Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tony Kanaan swigs the Indy 500 milk on his 12th try

To tell you the truth, I had every intention of writing a post-Indy 500 blog about Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan. I just had no idea I'd be writing it after he became an Indianapolis 500 champion.

Kanaan won the 97th running of the Indy 500 Sunday, on his 12th attempt at the greatest spectacle in racing. He finished first during a record-setting race. Kanaan's average speed of 187.433 mph broke Arie Luyendyk's record from 1990, 68 lead changes doubled the record set just last year of 34 and 14 of the field of 33 drivers led a lap at some point.

Sunday's race went down as an instant classic in my book. It was exciting from start to finish and was mostly full of green-flag racing. Cautions were at a minimum, and there weren't any real multi-car crashes that often plague races. Unfortunately, the race ended under caution after last year's winner Dario Franchitti, who struggled all month at Indy, hit the wall.

Who's gonna win?
With a jumbled field, it was tough to make a pick for the winner, but I went with 2012 IndyCar Champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, and my dad picked 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon. Many people picked Marco Andretti, who started third and ended up fourth. I think he and Kanaan were both sentimental favorites.

It's always a small victory when the field makes it through the first corner and first lap of green-flag racing. JR Hildebrand, who was one corner away from winning in 2011, was the first to meet the wall when his car got loose. Luckily, that wasn't a regular occurrence throughout the race.

The battles for the lead were constant between the front runners of Kanaan, Ed Carpenter and Marco Andretti. It was just an all-around good race, really. If you missed it, you missed out.

TK was a CART guy
Kanaan, also known as TK, is called a fan favorite. He earns extra points with me because he was a CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) driver in the years of the IndyCar split. He's won some races and has been a pretty average driver. Who knows how many races he would have won if he'd been a part of the powerhouse teams of Penske or Target Chip Ganassi.

After the grid was set for this year's Indy 500, my dad and I mulled over the jumbled field. Indiana native Ed Carpenter nabbed the pole, rookie Carlos Munoz started second (and drove a helluva race) and Penske and Target drivers weren't actually up near the front.

I asked dad about Kanaan, and he said he might end up being one of the great drivers to never win at the storied speedway of Indianapolis. I agreed with him. I figured Kanaan would join the ranks of drivers like Michael Andretti, who dominated races and led many laps, but never won at Indy thanks to the well-known "Andretti Curse."

Kanaan had his share of bad luck at Indy as well. He crashed as a rookie in 2002, he finished in the top 10 the next four years, he set a record by leading at least a lap in each of his first seven Indy starts (but he couldn't get a win), then he crashed in 2008 and 2009, he finished third in 2012. It just never seemed to be his day.

Until Sunday.

"I got a little bit of luck today," Kanaan said, in victory lane. "Again, it's for the fans."

Fitting Indy 500 champions
It was two years ago today, May 29, 2011, that the late Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 for the second time. It turned out to be his last win ever, as he was killed in a terrible crash that October in Las Vegas.

Franchitti and Kanaan (along with former racer Bryan Herta) spoke about their good friend and fellow competitor Wheldon during his memorial service. It seems pretty fitting that Franchitti and Kanaan won the next two Indy 500s. Wheldon must be looking down with those big pearly whites of his.

Kanaan will turn 39 in December. That's not necessarily "old" when it comes to racing standards, but he's certainly a veteran. If he's considering retirement at all now or in the near future, I think his decision might be a little easier because at least he'll have his face on the Borg-Warner trophy.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Minnesota Wild just can't finish, sees season end

Predictably, the Minnesota Wild lost its opening-round playoff series to the Chicago Blackhawks in five games. Chicago is one of the best teams in hockey, and the Wild just didn't match up.

The Wild's season ended with a 5-1 loss in Chicago. One of the things head coach Mike Yeo said during his postgame news conference was that they just couldn't seem to buy that first goal. That's definitely accurate. Even in game 5, the Wild got off to a good start, just like other games in the series. But they just had trouble getting the puck past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.

One of the big problems is that the Wild just couldn't finish plays. Sure, some of it has to do with the goaltender in the net. But that has been the case for the Wild often in the playoffs. First, it was Jean-Sebastien Giguere shutting them down in the 2003 Western Conference finals. Then they met up with division-rival Colorado and Jose Theodore in 2008. Crawford played very well for the Blackhawks this year as well.

What if?
I did play with some what-ifs? when it came to goaltending. During the opening round, Vancouver made a goalie switch because of poor play, though it didn't help and they were swept out of the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins also had some issues with Marc-Andre Fleury, who looked just terrible in a loss to the New York Islanders.

Why couldn't the Wild have matched up against an opposing goalie who was less than stellar? That's more frustration than anything else though.

And how about the Wild's Niklas Backstrom getting injured in warmups before the first game? He was great for the Wild all season but didn't play a single minute in the postseason. Then Josh Harding was injured, and the pipes were turned over to rookie Darcy Kuemper.

