Monday, March 31, 2014

Familiar faces back with Twins this season

April is nearly here, which means it's time for Major League Baseball to get its 2014 regular season underway. Never mind that I'm also staring at an area blizzard watch on my computer screen.

The Minnesota Twins have a couple new faces on the 25-man roster this year. Well actually, they're returning faces. Everyone please welcome back two of your favorite Jasons: Shortstop Jason Bartlett and outfielder Jason Kubel.

These former Twins are returning to the club, so good luck to the Twins in trying to win the American League Central in 2006. Oh wait, it's 2014.

I enjoyed watching Bartlett, 34, during his first stint with the Twins. But the front office dealt him in a package to the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2008 season. He went on to play in the World Series, and the Twins got a guy named Delmon Young as part of the deal.

Now, Bartlett was picked up in the offseason and it appears he'll be around as a utility backup and a veteran presence in the clubhouse. He'll probably have to try and boost the atmosphere for a team that's lost nearly 100 games (but hasn't reached the century mark) in the past three seasons.

Sports Illustrated has predicted the Twins will finish in the division basement at the end of the year, and finally notching that 100-loss mark.

Veteran slugger and outfield Kubel, 31, also signed a deal with his former team over the offseason. He played with the Twins from 2004-11 before signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He'll likely see time at in the field and as a designated hitter.

The Twins dropped their sixth consecutive season opener Monday, with a 5-3 loss in Chicago to the rival White Sox. Before the game, Twitter was lighting up with complaints about catcher Kurt Suzuki batting second. Turns out, he was the one to drive in all the runs for the Twins.

It'll be a long season, but let's just try to enjoy a few highlights here and there, Twins fans.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tough tests ahead as Wild try to make the playoffs

Playoffs? Playoffs?!

The attitude about the Minnesota Wild, a team that's occupied a wild card spot in the playoff race for quite awhile, has quickly gone from can they catch the division rivals ahead of them in the standings? to are they even going to make the playoffs at all?

We've seen it before, and we're seeing it again. The Wild just can't seem to skate into the end of the season with a strong showing. Last season, they let it come down to the wire, needing a victory on the final day of the regular season and a tie-breaker to sneak into the No. 8 spot in the playoffs, only to get bounced in the first-round against a very good Chicago Blackhawks team.

The Wild struggled earlier this season, leaving many to question whether head coach Mike Yeo would still have a job for the rest of the season. But they rallied and put together a nice string of wins heading into the Olympic break. I was worried they would lose that momentum, but they came out of the break with no sign of an Olympic hangover.

Slumping at the wrong time
Lately though, the wheels have begun to fall off. The Wild lost at home to a Detroit Red Wings team that is struggling to make the playoffs and is suffering from the injury bug. It won the next night in Detroit, but then dropped a home game to Vancouver and got beat by St. Louis, giving up five goals in each contest.

Rookie goalie Darcy Kuemper has finally started to show signs that yes, he is still a rookie. With injuries/illness biting both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, Kuemper really stepped up as the go-to guy in between the pipes. He's struggled some lately, but I don't think there's anything major to be concerned about. It's not like the guys in front of him have played spectacular either.

Heater finally sits
Veteran Dany Heatley was finally a healthy scratch Saturday against Phoenix. It marked the first one of his career. Really, it's about time. He has been under fire by fans, myself included, for much of the season, but he obviously was a favorite of Yeo's.

Heatley is a team-worst minus-18 and had a couple of bad games this week. Yeo was asked about him after the 5-1 loss in St. Louis Thursday, but the coach didn't take the bait, saying something about how it was a "team loss."

I'm sure I'm not alone in my glee that Heatley finally was given the boot.

Wild win must-win in Phoenix
The Wild have occupied the first wild card spot in the Western Conference, with Phoenix and Dallas trailing by a few points. By Saturday, Phoenix, playing well as of late, climbed to within one point of the Wild. The two teams met for a playoff-like game in Arizona.

