Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wild playing well four games into the season

An offensive explosion is a great way to open a season.

The Minnesota Wild started the 2014-15 saga with two solid victories against the division rival Colorado Avalanche. The opener left fans saying, "How can it get any better?" as the Wild routed the Avs 5-0, with five different goal scorers and a franchise record for shots on goal, too. It was more of the same two nights later in Denver, as the Wild skated to a 3-0 win.

Well, that 2-0 start has turned into a 2-2 record for the Wild after a well-played, but disappointing in the results department, California road trip. It was a pair of 2-1 losses to Anaheim and the defending Cup champs in Los Angeles that warranted zero points for the Wild. The results just didn't happen.

It's like in bowling league. If you start the season off too strongly, your average has nowhere to go but down. Yes, I just related bowling to hockey.

Heard this story before
While Minnesota played outstandingly well in the first game, it was also clear that Colorado did not have its A game. I think the road win was a bigger surprise, since most figured the Avs would be angry and not stand to get beat again, this time in their own building.

Despite out-shooting and out-chancing a couple of California's elite hockey clubs, the Wild couldn't find the back of the net. Against LA, Jonathan Quick proved once again that he is a freak of nature, somehow seeing and stopping pucks when there's a large crowd in front of his goal crease. He was a major part of why the Wild lost that game, since they more than doubled the amount of shots the Kings had.

Still, we've seen this saga play out before. So many chances, lots of puck control in the offensive zone, a plethora of shots. But not enough on the scoreboard to show for it. It's frustrating to watch all those chances get scooped up by goalies, sail wide of the net or get whiffed on.

Still too early to worry
Obviously, it's part of the game. You're not going to go 82-0, as many on Twitter joked. There will be off nights. It's still hard when the players seem to be doing everything right and aren't rewarded. And really, some of this could be seen as pretty nitpicky after four games into this long season.

Well, what else am I supposed to do with a team that's already had a ton of off days when other teams around the league have played seven or eight games? (Nice early scheduling, NHL.)

New to the Wild roster this year, Thomas Vanek is still looking for his first goal. He's had plenty of chances, too. I think fans really want to see him get that first tally. No doubt he wants the monkey off his back.

As for other players, I'm still liking the young players on this team. Erik Haula, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund. It's great to have such a deep roster going down to the third and fourth lines.

Power play, we have a problem
The biggest glare so far is that the Wild's power play is 0-for-16. Talk about needing that first goal. If you can still win games scoring five-on-five, the power play numbers get a little less heat. No one cared the Wild didn't have a PP goal in the 5-0 blowout. But when your team managed only a goal a game the last two, the stat becomes a central focus.

The power play units have already been shaken up a little, and it's something that goes in streaks. Sometimes you're hot, and sometimes you're not. They've had some good looks with the man advantage. That first goal will come eventually.

On the flip side, the Wild's penalty kill is performing well, only giving up that one goal to LA so far. That's an important stat as well. Especially the way some of the officiating has gone against the Wild. Yes, I went there.

Kuemps is the real deal
Of course, I can't forget to give a virtual pat on the back to Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper for his outstanding performances in the first three games. He broke the franchise record for a shutout streak, which he took into the third game this season. I heard different numbers for the minutes, but he really played well.

The Wild gave veteran Niklas Backstrom some work in the game against LA, and I can't put him on the hook for the loss. The first goal was a bad bounce, and his teammates were out of position on the second one.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with the goaltending situation, barring possible injuries, of course. I'd like to see Kuemper get the nod as the No. 1. I've been leery of that in the past because he's a youngster, but he's really proven himself last season and so far this season to deserve that spot in between the pipes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Goal for 2014-15 Wild: Make a deeper playoff run

Hockey season's back already. That's great news for Minnesotans, who endured another disappointing Twins season with the boys of summer. Time for some hope of success as the Minnesota Wild take the ice against the Colorado Avalanche Thursday night in St. Paul. They'll follow that up with a game in Denver Saturday night.

What's so great about this first game is it will be a division-rival rematch of the first playoff round last season. The Wild edged the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, winning the series in thrilling fashion with an amazing, comeback effort to win game seven 5-4 in overtime.

Of course, we all know how the story ended for the Wild, in six games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals. It was a disappointing end, but the playoff run for the Wild also brought some hope for the future.

Youngsters raise their level of play
A lot of younger players really stepped up in the postseason, including Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula. The offensive spark those two in particular brought to the club was truly fun to watch. Nino Niederreiter turned out to be a great addition to the team, leaving fans saying, "Clutterbuck who?" since that fan favorite was dealt away for Nino.

