Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Game 7 will be exciting, nerve-wracking

Heart pounding, with my face resting nervously in my hands.

That’s pretty much how I watched the third period of Monday’s game six between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. It was nerve-wracking.

Well, with the exception of the jump off the couch and raising my arms after Zach Parise tipped in the game-winning goal in what turned out to be a 5-2 victory in an elimination game on home ice for the Wild.

Bring on game seven.

Parise, who’s scored at least a point in each playoff game so far, had a four-point night. He scored 49 seconds into the game, setting a Wild playoff record. With 6:29 left in regulation, he tipped a Mikko Koivu shot from the point past goalie Semyon Varlamov (who gave Parise a cross-check to the back earlier in the play).

Perhaps the biggest sigh of relief however, came when Jason Pominville scored… wait for it… an empty-netter. Yes, the Wild finally got an empty-net goal that it had searched for earlier in the series. In fact, just to prove they could do it, they scored two empty-netters. Coach Patrick Roy’s strategy of pulling the goalie early didn’t work out for him this time.

Tonight, the teams head back to Denver for a game seven to determine who will face the already-waiting, defending-Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL Divisional Finals.

Minnesota has been here before. It came back from a 3-1 series deficit in 2003 against the Avs, winning game seven in overtime. In Denver. Against Patrick Roy (Don’t forget that game-winning goal against him that Andrew Brunette scored.). Then the Wild beat Vancouver in the next series in game seven, after another 3-1 deficit.

Game sevens are always exciting, no matter what the path was is to reach them. It doesn’t matter if you won the first three games of the series. It doesn’t matter if you think the series should already be over because of an unlucky bounce.

Winning one more game is all that matters.

Statistics show that the Wild have the tough task of playing on the road. Western Conference teams are 20-4 at home in the playoffs so far. Plus, the home team has won every game in this series.

But as they say, that’s why they play the games. You can’t predict what will happen, and that’s what is so great about sports.

The Wild have some good momentum to carry over from game six, much like it did going into game five (where they nearly came away with a road win). As I keep hearing, they just need to stick to their game. They have dominated a lot of play in this series, which has been great to see. Young Darcy Kuemper has also stepped up in his role in between the pipes.

If they just keep up the intensity, get some good chances and take advantage of shooting the puck on goal, the Wild have a great shot to buck the trend and come away with a win.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s been an entertaining series between the Wild and Avs. It’s only fitting it should end in a decisive game seven.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Missed calls magnified after Wild/Avs game 5

Ryan Suter said it best: “It’s a damn shame.”

That was his post-game comment when the media asked him about the tying goal (on a play that looked to be offside) Colorado scored with 1:14 left in regulation. The Avalanche went on to win game five 4-3 in their building to take a 3-2 series lead over the Minnesota Wild.

The Wild need to win game six in St. Paul and then game seven back in Colorado in order to move on to the next round of the NHL playoffs.

The result of Saturday’s game five had a similar feel as game one. Maybe a bitter taste of frustration, anyone? The Wild saw a late lead slip away, have to regroup for overtime and then see the Avs celebrate a game-winning goal on their home ice.

Alright, so far I’ve avoided what’s had many people on social media feeds in an uproar: Officiating.

Take a look at replays and photos of the tying goal, and it’s pretty obvious that the play was offside. The whistle should have been blown, stopping the play, and it’s possible the Wild would have held on for the win.

Suter didn’t hold back in his comments after the game, saying the officials missed the call. Also, I liked the vibe from Suter following the last couple games. He seemed happy with the strong play of his team, but disappointed with the results of games one and five, and hungry for another win.

Anyway, I’m not going to sit here and write that the Wild are facing elimination solely because the refs didn’t make an offside call. Or that they didn’t call Colorado for what looked like textbook holding on Charlie Coyle as he tried to skate into the zone for an empty-net goal. Or that Mikko Koivu had his stick held and was punched in the back of the head, which resulted in a four-on-four situation instead of a Wild power play.

I learned awhile ago that as a sports fan it’s really not best to say my hometown team lost a game because of the officiating. There are too many other variables. You can play the coulda-shoulda-woulda game and analyze this play or that play to determine how the outcome might be different.