That's just some bad luck. Not an excuse for why the Wild lost the series, but it certainly was a factor that wasn't beneficial.

Own worst enemy
I know that the Wild didn't help themselves. They couldn't score on the power play either, which put them at a huge disadvantage. It wasn't that the Wild weren't getting the opportunities with the man advantage; the referees were actually nice enough to blow their whistles. But the parade to the penalty box for the Blackhawks didn't equal goals on the scoreboard for the Wild, which was a problem.

Watching the end of game five and realizing the Wild just didn't have enough to come back was frustrating. With any sport, the excitement of the postseason is so exciting and intense, that it's always hard to see the ride end.

I hope the Wild can build off of some of the strides this year (this lockout-shortened year, remember) and come back improved next season. The Wild signed two of the biggest free agents last July 4th in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. It's the belief of many, and me, too, that the Wild needs to go out and sign a strong goaltender. Get a big name, or someone who Backstrom can pass the torch to for the Wild.

I just hope next season goes well. Too bad we have to wait until next fall for the Wild to drop the puck again.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Minnesota Wild hits a win at home

The No. 8-seeded Minnesota Wild entered Sunday down two games to none in the series with the dominant Chicago Blackhawks. Game three was extremely crucial. A Chicago victory pushing the series lead to 3-0 would pretty much spell "game over" for the Wild, but a 2-1 series would bring some life to the state of hockey.

Luckily for the Wild, the result Sunday was a 3-2 overtime victory at the loud Xcel Energy Center, putting the Wild right back into the series and, maybe more importantly, avoiding a four-game sweep. It was already the second overtime game in the series.

I had an event to attend during the game, so I was pretty proud that I was able to watch the entire game I had recorded without being spoiled. The Wild started off slowly, with a bit of the same play that plagued them during Friday's lopsided 5-2 loss in Chicago. They weren't winning the races or putting pressure on with the forecheck. It looked early like the Wild hadn't changed much in the game plan.

Wild uses 'hatred' to advantage
Then things started to turn around as the first period moved along. The Wild were not only hanging with the Blackhawks, but they were taking some control of the game as well. Before the game, Wild head coach Mike Yeo used the word "hatred" as something he wanted to see in this series from his players. They certainly stepped up to that task and started hitting. It was a constant all game long.

Once the Wild got going, they started dominating in the shots-on-goal category. They peppered Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, who to his credit played outstanding throughout the game. Despite the pressure, it was Chicago that struck first, grabbing a 1-0 lead.

Fast forward to 1:30 left in the first period, and it was Pierre-Marc Bouchard who fired a pretty backhander over Crawford's glove for a top-shelf goal to tie the game. It was a huge momentum boost the Wild needed at the first intermission.

Finally, a lead
It was more of the same in the second period, as the Wild continued to pressure, hit and use the forecheck to their advantage. The game was still knotted at 1 until about three  minutes into the third period when hard-working goal scorer Zach Parise gave the Wild the lead with a shot pretty much like Bouchard's, hitting the right top-shelf.

It seemed the Wild did back off slightly as the minutes ticked down. Chicago had a few strong offensive zone cycles with the puck that looked like a power-play unit out there, except it was 5-on-5 hockey. With a couple minutes remaining, the Blackhawks managed to tie the game at 2. A potential series-breaking goal that sent the game into overtime for the second time in three games between the two clubs.

As many fans probably do during the playoffs, I watched the overtime play with a nervous feeling in my stomach. I just wouldn't be surprised if Chicago got that final tally. Some games are dominated by one team, but then it's the opponent that just gets lucky or is able to cash in even though they're down in the shots category. It felt like that could be the end result.

Anything can happen in OT
But only a few minutes into the extra session, the speedy rookie Jason Zucker became the hero. He took a sharp-angle shot near the goal line and it went in, electrifying the atmosphere on the ice and in the arena. And where did the goal enter the net? Top right shelf.

Yeo got his first playoff win as the Wild's head coach, and goalie Josh Harding got his first playoff win between the pipes. Harding started in game one after Niklas Backstrom was injured in warmups; Harding played outstanding and deserved the win in that game as well.

The win was just the boost the Wild needed, after losing 2-1 in overtime in a winnable game one, and a 5-2 thumping where they were outplayed in game two. Even though they weren't facing elimination in the best-of-7 series Sunday, it sure felt like a must-win game.

Still work to be done
Even with the win, the series is not over. The Wild need to bottle this effort today and keep that up for game four on Tuesday. Chicago is a team full of talent and proved the other night it can dominate. The Wild needs to have another superb effort to try and tie the series before heading back to Chicago.

So many counted the Wild out before a pucked drop in this series. I think they've done better than expected already. Just having two out of three games go to overtime says a lot to me anyway. The Wild may have gotten their one playoff win already. Though that might be more realistic, I hope that's not the case. Time to really prove the doubters wrong, boys.