It looked like it might be more of the same in the beginning for the Wild. They started out strong, but the first early power play for the Coyotes resulted in a 1-0 lead. (Special teams for the Wild lately have just been bad stats to look at.) They held that lead going into the third period before the Wild scored two unanswered goals, and added an empty netter, to win the game 3-1 and skate away with a very important two points.

As it stands now, the Wild (38-26-11, 87 points) lead Phoenix (36-27-12, 84 points) for the wild card by three points; they've each played 75 games. Dallas is trying to climb into the picture with 83 points and 74 games played.

Not a friendly schedule
However, the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Wild. They'll go to Los Angeles Monday. They also have games against the streaking Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and another run in with the St. Louis Blues before the season ends.

It should be interesting to see how the Wild can respond to these tough teams down the stretch. It would be great to solidify that playoff berth before the final day of the regular season.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Start your engines for 2014

As I've been telling people for the past couple weeks, the bitterly-cold winter has messed with my head. I'm having trouble comprehending that April is next week. It still has to be January, right?

That's why the IndyCar season, which kicks off tomorrow in St. Petersburg, Fla., snuck up on me. I really wish I could go down there for the race; it's one of the tracks on my list. But I also heard today that the grandstands were being evacuated due to severe weather, so maybe just watching on TV is better this year.

With the start of the season, it's time to take a look at the driver field and see what's changed from last season.

Franchitti hits the pits
One of the biggest absences from the driver's seat will be series veteran and former champion, Dario Franchitti. He was badly injured in an October crash in Houston, ending his 2013 season and also his career. Doctors advised him against racing again, so he announced his retirement.

Franchitti's been a strong competitive presence in open-wheel racing for many years, racing in the CART and ChampCar Series before IndyCar came back together a few years ago. I remember the days watching him at Road America (one of his favorite tracks) with Paul Tracy for Team Kool Green.

Anyway, Franchitti is still sticking around the track, working in the paddock for Team Chip Ganassi Racing. He will also drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 this year. He's won the historic race three times, just missing the fourth victory, which would have put him in elite company.

Last year's Indy 500 winner, Tony Kanaan, is taking over in Franchitt's Target machine this season. Still weird to see him in the bullseye suit.

Where are the gals?
While looking at the 25-driver field, one thing is noticeably missing: Women. No full-time rides this season for drivers like Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz or Simona de Silvestro. It was announced during the offseason that the Swiss Miss, de Silvestro, was going to try her skills in Formula One, inking a deal with a Swiss team owner.

She had a good few years in IndyCar, and showed signs of improvement last season. I always liked her as a driver, but I suppose if I'm being honest, it was because I viewed her as the anti-Danica Patrick.

Mann and Beatriz have been part-time drivers in the series, and usually make the field for the Indy 500. I can't recall what their status is for the season. Just one thing though: Please don't bring back Milka Duno.

Montoya's back
Juan Pablo Montoya is back in the IndyCar saddle this season, racing for Team Penske (though I'll still picture him in the Target car). He was a CART racer for a number of years before making the jump to the dark side in 2007, when he took a ride in NASCAR.

Among some other changes, Mike Conway is racing for Ed Carpenter's team, Ryan Briscoe is back full time and the field contains five rookies for 2014.

Scott Dixon will look to defend his IndyCar title this year.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one other change on the business side of things. IZOD is no longer the series sponsor. It's now known as the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Still no RA
Taking a look at the schedule, one circuit is absent yet again: Road America. ChampCar last raced there in 2007. I won't dwell on this too much, except to say that it's a fan-favorite track and many drivers in the past have loved it as well. It's getting to the point now where a lot of the field's drivers haven't even raced there to enjoy it.

NASCAR's Nationwide Series has raced there the past few years, drawing some crowds, I'm sure. But whatever needs to be done to make it happen for an IndyCar return, I hope it happens.

The 18-race season starts this weekend, followed by the long-standing classic Long Beach street course in a couple weeks. The month of May will be particularly exciting this year, with a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's road course, followed by the greatest spectacle in racing. I'm looking forward to attending the road course race with my dad.

Three dual-race weekends will take place in Houston, Detroit and Toronto. The season will once again wrap up in Fontana, Calif.

