Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tough times for the Wild

The wheels are starting to fall off for the Minnesota Wild. Offense continues to be stingy and the goaltending wall that helped the team to some wins early on, has faltered lately (or is it the bad defensive play?).

Saturday's loss at Colorado was pretty bad. A 7-4 beating after the usual second-period coma. The Wild were up 2-1 after the first, not too shabby. But they gave up four goals in the second, entering the final 20 minutes behind 5-3. Things got worse in the third when the Avalanche really came down before the mercy of the final horn signaled the 7-4 loss.

Niklas Backstrom gave up a career-high seven goals. Maybe he would have been able to save face if head coach Todd Richards would have pulled him for Jose Theodore after the fifth or sixth goal, not the seventh.

Baks isn't playing that well lately, with his stats going in the wrong direction, but it's hard to put it all on his shoulders. He stood on his head for many games early on this season, which helped the Wild pull off some victories.

It's the same old story for the Wild as to why they are struggling. Bad turnovers, playing in their own end too much, the second-period sleep walking and a lack of offense from the big guns. Matt Cullen, Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette and Brent Burns need to step it up.

Richards, where are you?
But what really bugged me about Saturday's loss was Richards. Maybe it's always been this way and I just haven't paid that much attention, but he shows as much emotion as a stone. The TV camera showed him after every goal against. Nothing.

When the Avs were putting up goal after goal, Richards showed no desperation. Call a time out. Pull the goalie before things start to get out of hand. Start yelling at the guys on the bench. Something. Of course, we don't know what is said during the intermissions and in the locker room after the game, but still.

Whatever happened to that rigorous practice after a bad Vancouver loss earlier? The Wild straightened up and flew right in the next game. Maybe Richards needs to hold more practices like that one.

Results certainly need to turn around, or who knows if Richards will still have his job by the end of the season.

PMB returns
One bright spot is the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard to the lineup tonight against the Coyotes. PMB has been sidelined with a concussion since March 2009. We all know how tricky the concussion injury can be, so let's hope Butch is fully healed and ready to go. Maybe he'll bring that much-needed spark to the team.

Something needs to change, or it will be a long season.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Heather's Turkey of the Year candidates

It's Thanksgiving week. It's a time to sit back, relax, enjoy some time off from work or school, eat a lot of food and watch football.

There's also Black Friday, but apparently it's not the holiday-season kick-off it used to be. (If anyone knows what exactly is the new, earlier start to the season, let me know. I'm having trouble figuring it out.)

For me, I'm looking forward to my own traditions I've started on Thanksgiving. Like watching as many Friends Thanksgiving episodes on DVD as I can.

Of course, reading Patrick Reusse's Turkey of the Year column in the Star Tribune is also a treat. In honor of his masterful concept, I thought I'd try to come up with a few Turkey candidates of my own.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Derek Jeter - shortstop, New York Yankees
This talented Yankee player thinks he's pretty special. He's probably always thought this way, but his recent contract negotiations seem to show that even more.

A winner of five World Series Championships with the Bombers, he will turn 37 next season. After a declining year in 2010, he is holding out for at least a four-year deal. Apparently, the three-year, $45 million contract offered by the Yankees just isn't enough for this greedy veteran.

I think three years is awfully generous for a player in his late thirties, and for someone who has most likely hit his peak. But what do I know.

Jason Kubel - outfielder, Minnesota Twins
I suppose I could be more broad and list the entire Twins lineup for its poor performance in the playoffs. But it's Kubel's .069 career postseason average that led me to single him out.

He has been referred to as one of the most underrated players in baseball. He hits clutch home runs and contributes well offensively. But there is nothing clutch about his horrible postseason numbers.

Sorry Kubes, but you need to bring your bat with you after 162 (or 163) games.

Tim Brewster - former Golden Gophers football head coach, University of Minnesota
This is an easy pick, and I think Reusse might have chosen him already in a previous year (and could easily this year). It's just too good to pass up.

Brewster was fired mid-season this year after his team failed to win more than one game (a game they probably could have lost if the opposing star quarterback would have been playing).

He was just nauseating to listen to during news conferences; his answers were border-line delusional. This makes me loathe the guy even more than how he coached his team to such pathetic, laughable losses.

