on NBC.) I caught most of the third period. Canada had a 3-0 lead deep in the third, but things got interesting when Slovakia tallied a pair. They came close at the end, with former-Wild player Pavol Demitra firing a point-blank shot wide with less than a minute remaining.

But in the end, we'll get the match-up we've all been hoping for: USA versus Canada, 2:15 p.m. (Central time) Sunday, and NBC was gracious enough to run this high-profile game on its main network. I have a feeling this will be a good way to wind down the Games before the closing ceremonies that evening.

USA. Canada. Gold. Let's play hockey!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on the Olympics

The Olympics are a worldwide sports spectacle that only come around every four years (or two years, depending on how you view things). Some could care less about the Games, some might only become sports fans during these two-week spans every few years and some may be salivating at all the sports overload they encounter during the Games.

Often times, viewers will likely prefer one set of Games to the other (winter versus summer). If you know me and my dislike for winter at all, it's not that far of a stretch to guess which I prefer. (Summer, in case you missed it.) This may seem contradictory since I am such a huge hockey fan. But I really get hooked watching the swimming, diving and gymnastics competitions during the summer games.

Game basics
The winter games have a variety of competitions to offer. While hockey is my obvious favorite, speed skating is also not bad, as well as some of the skiing races and figure skating competitions.

There are a few sports that I really haven't watched all that much, and I don't really see them grabbing my interest. The two that are on my mind right now are curling and the biathlon. Case in point: Trying to watch either of these while doing a cardio workout at the gym isn't too exciting.

Even though the future of NHL players participating in the Olympics seems to be in jeopardy, the tournament so far has been a good one. I think it's cool just to see all these NHLers spread out on the different teams of their home countries. Rivals in their profession, but teammates in the Games (or vice versa).

I'm not a fan
As far women's hockey goes, here's my proposal. Let's have the USA and Canada duke it out for the gold medal. The other games have been complete blowouts. Take an 18-0 Canada win against Slovakia. I mean, are you kidding me? The team was actually criticized after this for running up the score. When you're ahead 17-0 (or 15, 14, 13, 12, etc.), why keep shooting? Do you really need the practice?

I'm not the biggest fan of women's hockey anyway (more on that another time, but basically, no checking/physical play=not hockey). At least in the men's tournament there's a few good, competitive teams out there, making for some exciting games. With the women, it seems like Canada and the USA are the only teams that have a chance. I'd be very shocked if these two don't go one-two for the gold and silver medals.

Back to hockey
Now that my women's hockey rant is done, let's get back to the men's side of the puck. I haven't watched every single moment of ice time, or even a good amount of hockey, but what I've seen has been good. I enjoy watching the Wild representatives including Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat and Niklas Backstrom. I just love the dynamic of all these NHL opponents jumbled up and playing for their countries.

Take Sunday's game against neighbor-to-the-north Canada. It was a highly-anticipated day of hockey that lived up to the hype. Canada was considered the favorite in this match-up, but the USA pulled off a 5-3 upset. The boys in red, white and blue struck first, less than a minute into the contest. In fact, the first two goals given up by New Jersey Devils netminder Martin Brodeur were a bit out of character.

From the parts of the game I saw, it was exciting, but no more so than during the last few minutes of the game. USA made it 4-2 before Canada got within one with about three minutes remaining. It was an intense finish with steady pressure from the Canadians and a heroic empty-net goal scored by a diving Ryan Kesler.

Questioning the coverage
Unfortunately, I have missed some ice action, or forgotten about games, because the coverage carrier NBC has sent the premier sport hockey onto its sister networks USA, CNBC and MSNBC. It would have been so nice if I could have watched a hockey game while I was pedaling away on the elliptical at the gym, instead of looking at curling.