Now that I've taken a look at the season ahead, there's only one thing left to say: Drivers, start your engines.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

State semi game is prime example of why shot clock is needed

I think one of my Tweets during a boys basketball state semifinal game Thursday may have summed it up best:
Don't think high school hoops needs a shot clock? Turn on the state tourney right now. This is beyond ridiculous.
Thursday's game from the Target Center between Hopkins and Shakopee in Class 4A is a prime example of why the Minnesota State High School League needs to get on board with the shot clock. (It was also a good example of why I prefer watching hockey games to basketball games during the dead of winter.)

Boys basketball has been a strong powerhouse at Hopkins for quite a few years now. Seeded No. 1, Hopkins beat Shakopee 49-46 in the semis Thursday, in four overtimes. Sophomore Amir Coffey launched a shot from well beyond half court, 60 feet or so away from the basket, that went in just before the buzzer in that fourth OT to give his team the stunning win.

But that play and the final score certainly do not tell the whole story of how the Royals ended up on top.

Lots of overtime, lots of standing around
If I remember right, I think the score was tied 41-41 near the end of regulation (and the score didn't change by the end of overtime No. 2). With a couple minutes left, Hopkins went into the most literal form of stall ball I have ever seen. The Hopkins player just dribbled the ball in the same spot. Then he stood there. Timeout was finally called with about 19 seconds left, with the obvious strategy being Hopkins would take one final shot for the win.

They tried this twice, and that final shot didn't go in. They tried the same thing again and ended up not getting a shot off before time ran out. Shakopee didn't come up and challenge, sticking to a zone defense. I'm sure the coaching staff for the Sabers thought this was the best option against a tough Hopkins team. My limited knowledge of basketball tells me to agree with that.

Eventually, some points were scored in overtime. Shakopee had a three-point lead when Hopkins tied it. A fifth overtime looked likely as only a couple ticks remained, with Hopkins getting the ball at the other end. That's when Coffey hit the shot that landed the Royals in the Class 4A championship. His shot also got conversations going about which play was better, his buzzer beater, or former Royal Blake Hoffarber's three-point shot while he was sitting on his rear end that sent the 2005 championship game into double overtime. I'll go with Hoffarber.

Hopkins tried not to lose, and won
Anyway, the way Hopkins played the end of the game the other night was a classic "trying not to lose" strategy, in my opinion. By standing there holding the ball, you're not trying to win. You're not playing the game outright and seeing who the better team is when the buzzer goes. I honestly think Shakopee played so well and gave Hopkins such a tough test, that the Royals decided that the ultimate stall ball technique was the best way to go.

Even watching on television, you could tell the Shakopee fans were not happy with the Hopkins strategy. In contrast, the fans in blue and white for Hopkins were standing and clapping. For a game that was at a standstill.

Shot clock is necessary
One of my biggest pet peeves with watching high school basketball is the lack of a shot clock. Without it, I've seen too many games get really boring, really fast, with tons of time left. It's the old, pass it around, don't be in any hurry to shoot, then the other team will be forced to foul, etc. You still have some of this at the pro and college levels, but at least the shot clock puts some kind of limit on that.

As far as the amount of time to put on the clock, I'll leave that to the experts to decide. Forty-five seconds? A minute? Anything, as long as the clock is in place.

The MSHSL needs to bring shot clocks into the rules for basketball, and the sooner the better. The cost of installing the clocks at schools statewide is the biggest argument I've heard as to why shot clocks aren't part of the game already. But the issue isn't going away, and prices aren't going down.

Maybe it's saying something like shot clocks need to be in place three years out, giving districts enough time to install shot clocks and possibly raise the funds necessary or go out for a referendum. However it gets done, it needs to.

If North Dakota can do it, why can't Minnesota?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gotta love The Tourney

There is nothing like state tourney time. The atmosphere during the playoffs and state tournaments during the winter season is just fun. Topping the list? Most likely the high school boys hockey tourney. It's one of the best ones around.

Every year it seems I get the hockey tourney fever worse than before. It makes me want to do nothing but watch hockey from the Wednesday quarterfinals to the end of championship Saturday; in person is best. My brother and I went to the Class 1A championship game a couple years ago between St. Thomas Academy and Hermantown.