Joel Maturi - athletic director, University of Minnesota
Here's a guy who should be fired. He doesn't exactly have the best track record as of late. Exhibit A: Hiring coach Brewster and thinking he was the man to turn the football program around. Instead, it's gone in the tank.

To quote Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan, from his Sunday radio show on 1500ESPN, "I wouldn't buy an apple from this guy [Brewster]."

Then there's the men's hockey team, another sinking ship. Earlier in this decade, the team was a national champion. What happened? Firing coach Don Lucia isn't the answer. And using the excuse "all the good players go to the NHL" isn't flying anymore either. That happens to a lot of other schools too.

The U just named a new president. His first act should be to fire the AD and start building up the sports programs again. And please, if you know what's good for you, don't let Maturi hire the new football coach. Unless you want a repeat of the Brew era.

Todd Richards - head coach, Minnesota Wild
During his first full season with the Wild last year, I was willing to give him a pass for the mediocre team that failed to make the playoffs. Call it a grace period.

But now just shy of two months into the season, I'm expecting more. The Wild have shown mediocrity yet again. Not showing up to play a full 60 minutes of hockey, a lack of five-on-five offense, getting outshot and camping out in its own end have been the major problems plaguing the team game after game.

And what's with all the optional practices? Unless I'm just imagining things, it seems like there are a lot of no-practice, or optional skate days. Maybe that's normal and I'm just ignorant, but I think it's a little odd.

It's the day after a horrible loss, sure, take the day off boys. Bring 'em out on the ice, skate 'em hard and let 'em know mediocrity is not acceptable.

Oh, Richards is also a candidate because of his strong faith in the ability of youngster and under-achiever James Sheppard. Loyal readers of this blog know how I feel about Shep's on-ice performance.

A slew of Viking candidates...
I won't get into all the details for these guys, but here are some other options from the purple pool, again in no particular order:
  • Brett Favre
  • Brad Childress
  • Sidney Rice
  • Ryan Longwell
  • Bernard Berrian
  • Randy Moss

So there you have it. Do you have a top Turkey from my list? Or another candidate you'd like to nominate? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Turkey Day!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

State volleyball tournament

One of the best things about prep sports is the state tournaments. Of course, they're a lot more fun if your favorite school happens to have made the elite cut, therefore giving many high school students across the state a day to play hooky.

The state volleyball tournament at the Xcel Energy Center was this past weekend. Thursday through Saturday the section champions from each of the three classes competed for championship and consolation titles. Twenty-four teams boil down to three state champions.

Let's go Huskies!
Being that I'm an Andover girl, I can't go further without mentioning that the Huskies made it into the tourney once again. They came away as the consolation champions in 2009, and they were the runners-up a couple of years ago.

I was unable to attend the quarterfinal matches on Thursday, where Andover lost to powerhouse Wayzata in Class 3A. The quarters are always an exciting atmosphere, because every team is in contention for a championship, thus bringing out a ton of fans. For teams that fall to the consolation brackets (like Andover) on Friday, the number of supporters shrinks significantly in most cases, and pep bands often don't make the trip either, which is a shame.

Going against this trend, I decided to watch Andover's 11 a.m. consolation semifinal match against Moorhead on Friday. The Huskies took care of the Spuds in three (games or sets... the term has changed recently, but I think I like the old-school games). It was fun to watch some volleyball again and see a few familiar faces from the Andover crowd.

Pleasant surprise
Afterward, I headed down to see if I could meet up with one of the Star Tribune writers who was there covering the afternoon and evening matches. I thought I was just going to say hi, but then he quickly found someone from the High School League and got me a media pass. So I spent the next couple hours watching from the media table down on the floor.

I also took a walk around the entire concourse at the arena level, going past all the locker rooms and getting a peek into the media room, complete with large, blown-up photographs of the Minnesota Wild hanging on the walls.

Match of the tournament
The match I watched that afternoon was the Class 1A semifinals with No. 1-seeded Minneota versus No. 4 Martin County West. Being the No. 1 seed always results in being the favorite, but MCW fought back from two games down to win 24-26, 17-25, 25-11, 25-19, 17-15, upsetting Minneota.

