Sunday, April 28, 2013

Playoff drought ends for Minnesota Wild

The fans in the State of Hockey rejoiced Saturday night as the Minnesota Wild made the playoffs for the first time since winning the Western Conference Northwest Division in 2008.

I should say, they snuck into the playoffs. In typical Minnesota fashion, the Wild didn't clinch the No. 8 spot in the 2013 Western Conference Playoffs with dominant play. It seemed it was more of the "trying not to lose" mentality that plagues teams time and time again.

But I digress. Let's just take a few moments to realize what the Wild accomplished with the 3-1 win in Colorado Saturday. They didn't get any help from other teams, so they needed to win that final game to make the dance. That's as it should be.

The Wild held a 2-1 lead in the third period, and I got nervous as the chances piled up but the goals did not. They had a long 5-on-3 opportunity with not a lot of shots. I believe it was Jason Zucker who used some great speed and got a breakaway chance, but again came up empty.

With no insurance goals, I was crossing my fingers the clock would just get to zero already. It wasn't until just a few ticks remained that Pierre-Marc Bouchard slipped in an empty-net goal to seal the deal. Then the Wild bench erupted in jubilation.

Luckily, it made up for the fact that the Wild lost at home to Calgary earlier in the week, then again Friday night in a brutal 6-1 defeat to Edmonton. I'm glad we don't have to point to those games as two reasons why the Wild players would be polishing up the golf clubs right now.

Now it's on to the next test, facing off against the No. 1-seed Chicago Blackhawks. And hey, they're good, and very deserving of their place on top. They started this lockout-shortened season with a 13-0-3 record. On the bright side, that record contains a shootout loss to the Wild. So there's that.

The Wild have seemed to play well on the road lately while they've struggled at home. Maybe that will come in handy since they will obviously not have home-ice advantage.

Another thing to remember? The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last year. As the No. 8 seed. The odds of it happening two years in a row probably aren't the greatest, but it doesn't matter. Just like the Wild's limp into the playoffs doesn't matter. Once you're in, anything can happen.

The Wild already proved that with their awesome run in 2003. They came back from series deficits to beat Colorado and Vancouver on the road. I'll never forget Andrew Brunette's overtime goal in game 7 against Colorado. Simply amazing.

If you need at least one other positive for the Wild versus Chicago matchup, take this one: The series will be played entirely in the Central time zone. How's that for fan-friendly?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Watchin' and bloggin' - Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

It was 10 years ago that my family took our spring break vacation out to the west coast. We took in some of the sights, visited the Queen Mary and Disneyland. We also attended the IndyCar race on the streets of Long Beach. It was my one and only time at the race.

I sure wanted to go back Sunday for the 39th running of the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and not just because I was jealous of the 70-degree and sunny weather.

The first thing the broadcasters addressed during race coverage wasn't who was on the pole, the past winners at Long Beach or the starting grid. They talked about the security measures in place for the weekend in light of the bombings earlier in the week at the Boston Marathon. They also mentioned that the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was the biggest sporting event in the country this weekend, with more than 200,000 people showing up.

I wrote this entry throughout the race, so this as close to a live blog as you might get from me.

Start your engines
Dario Franchitti got the pole position, which was interesting since he's had a tough start to the season for the dominant Target Chip Ganassi team. The Andretti name has also had plenty of success in Long Beach, so I was hoping Marco could continue what his grandfather Mario and father Michael had started. Unfortunately, Marco started third from the back in 26th position due to a penalty in qualifying.

The field got through the first turn cleanly and even the first couple of laps before a full-course caution as Sebastian Saavedra hit the tires hard after he tried to make a pass on Simona de Silvestro. It looked like Ryan Hunter-Reay got a great jump on the restart and grabbed the lead from Franchitti, but the pass didn't last into turn one.

Takuma Sato finally got by Hunter-Reay and set his sights on the lead. It reminded me of last year's Indianapolis 500 on the final lap. Franchitti and Sato got tangled up in turn one which sent Sato flying into the wall. I thought for certain they'd both go, but Franchitti managed to stay on track for the last couple of turns and the checkered flag.

Alex Tagliani and Charlie Kimball raced side by side and had a good battle going before they made contact with each other for another caution around lap 30. Too bad NBC Sports cut away from that action to show leader Franchitti in the pits. Oh well. There will always be that second-guessing of broadcasts.

Bring out the yellow again
The restart at lap 35 was short lived, as turn one finally caused some carnage. It was a slow start at the line, though leader Sato got a good jump. James Hinchcliffe got squeezed on the inside. Contact was made and parts went flying. E.J. Viso was also involved but quickly spun around and got going again. Hinch's day was done for the second race in a row, however, after he won the opener on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Back to green racing, Justin Wilson got around Will Power for seventh position. Then Oriol Servia was right on Power as well. It didn't look like Power's car had a good day. You don't expect such a dominant racer to hold up traffic and get passed consistently.

