Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Minnesota Wild at the NHL All-Star break

The Minnesota Wild went into the All-Star break with a 4-2 win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. This puts the Wild in eighth place in the Western Conference with 55 points (tied with San Jose) at the measuring-stick point of the season.

They have been an inconsistent, up-and-down team this season, as in years past. It's been a team that can impress and amaze one night, and then completely collapse the next. A team that can go from a decent first period, to coming out absolutely flat in the second period.

Being in the hunt for a playoff spot is fine, as long as you can maintain your level of play in order to break into the top eight. And even then, you'll end up playing the top-seeded teams and have your back up against the wall.

But hey, it's still about halfway through the season, so let's just wait and see how things shake out in the ever-tight West. Three-point games make the standings extremely competitive and ever-changing. It's hard to scoreboard watch too far in advance, and it's best just to keep trying to win as many games, in regulation, as possible to help your team.

Two All-Stars for the Wild
Brent Burns was named to the NHL All-Star game, and just this week it was announced that his teammate Martin Havlat will join him. It is only the second time that the Wild will have two representatives at one All-Star game. The other came when St. Paul hosted the event back in 2004.

Havlat has been having a great season and he leads the team with 44 points (14 goals, 30 assists). Mikko Koivu is right on his tail with 43 points.

At one point, the defenseman Burns was leading in the goal category. Now, he joins Koivu, Havlat and Cal Clutterbuck who are all sitting at the 14-goal mark.

Like goals? Then the All-Star game is for you
The new-format All-Star game is this Sunday in Raleigh, N.C. We'll see how the ratings do. Star player Sidney Crosby won't play because he's been out for most of January with a concussion. His Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin won't play either.

Plus, I'll be honest. The NHL All-Star game is never too exciting of a game in my eyes, from the standpoint of competition, that is. If you like to see goal scoring, then sit back and enjoy the 15-12 goal fest. I kid, but it does seem to have that offensive quality to it, unlike the Major League Baseball All-Star game which is a little more like a regular game, and it actually means something now too.

It's a little harder with hockey because hitting and physical play are such a part of the game, but no one wants to be responsible for injuring a player in an exhibition game, so it is a different atmosphere.

If you want to catch the All-Star action this weekend, watch on Versus at 3 p.m. for the big game. Cheer on Burns and Havlat.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Shutting out the Canucks

Wild goalie Anton Khudobin.
Sometimes in sports, you just have a team's number. That seems to be what's happening with the Wild whenever the Vancouver Canucks come to St. Paul for a division-rivalry game.

With a 4-0 win for Minnesota on Sunday night, it marked the fourth straight game at the Xcel Energy Center that it's won against the Canucks.

Vancouver has such a hard time playing here that it didn't start its dominating goaltender Roberto Luongo (whose statistics at the X are less than desirable), but instead started Cory Schneider. The goalie switch-a-roo didn't seem to phase the Wild one bit.

The shutout win snapped a three-game losing streak (preceded by a four-game win streak) for the Wild. It was a great effort against a team with the best record in the NHL, a team which had only lost one game in regulation since early December before the loss to the Wild.

Wild came to play
Right from the start, there wasn't much to complain about. I could tell early on that Wild rookie goalie Anton Khudobin was on his 'A' game. He made some great saves all night, with some help from his defenders, to earn his first career NHL shutout in only his third career start. Amazing job for the call-up filling in for the injured Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore.

No goals were scored in the first period, but that didn't stop the fans from giving the Wild a warm reception as they went to the locker room. It's much better than booing them into an intermission, that's for sure. The Wild held a 8-0 shot advantage until almost the halfway mark of the period.

The Wild got on the board a few minutes into the second, with a diving-effort, power-play goal by Andrew Brunette. It would turn out to be the scrappiest goal of the night. Martin Havlat continued showing his offensive skill with a pretty breakaway goal about halfway through the second.

Makin' the highlight reel
In the middle of killing a penalty, Minnesota native Matt Cullen grabbed a bouncing puck that had trickled out to center and away from a Vancouver defender. Cullen turned on the jets and created a beautiful breakaway for a shorthanded goal.

It's pretty rare that you can see two breakaways in a game, let alone having both of the shots hit the inside of the cage.

Cullen's goal early in the third seemed to end any chance the Canucks may have had to come back. John Madden also had a highlight-reel goal later with great assists to Cullen and Chuck Kobasew.

As for the shutout, anytime you can keep the dangerous Sedin twins off the score sheet, it's a good day.

Physical game? Check.
I was hoping for some hitting and fighting during the game, being that it was Vancouver and all. I got my wish. The Boogeyman-replacement Brad Staubitz dropped the gloves with Aaron Volpatti in the first after Staubitz hit Andrew Alberts so hard that he went sailing on the ice into his team bench.

In the second, it was Kobasew getting into the action with a scrum against Keith Ballard. Both fights were worth it, many punches were thrown. Ballard and Kobasew even had to be separated by the referees because they went on so long on the ice that they were tired out. No take down there.

Hitting, and often times fighting, are a part of the game. It was great to see these parts showing up on Sunday.

Me and my friend Michael.