I've seen a few Tweets describing NBC as standing for "Nothing But Curling," because... I guess they show a lot of curling. There has also been a lot of Tweet-venting regarding the hockey games not being televised directly on NBC. I know it's 2010, but I'm sure there are those out there without cable. They can't enjoy hockey right now. (Note: NBC did switch over to the USA/Canada game when it was near the finish.)

It just seems a little odd since the men's hockey gold medal is the one that's most important to Canada and the interest seems great for the fans that are there in person. So why isn't NBC showcasing this premier sport?

One other point about coverage: Why do we watch skiing races on tape delay? The Games are in Vancouver, not exactly half-way around the world where timing would be an issue. I'm sure it's NBC wanting to show the big events in primetime to make money, but then the fun often gets ruined for those who want to be surprised with results.

Rant over
While this may sound like a big complaining rant, these points have all been talked about and debated among the media and online communities. They're all valid points regarding the Games.

In the meantime, the Games are now about half over. We've seen some great competitions so far, so much that it's hard to write about everything.

I hope to watch more of the Olympics in the coming days, including more hockey, which should only get better as it gets closer to the medal stages.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pondering the Wild at the Olympic break

Now that the NHL Olympic break has arrived and players head off to either represent their home countries, or just head home, let's take a closer look at the Minnesota Wild. Who's confident this bunch will sneak into the playoffs? Anyone? You won't find me jumping on board this playoff bandwagon.

Yes, I know the Wild played a great game to help couples out there celebrate Valentine's Day. A 6-2 win over the rival Canucks at home before a two-week break should give you a lot of momentum to carry over to the remaining part of the season. It was a game with lots of offense, career-highs being tied and broken, and an all-around entertaining game.

Heck, even my "favorite" James Sheppard got into a scrum. (I was at the gym at this time and not one TV was tuned to the Wild game. I did not believe it when my brother told me Shep had been in a fight. Who would've thought?)

But one great game doesn't take them off the hook for what lies ahead if the boys in red and green want to extend their season.

Obviously, a team that sits within a few places of the eighth and final playoff spot needs to be thinking about how they can get in. They need to continue to break out their A-games each night and fight for their right to the playoffs. In other words, you gotta try, don't give up, etc., etc.

But that's from a player's perspective. I'm giving you a fan's perspective, which is: It's not gonna happen.

Those following this team closely enough shouldn't be all that surprised. The Wild are in their first year under a head coach not named Jacques, and a new general manager is holding the reigns. You can't expect to jump right to the top when there was such a shift in leadership, not to mention the NHL is filled with countless skilled and competitive teams.

Righting the ship
That's also not to say that the changes in coaching and management have been a bad thing. I don't think they have; quite the contrary in fact. I have seen some bold moves made from new GM Chuck Fletcher. Moves that you would probably never have seen from previous GM Doug Risebrough.

As far as coach Todd Richards goes, I'm going to give him a little more time, kind of a "grace year," if you will. He came in here trying to implement an entirely new system, focusing more intensively on offense rather than the defensive style preached by Jacques Lemaire.

I think everyone can agree that this season's start was not what anyone was expecting. Yes, we thought they would have some transition pains, but they were a bit more abysmal than anyone could have predicted. Road woes have pained the Wild all season long, but not more so than at the start where they could not win away from home at all.

I hate to keep going back to what seems to be a big cliche phrase, but the season has been somewhat of a roller coaster. (OK, I guess most teams can say that, but it's still true.) There have been good games and bad games, good streaks and bad streaks.

Getting on a four-game roll is great, but it's also negated when you lose the next three or four. When you have an 82-game season, you're bound to run into a lot of different factors contributing to your ups and downs as a team.

By the numbers
With all that said, let's talk numbers. Eight teams from each conference make the playoffs. (That's roughly half the teams out there.) The extra point teams earn for losing in extra frames, has made earning your spot in the top eight a tougher task than ever the past few seasons. Points are so tight in the final weeks of the season that it's hard to tell who will end up where.