If the Wild could have scored an insurance goal near the end, or if Darcy Kuemper could have made just one more save, things would be different. You could go on all day.

But games like Saturday’s make this mindset difficult for a fan. It’s hard not to pin the loss on the refs, because it’s such an easy thing to do. The stakes are so high in the postseason, too, so everything is magnified.

To be honest, I haven’t really been pleased with the officiating in the entire series. It hasn’t been the most physical matchup, but in a few instances after skirmishes it looked like the Wild should be getting the man advantage. Instead, it’s an even call.

Obviously, I know that referees are human, their calls can be subjective at times and sometimes they will make (or not make) calls that we as fans don’t understand.

Frustrating as it might be, the results are the reality, no matter how you think it should have finished. It’s time to move on to game six.

The Wild have to focus on what has made them successful so far in this series.

Though game five wasn’t as dominating, they still played well. Kuemper, who I need to remind myself is still a youngster, had some strong saves in goal once again, Zach Parise finally tallied a goal and Matt Moulson breathed a sigh of relief as he scored a goal after some bad luck with the goal post in this series.

I like what I’ve seen from the Wild, although it’d be great if the key goal scorers like Koivu, Jason Pominville and Parise could pump in a few more goals. I hope, as the Wild players keep saying, they just stick to their game and then good things will come. Head Coach Mike Yeo (who was very diplomatic in his news conference Saturday) didn’t say his team is due for luck, but rather “some stuff here to go our way a little bit.”

Despite some of the tough-to-take results and nitpicking, it really has been an entertaining series so far. Let’s hope we get to see two more games between these two clubs, not just one.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

With some good play, Wild have life in playoffs

I have vivid memories of watching Andrew Brunette’s overtime, game-winning goal that he pushed past Colorado goalie Patrick Roy in the first round of the 2003 NHL playoffs.

As a high-school sophomore, I stayed up late to watch some of the games during that playoff run (then staggered into choir practice the next morning). When Bruno scored that goal, one of the most exciting in the Wild’s history, I jumped up in excitement in front of the TV.

I wouldn’t mind more playoff memories. In 2014.

The Minnesota Wild trail Roy (this time he’s a head coach) and the Colorado Avalanche 2-1 in the opening round of this year’s playoffs. A 2-1 hole is a much better place to be than 3-0, especially since history will tell you it’s nearly impossible for teams to come back from a 3-0 deficit in the best-of-seven series.

Game 1 still stings
I know game No. 1 is long over and the result can’t change. But boy, it’s still a tough one to swallow.

The Wild played well and came out with good jump at the Pepsi Center against Roy’s Avs. After a 1-1 first period, the Wild took control and tallied three in period two. The prettiest play was probably a long pass from Jonas Brodin to Erik Haula, who scored on a beauty of a wrist shot (that actually reminded me of Bruno’s goal from ‘03).

I was pleasantly surprised when Kyle Brodziak scored, but he committed an error that, for me, was the turning point in the game. In his own zone and with no pressure, Brodziak made a poor choice on a pass attempt and turned the puck over to Colorado, resulting in a goal that made it 4-3.

It was an absolute gift and a turnover that cannot happen in the playoffs.

In a bold move down by a goal late in the game, Roy pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov (who’s been outstanding this series) with about three minutes left in regulation. Roy said afterward that he even wanted to pull him with four minutes left.

Paul Stastny found the back of the net with about 13 ticks left on the clock to tie the game at 4. That was a terrible feeling if you’re a Wild fan. It got worse once Stastny struck again in overtime as the Avs came back to steal game one.

For the record, I don’t agree that Roy’s move to pull Varlamov early was why the Avs scored. With 13 seconds left, the goalie would be pulled anyway under the rule of thumb.

Plus, what really stung was the Wild nearly found the empty net. It made it all the way down the ice into the crease before a hustling Erik Johnson swept it out of harm’s way for Colorado.

The Wild also hit a post in overtime.

Ah, Minnesota sports.

