Monday, December 30, 2013

Wild need to start fresh in the New Year

The Wild have been slumping lately. That's no secret. They lost all four games on a recent road trip, have had trouble putting pucks in the net and seem to have defensive problems when Josh Harding isn't in between the pipes.

A few people have asked me why, or what is making it so difficult for the Wild, especially when they have two of the league's top players in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. They just don't seem to have a knack for scoring. They'd rather pass the puck around 10 times before taking a shot, or send it behind the goal, or look for that perfect play to create a highlight-reel goal.
A lot of the goals scored, garbage goals, are because the Wild switch it up and just throw pucks at the net. You do that enough, good things will come. But taking 90 seconds of a power play to set up a so-called perfect shot, only to have it sail wide or get blocked by a defender, doesn't get the job done.
It seems they're more focused on their system and puck cycling than thinking about the net. Playing your game like this is fine sometimes, but they shouldn't be afraid to take chances either. Crash the net, because you never know what juicy rebounds will be waiting. Throw some pucks upstairs. See what happens.

Trouble between the pipes
The goaltender situation doesn't inspire the best confidence either. Don't get me wrong, Josh Harding has been excellent in what has turned out to be a No. 1-goalie role. He's made some outstanding saves and often gives his team a chance to win. The drawback is his Multiple Sclerosis which could keep him out of the lineup. He missed the last road trip because he needed to make an adjustment to his treatment.
I'm not picking on him and his MS. I think it's amazing he's still playing at such a high level. Kudos. But he may not be reliable because of it, and that's just reality.

Then there's Niklas Backstrom, who's turned into the backup goalie. Some may say he's slumping along with the team, or that he's not playing well when he gets the call because he isn't starting as much as he used to. I honestly think he's past his prime. I don't think he has what it takes to lead the Wild into a deep playoff run.
Who goes where?
Another concern for this team is all the lineup shuffling and minor league call-ups. Head coach Mike Yeo seems to like moving guys around between the different lines. Obviously, it has to do with injuries as well, but a little consistency might not hurt. Let some guys develop a good system together so their play becomes second nature and can result in more offense.

Parise has been out for a couple games already, and might be out for quite awhile, as he continues to heal after he blocked a shot with his foot awhile back. He was supposed to be out for weeks, but surprised everyone when the injury didn't keep him down. He's still paying for it now. I just hope he doesn't return until he's fully ready. Oh, and it'd be nice to have him on the Olympic team, too.
It will be interesting to see how the Wild respond from the slump. Points are extremely important and the Wild can't afford to slip further down in the standings. They need to figure out the scoring problems and find ways to win. They need to get back to whatever they were doing in November when it seemed they couldn't lose.

Here's a big one: They need to start winning on the road. They also need to find ways to compete with some of the powerhouse teams like the Ducks, Blackhawks and Sharks.
Let's hope the Wild can shift play in the right direction in 2014. And fast.

Goodbye to the Dome

Sunday marked the final game in the Metrodome. The Minnesota Vikings managed to pull out a 14-13 win in a season they'd, I'm sure, like to forget. But more important than the meaningless game pitting two non-playoff teams against each other was all the nostalgia surrounding the Dome.
Since I'm not much of a Vikings fan, I pretty much said my goodbyes to the Dome when the Twins had their final season there in 2009. I spent the most time going to Twins games in the stadium that shoehorned baseball inside, after all. My final time in the Dome was actually in 2011, to take in some high school football action in the form of the Prep Bowl.

Nothing but Twins memories

I think the two most exciting memories for a lot of people when it comes to the Dome were in 1987 and 1991 when the Twins took home World Series Championships. Those remain the two biggest bright spots in professional Minnesota sports history anyway.
Unfortunately, while I was walking the planet for both of those historic runs, I don't have the memories of them. I was too young. But I'm told my parents bundled me up in the stroller so we could all wait in line downtown for World Series apparel.
One of my fondest memories at the Dome was the pre-game ceremony for Kirby Puckett's retirement. I just remember that when he came out onto the field and was announced to the crowd, it was the longest I had ever stood to applaud anyone or anything in my young life. I was old enough to know that such an ovation meant something special.
Put me on the scoreboard
I celebrated a couple birthdays there, and my parents put my name in the scoreboard with happy birthday wishes. I attended the game in which Doug Mientkiewicz was traded to the Boston Red Sox that day, which happened to be the visiting team. I participated in the nice ovation fans gave the Gold-Glove first baseman who was part of the Twins American League Central Championship teams.
I attended games with family, friends and even walked on the field. I watched concession prices jump on my favorite snacks, like malt cups, and consumed many hot dogs and pizza slices. I sat in the outfield, second-deck seats, a few rows up behind the plate and down the third baseline where the fact that the Dome was built for football becomes very apparent. I also made my one and only visit to Twins Fest, and then developed a boycott of the event.
I even attended a Vikings game a few years back.
A 30-plus year run for a major stadium isn't bad, but now it's time for it to go. If nothing else, the roof collapse a few years ago was a pretty good sign that this facility is way past its prime.
We'll take the memories, but let's finally put the Dome to rest.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Wild need to beef up scoring in tough road stretch

The Minnesota Wild are in the midst of a stretch of games where they'll lace up for seven of eight on the road. That's not good for a team that clearly plays much better in front of its home fans than in an opposing arena.

The road trip, against some tough opponents, started with back-to-back games out west this week. The Wild lost 2-1 to the Ducks, who lead the Pacific Division and have yet to lose in regulation on home ice. Then it was on to San Jose Thursday where the Wild lost 3-1. Both games, the Wild were down 2-0, had trouble scoring and didn't get on the board until the third period.

It won't get much easier coming up as the Wild will face the Avalanche, just ahead of the Wild in the standings, the Canucks and Metro Division-leading Pittsburgh. The Wild has already slipped in the standings slightly, in a Western Conference where you just can't afford to make too many mistakes. They're winless in their past five road games, going 0-4-1.

Get it together
I can see some bad trends developing here. The Wild may have some good chances, they may outshoot a team, they may have great goaltending from Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom. But it all comes back to a problem they've known all too well: Scoring.

They just can't seem to punch in the goals when they need to, especially these past couple games when they've been down. Don't be careless with the puck, but don't sit there and wait for that perfect goal either. When you're playing from behind, you should be working extra hard to not only generate chances on the forecheck, but to get shots on net.

Garbage goals still count on the scoreboard. Unless it's against the rules like a puck that's kicked in or batted out of the air with a high stick, it doesn't matter how pretty a goal looks or doesn't look. I think the Wild must get too caught up with trying too hard or something. Even slight hesitations on shots often result in a defender blocking the attempt.

Sorry if this sounds like a broken record. But these scoring issues have spun like a broken record.

Surrounded by strong teams
As I already noted, the Western Conference is a tough one. For instance, the Jets and Predators are tied with 33 points in the Central's basement right now. That point tally would be good enough for third in the Metro Division in the East.

The West is stacked with good teams and talent, from the Blackhawks to the Ducks, Sharks, Avalanche and even the St. Louis Blues are impressive this year. With so much at stake, it's both cliche and very true that each point is important throughout the season. You never know what it will come down to at the end of the season.

I've heard that some have not taken the Wild seriously so far this season, because of a so-called easy schedule. Well, this is the portion of the schedule where you can see what a team is made of.

I hope it's made of some deeper scoring.