This year, I made it down to watch the same game, except it was No. 2-seed Hermantown versus No. 1-seed East Grand Forks March 8 at the Xcel Energy Center. St. Thomas, a dominant hockey squad which has since moved up to Class 2A, failed to make the tourney. This was the fifth year in a row that Hermantown made the state finals - and this time there was no private school standing in its way.

Hawks a favorite to win it all
Like many others, I was picking Hermantown as the team to beat. But what I didn't realize is that the Hawks actually had kind of a rebuilding year. Only six players on this year's team played in the state tourney last season. Coach Bruce Plante said it perfectly after the game, saying that people were picking his team because of the hockey tradition in the northern Minnesota town, rather than the talent and experience of this year's players.

What I hoped would be a great game between the two schools wasn't exactly what I expected. The East Grand Forks Green Wave beat the Hawks 7-3 after scoring five unanswered goals in the second period. It was a game that was pretty well over by the time the second intermission arrived.

The Hawks had their chances in the first period. After a bit of a choppy start, they basically had three power plays right in a row, and even some 5-on-3 time. It took them a little while to get something going. They didn't register a power-play shot until the second opportunity with the man advantage.

Credit goes to East Grand Forks for not allowing the Hawks to get on the scoreboard during those power plays.

"I thought we won that game in the first period," said EGF Head Coach Tyler Palmiscno. "To kill off those penalties..."

Momentum quickly shifts, floodgates open for Wave
Hermantown seemed to have the momentum going into the locker room though. The puck trickled in behind the Green Wave goalie with just 32.4 ticks remaining in the first to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead. I hoped for more of the same in the second, or at least a pretty close contest.

It only took a couple minutes into the second for East Grand Forks to tie the game, as one of its players split the defensemen to score. The Green Wave took the lead about a minute later, after a big hit in the neutral zone on one of the Hawks, and didn't look back.

A couple minutes after that it was a 3-1 lead on a power-play goal, as a big pile of Hawks were in the crease trying desperately to get the rebound out of there. Just like at a wave pool or the ocean, the Green Wave kept coming. It scored two more times, with 2:34 and 31.6 seconds left in the period, to take a commanding 5-1 lead, making the third period a formality.

I was having a hard time figuring out if the Green Wave offense was just that much better, or if the Hawks goalie was having an off game. It seemed to me that some of those goals could have, and should have, been stopped. But then again, I've never been in between the pipes before.

Green Wave domination
In what was probably a necessary move, Hermantown changed goalies to start the third. If it was to spark some life into the Hawks, it didn't seem to work out that well. They made it 5-2, giving some hope that another quick goal could have turned the game around. But East Grand Forks pumped in another two to ice the first championship in school history. The Hawks scored a power-play goal with about four minutes left in a too little, too late fashion.

The final shot advantage went to East Grand Forks at 29-25. The Green Wave took part in the typical championship celebration on the ice after the final second ticked away.

"I thought today we came out with our best," Palmiscno said. "It still hasn't really sunk in. Nobody can ever take this away from us."

More heartbreak for the Hawks
For Hermantown, it was another championship that got away. The scene on their side of the ice during the awards ceremony looked like a funeral. You could tell that they were a dejected team. Coming in second would be a great accomplishment for some schools, but for the Hawks, second place year after year is tough to take.

"If it didn't hurt so much, I'd laugh," Plante said. "Our kids played hard. We ran into a better team."

He did say it feels better losing to East Grand Forks than to anybody else, a shot at some of its past private-school opponents, no doubt.

During the news conference, Plante was asked if he'd be back to coach next year. He didn't give a firm answer, saying it's to be decided after some thought. This yearly routine becomes a "big sack of rocks on your back after awhile," he said.

I hope he doesn't decide to hang it up just yet.

The tourney is always fun, and it was great to be there for a game. My goal is still to be there for the entire tournament some time, or a least stay for an entire semi-final session. This is the tournament that makes Minnesota the State of Hockey.