Moving on
Game No. 3 became even more important after the Wild lost Saturday 4-2. Not that they weren’t in good company; Dallas and Chicago were also faced with digging out of 2-0 series holes.

The term “must-win” can get overused whenever teams are down quickly in a series. I even heard it after the overtime disappointment last week.

Technically, Monday’s contest was not a must-win game for the Wild. It sure was close though.

With more overtime excitement, youngster Mikael Granlund scored the only goal of the game about five minutes into the extra session to give the Wild a 1-0 win in front of the home crowd.

It was pretty close to the Bruno moment.

It seemed like the Wild couldn’t buy a goal throughout the game. Let’s just say I grew weary of hearing, “Save, Varlamov!” on the television broadcast.

The home team had a strong first period and out-shot Colorado. (Shots ended up 46-22 in favor of the Wild.) I was on the edge of my couch for most of the game. The longer the Wild dominated play and continued to shoot the puck on goal, the more worried I was that one Wild mistake or Avalanche rush would result in a Colorado lead.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

That’s why it was such an amazing feeling as a fan to see the winning goal from Granlund. Those are moments where you just love sports.

I can’t forget to give a shout out to Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who with 22 saves earned a shutout in his first career playoff start. It would have been easy for him to let in a couple easy shots, but he certainly did his part to help the team to a win.

It’s no secret injuries have plagued Wild goaltenders this season, from Niklas Backstrom to Josh Harding to Kuemper. It’s made it tough, but there have been some bright spots, too.

I’d expect Kuemper to get the nod in game four. He relieved Ilya Bryzgalov in game two, who’s played well for the Wild but struggled some lately.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance...
The Wild made it a series again with that game-three win. Now, they obviously have to look ahead to playing the same way in game four to even the series. With the same dominating play, peppering Varlamov with shots, the Wild should be in good shape to at least put themselves in a good position to win.

Shutting down Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Stastny and 18-year-old Nathan MacKinnon proved challenging for the Wild, but they seemed to adjust defensively in game three. That needs to continue.

It doesn’t seem we’ll be able to count on Cooke, but other players will need to step up. I’d like to see team leaders Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville put some pucks in the back of the net.
I’m hoping the Wild can even the series, and then I wouldn’t doubt seeing a seven-gamer. It’d be great to have a competitive series between two rivals.

Because having some more memorable playoff moments would be great, too.

Cooke-ie monster faces suspension

Unfortunately, one of the headlines that has hockey fans fired up is the hit Matt Cooke delivered to Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Monday’s game. Cooke received a minor kneeing penalty and will have an in-person hearing at NHL headquarters today. He faces a suspension that could exceed five games.

After the hit, Barrie skated gingerly off the ice and headed right to the dressing room. He’s out four to six weeks with an MCL injury.

The Wild signed the veteran Cooke to a three-year deal last summer. Avid hockey fans know that he has a reputation, and it’s not for his skating or scoring abilities. He’s a very physical player who many would classify as a goon.

I’ll admit, I was one of them. (I have a blog entry to prove it.)

I was disappointed when I heard Cooke was going to put on a Wild sweater this season. He’s known as a dirty player who’s delivered some nasty hits resulting in some devastating injuries. I didn’t want that kind of player on the team I cheer for all season.

But Cooke hasn’t been suspended since March 2011. Since then, he wanted to make it clear that he had changed his ways. I was skeptical at first, and Cooke proved me wrong throughout this season.

Those dirty hits I was almost waiting for didn’t seem to happen. In fact, Cooke turned into an offensive spark at times. He has 10 goals and 19 assists this season.

Everything changed, of course, with the hit on Barrie. I had a hard time finding my objectivity on this one, because now he’s a Wild player and my home team won the game.

Here’s my take: I did not see the hit as a dirty one with intent to injure. Barrie saw Cooke coming toward him and tried to avoid the contact. For whatever reason, Barrie’s left leg was the one sticking out at the time of the hit. It didn’t look intentional.

Of course, if the roles were reversed, I would probably be very upset if a Wild player was sidelined with an MCL injury.

Update: Cooke was suspended for seven games, starting with Thursday's game four. The suspension will carry over to next year's regular season if it cannot be fully served in the playoffs.