It was probably one of the best matches of the tournament. Five-gamers are always intense, especially when the winning team comes from behind the way MCW did. There were also a lot of 3-0 sweeps, so a match like this one was welcomed, and it came with an electric atmosphere.

Watching the match from the floor level was pretty cool. I enjoyed being in the thick of things, trying to keep track of some of the star players and just generally learning more about the game.

Thanks a lot, snow
Had it not been for the snowy blizzard on Saturday morning, I probably would have returned for the 9 a.m. consolation-final match between Andover and East Ridge. Instead, I decided to head down there later for the 3A final that looked like a good one on paper, between Wayzata and Lakeville North.

Once again, I was able to watch the match from the floor at the media table. I even got into the action by tossing the stray ball back to a Wayzata player after it landed on the table a couple of points into the match.

It wasn't the classic match you would expect from the No. 1 and No. 2-seeded teams; North (No. 1) swept Wayzata in three games with scores that really weren't that close: 25-13, 25-18, 25-13. The McNeil sisters on the Lakeville side were just too much for Wayzata. The first-game domination set the tone for the rest of the match.

So goes another sporting event to stash in my learning-experience file. I just want to keep learning more about more sports and about how to cover them from a media standpoint. It's all about trying to improve while enjoying sports at the same time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A perfect season for the Tommies

A 10-0 regular season. The St. Thomas football team has accomplished this feat for the first time in its 105-year history. Statistics and records from this season are incredible. This all comes just three years into head coach Glenn Caruso's career at St. Thomas.

With a bye in the final week of the season this Saturday, the Tommies can rest easy and know that they have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs. It's a spot they deserved after winning their first MIAC title since 1990, and its first outright title since 1983.

This was their year
A lot of things went right for the Tommies this season, including huge victories over St. John's and Bethel. Those were probably the two biggest games of the year. In a homecoming game for the Johnnies, they were upset in overtime by the long-time rival Tommies, 27-26. It was the first time St. Thomas had been victorious in the Tommie-Johnnie battle in the last 13 tries.

In the homecoming game for Caruso and his players, it was a game of undefeateds as tough-squad Bethel arrived at O'Shaughnessy Stadium. I attended that game, along with 6,000-plus others, to watch the Tommies come away with a 10-6 win in a strong defensive battle. That was a great game.

Double-digit win total
This past weekend, I also went to cheer on the Tommies in their last regular-season home game against Carleton. I got a little nervous during the first half. Having trouble getting first downs, 56 yards in penalties and just a 10-7 halftime lead were enough to make me squirm.

But they came back in a tale of two halves, as they say. Caruso's squad came out firing with 28 unanswered points before securing a 38-7 win, ringing the victory bell and raising the MIAC trophy in celebration on the field.

If you are hungry for some more stats and records, chew on these...

  • This team became the fourth in 95 years to have an unbeaten regular-season record
  • As of right now, St. Thomas is the only Division III football team to hold a 10-0 record
  • They are among six teams in all of NCAA football to have a 10-0 record
  • 282 points for senior Ben Wartman, breaking a school record
And in case you missed it, check out this amazing feature (complete with photos and video) on Caruso and the Tommies written by the Star Tribune's Rachel Blount.

Now the Tommies wait until next week to find out their opponent in the first round of the playoffs, where they will have home field advantage. In my mind though, no matter what happens from here on out, this season was a huge success in Tommie football. I hope it's the start of many more successful years to come.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Highs and lows for the Wild

The Wild had an up-and-down week. Last Monday they blew a 2-0 lead and lost to the visiting Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in a shootout. Wild players also held another parade to the penalty box throughout the night.

Blowing a 2-0 lead is one thing, but to do it by constantly putting yourself in a bad position by playing shorthanded is just bad. A lot of the penalties are things like hooking and tripping, meaning the Wild aren't keeping pace so they need to try to grab guys from behind.

Shootout woes
Then there's the shootout. Despite what the numbers and records say (and I don't think it's too good), I just don't have a good feeling when the Wild reach the shootout. When they head to overtime, I'm silently hoping the game ends there. They've already lost two shootouts this season, the first one coming against Carolina in Finland.

Yes, Niklas Backstrom doesn't have the greatest record in the deciding session, but he can't do it alone either. Maybe this is all in my head, but Wild players don't exactly pound in the goals. They may only get one or two goals in a longer-than-three-tries shootout.