The rookie who's already impressed this season, Tristan Vautier, used some strategy to his advantage. He started dead last in 27th but was running in third with less than half of the race remaining. There was plenty of position shifting throughout the race with the restarts, good passing and pit strategy. Wilson didn't have a qualifying time putting him near the back, but he worked hard to run up in the top five.

Hunter-Reay got into the tires in turn eight with 30 laps to go after he went in with too much speed. That brought out another yellow, and a bunch of drivers into the pits for their routine stops. Power and Vautier had contact in the pits as Power was going into his box at the same time Vautier was leaving in their bordering pit boxes.

Movers on the restart
With 25 laps to go, Sato cleanly kept the lead. Drivers were on their push-to-pass buttons on the straightaways as they either defended their positions or tried to get close enough for passes. Andretti, still with a couple pushes left, got by Simon Pagenaud, who had used all his pushes for the race.

Graham Rahal had a good day. In the remaining laps, he was in second chasing down Sato in hopes of taking the lead. Sato held a two-second lead over Rahal with 11 laps to go, and that gap seemed to get bigger. Make that a five-second lead with three laps left.

Servia and Tony Kanaan got together in turn one with two laps to go. It started out as a local yellow, but the full-course caution came on the final lap. Too bad such a great race couldn't finish under green.

Another first-time winner
Sato gets the win. And his boss, the legendary A.J. Foyt, wasn't there to celebrate with him, as he's scheduled to have surgery soon. It was the first win for Foyt's team since Kansas in 2002. Sato was clearly excited on his victory lap. This was 52nd career start.

Other drivers that got their first career victory on the streets of Long Beach include current drive Mike Conway, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Tracy and Michel Andretti.

Three races so far in 2013. Two drivers with their first-ever IndyCar win. It's kind of refreshing to have some new blood in victory lane.

What a great finish for Wilson as well. From not even getting a qualifying lap in, to a spot on the podium. That's a pretty good rebound to wrap up the weekend. It's good proof that anything can happen on race day. Rahal finished second.

Pretty good race overall.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In Boston Marathon aftermath: Live, laugh, love

Yesterday was a dark day for the city of Boston, its annual marathon and our country as a whole.

Three people are dead - one of them an 8-year-old boy - and more than 130 people were injured after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the 117th annual Boston Marathon Monday afternoon. My thoughts are with all of those who were affected.

It was one of those days that had many people glued to social media and televisions as details about the horrific incident came in. One of those days when I imagine parents hug their children a little tighter. Or if you're a journalist, it's a day when breaking news takes over.

Day turns to breaking news
I was in the newsroom when I heard about the reported explosions, and I quickly turned to Twitter as my feed began rolling with Tweets mostly all dealing with the bombing. I knew I needed to get something up with a Breaking News banner on our paper's website, so I Googled and searched for some information before the Associated Press had a story up for me to grab.

My afternoon then turned into a constant pattern of updating the web with the most updated AP story, along with scrolling through Tweets and Facebook posts to find out the latest reports. I also found the race results of a Fergus Falls man who had finished the race and was given his cell phone number to try for an interview.

I had heard reports of cell service being shut down, so when I didn't get through to the local runner, I began an interview via a string of text messages. He and his wife were safe and were out of the area when the blasts occurred. He ended his last text to me by saying he was going to spend the rest of the evening with his wife on their anniversary.

Take a moment
Some of the AP stories offered graphic details about the scene and the trauma that people endured. I did watch one short video of the explosions, from the sports reporter at the Boston Globe. That was pretty raw.

After seeing that and then a few photos, I stopped focusing with my reporter's hat on for a moment and quickly said a silent prayer for everyone involved. In all the hustle and bustle of breaking news, sometimes you just need to take a moment and think about what is happening, regardless of the news element.

As I watched the special coverage on NBC Monday night, I started thinking about the safety of other major sporting events in this country. The Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 are two of the first ones I thought of, being a race fan, and they attract hundreds of thousands of people. Not to mention all the other sporting and recreational events.

Too many tragedies, too often
In less than a year we've seen that movie theaters and kindergarten classrooms are not exempt from violent tragedies either, with Aurora, Colo. and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The movie theater shooting tragedy came into my mind over the weekend, actually. I went to see the late showing of the new Jackie Robinson movie "42." Having arrived a few minutes early, I was the only one in the theater for a bit. There weren't any pre-preview commericals running on the screen or anything, so all I heard were the sounds of the heating and cooling system overhead and the popcorn crunching in my mouth.

Then I looked up and saw the emergency exit door in the front of the theater. My mind went back to that day last summer when I heard the details of the Aurora shooting. It made me pause for a moment as I realized how something like that could happen anywhere these days.

Are we really safe anywhere in today's world? Probably not. Can we wrap ourselves in bubble paper and never leave the house because of what might happen? Absolutely not.

I don't know what the answers are in dealing with a tragic event such as the Boston Marathon bombing. But I do know that we should continue to move forward and live our lives by doing good things.

Live, laugh, love.