Monday, October 14, 2013

Outshooting, outchancing finally leads to a solid Wild win

With its best game of the young season, the Minnesota Wild beat division-rival (that has a nice ring to it) Dallas Stars 5-1 Saturday night in front of a good crowd at the Xcel Energy Center. It was a game of excitement and firsts for a few Wild players. It also gave the Wild win No. 2 for a 2-1-2 record after starting off with a couple tough overtime and shootout losses.

I didn't make it to a game last season, which was shortened by the lockout. But I returned to the X Saturday with my parents and brother, wearing my red Wild jersey and hockey-puck beads. We had a view in one of the corners on the Wild end.

Being seasoned sports fans, we were in our seats ready for the opening faceoff. Actually, I was pretty jazzed (Do people still say that?) just to see the opening videos they play on the scoreboard before the game, when they turn out all the lights and pump up the crowd before the teams come to the ice. I was very excited to be back.

Fastest goal ever, ever
Anyway, what I was getting at is for those folks who for whatever reason weren't in their seats for the start of the game, they missed out on the Wild's first goal. It came just 12 seconds into the contest, on a pretty feed from Matt Cooke to Justin Fontaine for his first career goal in the NHL. That marked the fastest goal to start a game on home ice for the Wild in franchise history.

About halfway through the period, Cooke grabbed his second point of the night with an unassisted goal. He snuck it past the Dallas goalie so quickly I wasn't even sure what happened. My favorite thing about it? The fact that "C is for Cookie" played in the arena afterward. Yes, Cookie Monster's song from Sesame Street.

I'm still quite cautious about Cooke, the veteran who's new to the Wild this season. He's got a long list of dirty penalties and suspensions to his name. So far though, his name is showing up on the score sheet for goals and assists, not trips to the box. As I've already noted though, the season is young. I'm not on the bandwagon yet.

The excitement wasn't over yet in the first period. The Wild were shorthanded, but that didn't stop both Kyle Brodziak and Cooke from getting breakaway opportunities. Neither scored, but they were still electric plays that brought fans to their feet.

Dumba is no dummy
As the Wild continued to dominate play in the second, another first was on the horizon. Matt Dumba scored on the power play on a nice cross-ice pass from the struggling Dany Heatley to make it a 3-0 game. With that, Dumba became part of the club to score a goal in the NHL.

Still in the second, the Wild went up 4-0 after what looked like Zach Parise jammed away at the puck in the crease and put it past the goalie. There was no goal light or signal from a referee on the ice that I could see, but Wild players celebrated the goal anyway. I'm not sure what the review process was, but the ref quickly signaled a good goal after some conversation. Scorers later gave the goal to Nino Niederreiter, for his first goal in a Wild sweater.

The Wild gave up a shorthanded goal to Dallas in the second, but it was all it would allow.

If you're broken up Parise didn't get that goal, don't be. He notched a power-play tally with 5:30 left in the game to put the Wild up 5-1. And that's how it ended up.

Good consistency finally pays off
Yet again, the Wild outchanced and outshot its opponent, with 36 shots versus 19 for the Stars. It's something the team's been doing consistently already this year; it just hasn't always paid off yet. The Wild were playing well, getting chances, peppering goalies with shots. The results were a shootout loss, an overtime loss which was just a couple seconds away from a shootout and a one-goal loss in Nashville.

Head coach Mike Yeo kept saying that if you do the right things, keep outplaying opponents, the wins will come. Agreed. Although while the Wild was still winless and already occupying the division basement (Yes, I know how early it is to look at that.), it was frustrating to keep hearing that. The Wild still needs to work hard to make sure it's finishing plays, hitting the net with shots and basically just getting the goals.

I liked what I saw Saturday (though I wouldn't mind some more physical play from the Wild at times either), and I just hope the Wild can keep the momentum going.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Wild return for season No. 13

Hockey season has arrived. I love following both baseball and hockey, because when one ends, the other begins. This time, it timed out better than most years. The Twins finished their regular season last Sunday, then just four days later the Wild opened its season at home against the Los Angeles Kings. The NHL is starting earlier this season because of the Olympic break this winter.

After the Wild's dramatic regular-season finish to return to the playoffs at the end of the lockout-shortened season last spring, followed by the early postseason exit at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, I was excited for the opener the other night.

Comings and goings
The Wild came into this season with some of its veterans and fan favorites. Pierre Marc-Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Cullen and Devon Setoguchi aren't with the club anymore. The Wild didn't make an offer to Minnesotan Cullen, who was on his way to free agency, and instead it signed another Minnesota boy in Keith Ballard for two years.