It was interesting how the season played out for the Wild. Things didn't look so good earlier in the year, leaving many calling for coach Mike Yeo to be fired. I was at a game that I thought could be his last if the Wild lost. They won, and so Yeo stayed. Whether he would've been fired is anyone's guess now.

Looking ahead to this season, I think the Wild have every reason to believe it can make it to the playoffs once again. They have a lot of returning players, and I'm hoping the youngsters can shine once again.

The bar has been raised
However, last year created expectations. Making the playoffs is must. If the team does not at least win the first two rounds of the playoffs, it will be a disappointment. That's just my opinion, because of course, it's my blog.

For one thing, Minnesota fans in multiple sports have seen the one-and-done theme too much the past few years. Getting through that second round would be a great step in the right direction, no matter what would happen after that. Now that the Wild have been to the playoffs more recently, they got a taste of what it's like. It would be great to build off of that experience and step up to the next level.

The core remains
Let's not forget we've still got Ryan Suter and Zach Parise leading the way. I also loved what Charlie Coyle brought to the team last season, There's also the addition of Thomas Vanek. It'll be interesting to see how he fits in with the organization. I'm expecting good things, but you never know. Injuries can be just a play or hacky-sack game away.

Oh, and one of my favorite moves: No more Dany Heatley. I was not impressed with his play and very glad to see him and the Wild part ways. He's now Anaheim's problem. I just read that he'll miss the start of the season with a groin injury.

So, I'm excited to watch some games coming up. The start of the season is always exciting, especially if there's potential for a successful season. I really hope the Wild can make a strong playoff run. Raising the cup would be acceptable, too, to state the obvious.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gardy firing needed to happen

Well, the Minnesota Twins organization did something this week that it is definitely not known for. It fired manager Ron Gardenhire after the conclusion of four, 90-loss seasons for the ball club.

After that many losses, something had to be done. I think most fans and beat reporters recognize that. I jumped on Twitter for awhile on Monday (Quick sidebar: The Twins fired Gardy on my birthday. Not cool, hometown team.) after the news broke. A general consensus that I took away was that while people enjoyed Gardenhire during his time here, the move was necessary.

I would agree. Many times, the reason teams are in trouble or losing so much is not solely the fault of the manager or coach who ultimately pays the price. But that's the way it goes. It can't be like George Knox originally wanted in "Angels in the Outfield," when he asked the team owner to trade the 25 players he had because he "couldn't win with those guys."

Cut from the top
In sports, poor-performing teams cut ties with their managers, coaches and general managers all the time. It can become pretty routine, in fact. But for the Twins? They've had two managers since I've been on the planet. Tom Kelly and Gardy, who took over in 2002.

Even the Minnesota Wild, which has only been a franchise since 2000, have had more head coaches than the Twins: Jacques Lemaire, Todd Richards and current coach Mike Yeo.

Along with Gardy, the rest of the coaching staff is gone as well. I'm most happy about the exit of pitching coach Rick Anderson. I'd wanted him to go a couple years ago, but it was clear that he and Gardy were as close as peanut butter and jelly. One wouldn't stay or go without the other.

Replacement candidates
A couple of top names in the running for the next skipper include former Twins Paul Molitor and Doug Mientkiewicz. Both have been interviewed for the position and both have stuck with the Twins organization. Molitor finished his career with the Twins and more recently was part of the team's coaching staff, though he has no managing experience. Mientkiewicz has managed the Fort Meyers Miracle for a couple years, a single A club in the Twins' farm system.

I've always had a soft spot for Mientkiewicz, so I'd love to see him take on this role. I've met Molitor before and wrote my final story for my college newspaper about him. I think that would be a fine choice as well.

But the club also made it clear it would look outside the organization as well, to find the best person for the job. I think this is a very important factor. The past couple of struggling years, the Twins have made moves. It's just been little things like moving coaches around to different roles, but it's been the same people. Some fresh blood might be a good idea in this case.

Just a little bit better
In any case, don't expect the Twins to jump from 90 losses to 90 wins next year. I think most of us would be surprised to see that happen. There is reason to hope, however. Kennys Vargas brought his hitting power up to the big leagues this year. Danny Santana impressed with his batting average. Now if we could just get Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton healthy and up to the majors, it might be a team on the rise.

Firing Gardy won't solve all the problems. Starting pitching is a gaping hole, except maybe for Phil Hughes. And it would be nice to get another big name player on the roster to lead the team, especially since Joe Mauer didn't have the best year. (OK, maybe one of his worst.) Not to mention Terry Ryan is still cleaning up the mess former-GM Bill Smith left in his wake.

I'm looking for improvement from the Twins in 2015. I want them to leave 90 losses behind and maybe move out of the division basement. It's a downswing right now, but hopefully they can turn it around.