Right now, the Wild are in 13th place. I don't have a prediction for exactly which position the Wild will find themselves in come season's end, but I just don't see them playing past their regular-season finale against the Dallas Stars on April 10.

My reasoning? A big one would have to be the Wild's March schedule.

Tough schedule
There has been much debate about the NHL schedule during Olympic years, and even debate as to whether NHL players should be competing in The Games at all. As it stands right now, the league still plays its 82-game schedule in the same six-month span as any other year. This makes for some time crunches and more than a few back-to-back games.

Case in point: The Wild play 16 games in March, including road-and-road back-to-backs three weeks in a row on the Thursdays and Fridays of the month. That means they play in one city one night, and another the next.

This is something all teams have to deal with, back-to-back games. But the Wild have seemed to have difficulty in the past with these games. Maybe others do too.

In a back-to-back situation, a team plays two games; that's 120 minutes of hockey. The constant problem for the Wild this season has been actually playing solid hockey for all of those minutes (even playing 40 of the 60 minutes in one game makes a difference).

Team A, team B
When a team is playing on the second night of the duo, they seem to be one of two types: A) Energized, in control and perhaps running on adrenaline to propel to a victory, or B) Sluggish, one step behind and doesn't give their all in an eventual loss. In which case they can afterward blame their woes on how tired they were after playing two nights in a row.

While I'm sure many teams could be considered Team B, I include the Wild in this group as well. It's not always in the second night of a game, but they have come out slow on occasions. It's even harder to watch when the Wild have had a short break, and then come out looking like Team B while their opponent is Team A after playing the night before.

The Wild need to come out strong after the break. Maybe "strong" isn't even a strong enough word. They need to dominate if they want to have a shot at the playoffs. I'm not guaranteeing that they'll make it or they won't.

Sports are not about guarantees. And after all the heroics and against-the-odds runs that I've witnessed from the Minnesota Twins in recent years, I'll never count a team out until it's official.

Basically, there's always a chance, but I just don't see it this year. They're playing some good hockey at times. They're making good moves for the future, so that's where focus should shift. As they say, there's always next year.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Just a little update

I haven't updated in a little more than a week, but I'm not feeling a strong topic to write about. So I figured I'd just jump on and randomly ramble.

Party in New Orleans
The Super Bowl was played yesterday. According to what I heard on the local KARE 11 news tonight, it was the highest rated TV programming ever - even beating out the MASH series finale. I caught a few bits and pieces of the game while I was hard at work in the Star Tribune sports department.

You've got to hand it to the Saints; they came through with a win in their very first Super Bowl appearence. The Vikings sure can't relate to that, can they? 0-4 in the big show, and 0-5 in NFC title games since they last appeared in a Super Bowl. Keep trying, boys.

Goalies droppin' like flies
The Wild having been having goalie issues. No. 1 Backstrom has been both ill and injured, and Josh Harding has had a hip injury. It's really too bad because he's been waiting in the wings as a backup, and now when he gets his chance, he gets hurt too.

Harding sat out the game in Dallas, a building where the Wild has had less success than the Vikes in big games. He decided to make a go of it the next game against the abysmal Oilers. He kept the team in it and made an absolutely brilliant save. Unfortunately, the save came at a price. With his hip injury reaggravated, he was knocked out of the game. The Wild skated to a 4-2 win.

High school puck
Over the weekend I went to an Andover High School boys hockey game versus Champlin Park. It was an 8-2 victory for the Huskies, and it was won early. The first three shots of the game for Andover were goals, causing the Rebels to call a timeout and swap goalies. All before the game was four minutes old.

Senior Taylor Portner banged in a stunning six goals, and metro-scoring standout Cal Decowski had a handful of assists. Andover attained momentum with a goal in the first minute of each period. It was an exciting game that was also physical and penalty filled. Huskies, huskies, bark, bark, bark!

Well, that's about it. Just a little update with a few odds and ends. Don't forget - the Olympics are coming up from a snow-deprived Vancouver.