Like in the games, many players try to get too fancy. Some will miss the net entirely, or fail to get a shot off. I'm not asking for perfection every time, and obviously the goalie is trying to make a save, but they need to step it up a bit.

And what did the Wild earn for their blown performance? Another intense practice with coach Todd Richards as the slave driver (something that worked for a huge win against the Canucks)? No. They had an extremely optional practice the next morning.

Now I remember my main beef with Richards last year. He seemed to hold a lot of optional practices for a team that struggled all season long, right from the start. Pick your moments, coach.

Mr. Ovechkin comes to town
The Wild followed up the ugly loss with a solid win over the tough Washington Capitals on Thursday evening. One of the NHL's most popular players, Alexander Ovechkin, came to town to try and get his team a victory in the X for the first time ever.

It wasn't to be. The Caps are the only NHL team without a win on the Wild's home ice. Of course, with the way the League schedule works out, and the fact that these two are in different conferences, the Caps have only visited St. Paul six times.

Minnesota played well all night long. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first, and this time it stuck. The only tally for the Caps was a third-period goal by Ovechkin, resulting in a final score of 2-1.

I did feel a little bad for the hometown boys, because the fans didn't seem very enthusiastic about the fact that the boys were playing well. At one point, the Wild were moving the puck around like it was a power play, and it was 5-on-5 hockey. When the puck was finally cleared, the cheers from the 17,000-plus in the seats were weak at best.

I thought they played a really great game on Thursday, especially against such a high-profile, high-talent team like the Caps.

Back down the slide versus the Cup winners
The Wild then went back down on Saturday with a 3-1 loss to the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. I wasn't able to watch it, but from what I saw on Twitter, it was a tight first period, then things got worse for the Wild in the second as Chicago took a 2-0 lead.

A too-little-too-late goal came with just under six minutes remaining in the game, but an empty-netter off a turnover by Martin Havlat sealed the deal for the Hawks.

Speaking of Havlat, his agent Allan Walsh spouted off to the media last week about how Havlat wasn't being treated like the star player he is, in regard to ice time and such. I don't really agree with that. It's still early in the season, and Havlat hasn't impressed me much yet.

Truth is, newcomer and Minnesotan Matt Cullen is emerging as the team's best player so far. He has three goals and seven assists, plus he looks commanding on the ice. He goes for the net, and tries to make big plays happen.

New season, same inconsistency
A good game here and a bad one there is the same inconsistency we've seen from the Wild before. It's not a way to make the playoffs. And with the official sellout streak being killed at the Xcel Center, it's clear that the honeymoon is definitely over.

It took 10 years, but fans now want to see more than a bottom-eight finish in the Western Conference.

Covering tennis for the Strib

I had the privilege last week of covering the Class 1A girls' state tennis tournament in Minneapolis. It was an exciting couple of days for me because I earned my first official bylines in the Star Tribune.

Wednesday was the team finals, and Friday was the singles final. I wrote a small story about each match. It was a nice experience to cover an event, and then turn right around and write the story for the daily deadline.

I was a tennis player in high school, but I had never witnessed the state tournament festivities before. Covering a sport I was very familiar with at that level helped me feel a lot more comfortable.

Getting my feet wet
Watching the team tennis final is a bit more challenging than watching the singles final. There are seven matches going on at once, and you don't know which will be competitive, which will finish first and which might clinch the win. You also don't get to watch a lot of one match, so the team final is more about finding a good story angle.

The singles final between two of the top-ranked players looked like it would be a good, close match up. The pair played before in the section finals, and one was a section champion while the other was the defending state champion.

It turned out the match was a little more of a route than you'd think. It was a 6-2, 6-1 straight-set win for Amber Washington of Mounds Park Academy. I talked with Amber before and after her match. I found a great anecdote to use for my story lede, and I think it made writing my story a bit easier.

Improvement on day two
It's amazing how much more comfortable I felt after my first day covering the tournament. I also enjoyed being able to watch the entire singles match. It's more fun to be following one match at a time rather than seven.

Covering the tournament was a great experience, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to write about such a great event. I hope I will have the chance to cover more high school tournaments in the future.