Thanks goes out to my friend Michael for inviting me to the game; we had some great seats. That's him in the above photo, wearing a Wild jersey for the first time ever. It was his first piece of hockey apparel. I was a proud sports friend.

What's next?
The Wild now hit the road for a few games. We'll see if the effort put forth against the league's best team can hold up for a little while.

If you're watching the points in the standings (which I don't like to do since it changes so much, so frequently), eight teams are currently ahead of the Wild in the Western Conference. Minnesota is tied with San Jose and Los Angeles with 49 points each. But that's at the moment.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Good news on the Minnesota sports front

A lot of good things have happened recently in the wide world of Minnesota sports. Maybe it's enough to overshadow the fact that the Vikings went from being oh-so-close to a Super Bowl last season, to finishing last in their division in the very-odd 50th season.

But back to the good news. The Wild have turned things around a bit, at least for the moment, as the halfway mark of the season arrives. To add to the rejuvenated excitement, Brent Burns was named to the NHL All-Star game.

St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso was honored as the Division III Coach of the Year. Bert Blyleven finally received the call to the Hall. Yes, there is a lot to celebrate these days and take our minds off the snow that seems to be stuck in the 'on' position.

Wild are showing some life
It's a good time to be following the Wild right now. They are playing well on the road, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins (minus an injured Sidney Crosby) and the sliding New Jersey Devils (with former coach Jacques Lemaire).

Their record is 8-3-1 in the past 12 games to put them in the thick of things in the extremely tight points race in the Western Conference. As of Tuesday, they are sitting in the middle of their Northwest division with 47 points.

The funny thing about this season has been the role reversal of playing at home versus on the road. Last season, the Wild got off to a horrible start on the road and never fully recovered. This season, they are playing much better when they are away from the X, which is not helpful for the paying customers at home games.

If one thing has been clear, it's that the Wild are an inconsistent team. They win a couple here, lose a couple there. This is the first real sign of life for them, and a sigh of relief for coach Todd Richards. Let's keep those fingers crossed that the Wild can ride this high wave a little longer.

Burns is an All-Star
Defenseman Brent Burns at one point was leading the team in goals. Currently, his 12 tally trails hitter Cal Clutterbuck's 13 goals. Burns also has 14 assists for 26 points and is having a great year. He will be representing the Wild as the organization's sixth-ever All-Star.

Apparently, he had a trip planned to Mexico with his wife over the All-Star break. I guess he'll have to cancel. I'm sure his bride will understand.

Deserving award for Caruso
Before the BCS football game took place Monday night in Phoenix, St. Thomas head football coach Glenn Caruso was named the 2010 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year for NCAA Division III. In his third year at UST, he is the youngest coach to win the award.

He turned a 2-8 football team in 2007 into a MIAC and DIII powerhouse team. This season, the Tommies snapped a long losing streak to the rival Johnnies, as they made their way to a perfect 10-0 regular season. They lost to Bethel at home in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Caruso has given St. Thomas football a complete makeover and is very deserving of this award. Bob Nielson of Minnesota Duluth was the top coach honored in DII football.

It took 14 years, but he's in
Bert Blyleven now has another countdown to keep track of, besides the number of days until his next birthday. The date now circled on his calendar should be July 24, when he will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Fourteen years may seem like a long time to wait, and I'm sure Bert is relieved to finally be part of the elite class of Hall of Famers. Certain stats, like his win-loss record, were arguably holding him back from being a clear candidate as considered by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

But hey, at least he got in. That should be all that matters, right?

The pitcher in the 70s and 80s is well-known now for his color analysis for FSNorth on the Twins broadcasts. For someone of my generation, this is how I am most familiar with Bert. It's unfortunate that I can't recall his playing days.

He spent half of his career with the Twins, during two different stints. He was here to be part of the 1987 World Champion Twins team. He pitched in an era before there was so much weight put into closers, middle relievers and set-up guys. He went to the mound intending on finishing eight or nine innings.

One piece of sad news from the Twins family
The legendary face of the Twins, Harmon Killebrew, announced that he has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. This was quite sad and unexpected news that came to light recently. The Killer, a Hall of Fame veteran who still has deep ties with the Twins organization, is thought of fondly by many fans.

His spirit seemed very high in his released statement, where he gave every indication he would be beating this illness. The entire Twins and baseball community will be wishing for a speedy recovery for Killebrew.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Minnesota comes out on top in a 'wild' one at home

I'm really not sure what to think about the Minnesota Wild's 6-5 overtime win Sunday night at home over the Phoenix Coyotes. It was a very interesting game, and coach Todd Richards had it right in his post-game comments in saying, "it was like a movie."

I'll go with that.

Let's lay everything out from the beginning. We got to the Xcel Center extra early to enjoy our seats in the corner seven rows up from the glass. Seeing the boys up close for warm-ups was pretty cool. It also gave me a chance to get some nice photos of them in their green uniforms.

Cal Clutterbuck.
 The game started out alright. Nothing too earth-shattering, until the Coyotes got the first goal of the game. Then the people who made the intermission food dash a little early missed out. Andrew Brunette scored with 4.4 ticks remaining in the first to tie the game and give the Wild some life.