The feisty hitter and fan-favorite Clutterbuck was traded to the New York Islanders in June for Nino Niederreiter. I was sad to see him go, since he was a big key to Minnesota's hitting, but I'm excited to see what Niederreiter can bring to the table. Bouchard was signed by the Islanders as a free agent.

One of the more interesting acquisitions for the Wild was getting veteran bad boy Matt Cooke, a player with a long list of dirty hits and suspensions on his resume who's trying to convince fans he's changed his ways. I haven't jumped on his bandwagon yet. Let's give it time.

The other big news Thursday, other than opening day, was the Wild signing Jason Pominville to a five-year deal. The Wild picked him up near the end of last season from the Buffalo Sabres.

Line matchups
The Wild still have star power on the top line, with Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Pominville will join Koivu and Parise on the offensive side of the line. The team will also need to rely on some youngsters, too. Everything I hear about Charlie Coyle is positive. I'm hoping he can really have a breakout year and become a leader in the locker room.

The opening-night second line was made up of Coyle, Niederreiter and Dany Heatley. That should be a good mix, although I'd like to see Heatley step up his game a little more this season.

The netminders are back
The goalie situation could be a key factor this year as well. The Wild signed veteran Niklas Backstrom for three more years. He's been great for the Wild, but he's also 35 years old. He didn't see a minute of playoff action, as he suffered an injury during game one warmups in Chicago. It'll be interesting to see how he returns this season.

Backing him up will be the hard-working Josh Harding, who struggled last year off the ice with his medications for multiple sclerosis. Backstrom played a lot last season, and I guess the concern would be what happens if another injury plagues the netminder, or either one starts struggling. We'll see.

NHL realignment
The divisions in the league look different this year as well. Instead of three divisions in two conferences, teams are split into two larger divisions in the Eastern and Western conferences. The changes grouped teams together with a proximity and time zone focus. I think it will be a good thing.

The Wild are in the Central Division in the west. Finally. It makes sense that they're here, since Minnesota is in the middle of the country. They can keep the division rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche, but they join others in the same time zone, rather than a bunch of teams out west like they had before.

With the Wild and Aves are the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets made the switch from the Western Conference over to the East.

High expectations
The pressure is on the Wild this year to not only get back to the playoffs, but to win a playoff series. Mike Yeo is in the final year of his contract, and he'll be expected to deliver a playoff-caliber team. Some of the roster moves the past couple years have brought in some good talent. Now they just need to figure out a way to close out games and use that talent to the best of their ability.

It's not just the Wild that have struggled in the postseason. All Minnesota teams have had trouble the past few years actually winning in the playoffs. Just getting there isn't always enough. The fans of the state of hockey are hungry for some playoff wins.

Rolling into the bowling routine

I joined a bowling league in Fergus Falls. I've always enjoyed the sport. It was something I did as an after-school activity in middle school, and I was part of a junior league for a couple years during high school. It's nice to get back in the routine again.

Now, I am by no means a fantastic bowler. My all-time high game was a 200 (actually, a dutch 200 where I alternated strikes and spares every other frame), but that was really some kind of fluke. Rolling anything over 150 is probably a fluke, too.

My average in high school was in the 125-130 range. I throw a 12-pound ball, but I don't generate a lot of speed, and therefore, don't get a lot of pin action. In theory, I should be more focused on accuracy to pick up spares since the strikes don't fall as often. That doesn't always happen though. I've struggled lately with consistency in how I throw the ball.

So far, not so good
Three weeks into the season, and my average sits at a 108. Not exactly where I'd like to be. Of course, I've had a few games in the 90s. Yes, that would be under 100 pins. What's weird is I've gotten a few more strikes than I've expected, but then there are times when I can't seem to pick up a spare.

I also seem to screw up the frames around the few marks I do get. Knocking down anything less than five pins on the first ball after a spare isn't good for making the mark count. Plus, I've thrown some gutters and only managed a couple pins after a strike. Those things don't help the pin count.

My high game so far is 145, which ended week No. 2 where I improved each game. I have slow starts, apparently, because I haven't cracked 100 in my first games yet.

A nice routine for having fun
Even though I may be hard on myself sometimes, because I really just want to improve and be more consistent, I still enjoy being part of the league. It's a nice routine to have, and it's a good chance to meet some new people. I bowl on a women's league with four other teams, five women to a team. It's a nice mix of ages, too.

Well, here's hoping I can figure out how to at the very least break 100 each game from here on out.