Not a bad second, for a change
Then came the second period, a frame the Wild have been known to forget about this season. We were a little worried too, since our seats were at the end where they would be looking to score during the second.

As it turned out, the second period might have been their best. Brunette scored his second of the night on the power play, and Nick Schultz fired one in from the point to give the Wild a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes.

Back-and-forth third
Things got a little hairy in the third. The Wild seemed to once again forget that a hockey game is 60 minutes long, not less. They came out looking like a team that was trying not to lose, rather than win.

Wild goalie Jose Theodore.
Jose Theodore had to be good on a night when the Wild gave up 44 shots, tied for the most this season. So giving up five goals isn't a bad ratio. The problem was, the Coyotes scored two goals in a 13-second span early in the third to tie it a three.

Brent Burns got the lead back, which was followed by the Wild again sitting back on its heels. Phoenix wasn't done putting pucks in the net either. They tied it, and then the dagger came with just under three minutes to go for a 5-4 advantage.

The night looked to be over, but the scoring still wasn't done. With the extra attacker on the ice for a pulled Theodore, Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored with 26 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. Talk about excitement.

Time for OT
While we were waiting for the OT to start, I said to my brother, "Well, somebody better score in overtime, otherwise we might as well leave if they get to a shootout." Negative? Maybe, but the Wild haven't proven they can win in shootouts this year.

Luckily, we didn't have to wait long. Cam Barker, of all people, was the big hero of the night. His shot from the point looked to be stopped by Phoenix goalie Jason LaBarbera, but the puck trickled through his pads for the win.

Pandemonium ensued at the X. It was a pretty wild win, and much needed.

Mikko Koivu.
Other notes
- Mikko Koivu had a banner night in his 400th game. He tied his career high with four assists, which gave him 201 for his career.

- After Brunette's second goal, I asked my brother if he was going to throw his NDSU hat on the ice should Bruno get the hat trick. The opportunity had never arisen for us before, being so close to the action, and he said he was "thinking about it."

- Martin Havlat was a minus-4 for the game.

- Despite the Wild's awful streak in shootouts, they are 4-1 this season in overtime contests.

- We were close enough to the ice that I could see Burns say "F*&@" after making a bad passing decision in the Wild zone.

Wild end 2010 on a low note

Talk about a listless, lackluster hockey game. I guess the Minnesota Wild were thinking ahead to New Year's Eve plans, but forgot they needed to show up at the Xcel Energy Center first in what turned out to be a 4-1 loss to the slumping Nashville Predators.

It's been awhile since I've seen that kind of a poor performance in person. The boys had no energy, not even enough to hit, apparently. They just came out flat. The Star Tribune's Michael Russo really hit the nail on the head with his game story.

Not their best effort
The score is a little misleading. It was basically a 2-0 game, until the Wild cut the deficit to one with about two minutes left in the game. Then they gave up two empty-net goals for the first time in team history.

Although, the Preds did have a lot more chances where they could have easily put the puck away, so a 4-0 or 5-0 score would have been appropriate too.The first period wasn't all that bad. The Wild put themselves in a hole when they gave up an early goal.

Stopping screening your goalie
Goal No. 2 was scored in the second period. Both times, however, it appeared Nicklas Backstrom was screened on the play - by his own players.

I believe it was Cam Barker on one of the goals. The defender is in front of the goal to keep an eye on the opponent who's camped out just above the crease.

But, what the defender also needs to do is a) rattle the guy's cage by shoving, pushing, grabbing... anything that you can get away with so you won't end up in the box; and b) be aware enough to not screen your own goaltender, making his job 10 times harder.

I've noticed this before with the Wild, although I suppose other teams could have the same problem too. They need to take more initiative in front of their own net. Protect your goalie and defend your zone.

Hit somebody already
Along the lines of not being aggressive, what the Wild really could have used Friday was some physicality to their game. Sometimes a fight is what a team needs to get some inspiration, which would have been nice, but I would have settled for some decent hitting.

I realize Cal Clutterbuck missed the game due to injury; however, he can't be your only hitter. Play with some intensity and throw some bodies against the boards, unless you want the crowd to think they're watching a women's hockey game.

Since nothing seemed to go right, the power play didn't either. It was pretty bad. The Wild once again were chorused with boos from the crowd and shouts of "shoot the puck." This was later in the game when fans were finally starting to get restless after it appeared the building had been zapped of its energy, like the home team.

Too little, much too late
A little offense finally came to life with a goal from Chuck Kobasew with about two minutes left in the game. I have to be honest; I wasn't that excited.

I mean, it was nice they finally put a puck in the net, but then the place decides to come to life along with the "pump up" music from the sound system. Sorry, but the Wild decided not to show up for 58 minutes. What makes you think they will score again before the game is over?

Then things got really ugly, with the two empty net goals. I didn't really understand why they kept Backstrom out after it was 3-1. They had trouble controlling the puck all night, and they thought they could play keep-away at the end. Nope, not working.

So, the game ended to the sound of boos from the unhappy crowd. It was quite fitting for the lack of effort shown by the home team. Then it was off to kick off the New Year with a more joyous celebration than the Wild mustered.