Sunday, November 30, 2014

Some Wild players, power play need improvement

Time to call out some of the players who need to step up.

Charlie Coyle, with just two goals and nine assists. He's a guy that Lou Nanne called a budding superstar, I believe, but Coyle is not living up to that. He needs to use his size to drive the net, or position himself in front of the crease so he can be there to jam in rebounds or at least provide a screen for point shots.

Mikael Granlund, with three goals and seven assists. He's still a relatively young player, so I'm not as down on him as others. Still, he really showed what he can do with the puck during last year's playoffs. I want to see that again. He might be trying to get a little too cute with the puck sometimes.

Jason Pominville has 11 assists and is second on the team in points, but he only has four goals. Maybe he needs an eye exam. Don't get me wrong, I've been a Pommer fan. But lately it seems a good chunk of his shots miss the net completely. Wide, wide, wide. I'd like to see him get the accuracy back and hopefully that will lead to some more goals.

Mikko Koivu, the team captain only has three goals and six assists, putting him further down on the stats sheet. I expect more from the veteran leader who is also the all-time points leader for the franchise.

Finally, Thomas Vanek. He's had many critics this season, and I'm officially one of them. He's a veteran player the front office signed for his goal scoring ability. So far, he has just two goals, although he's tied for the team lead with 12 assists.

Many people are pointing to his assists as a positive and wondering what all the fuss is about. I'll say again that he was signed for his goal scoring ability, not to be a play maker who constantly passes the puck and racks up assists.

He had arguably his best game of the season Friday in Dallas, with a late game-tying goal and two assists, including one on Scandella's winner. For me, it was a small step on a long road in the right direction. He has a lot to prove to me on the ice. By all means Vanek, prove me wrong.

Niederreiter, Zucker and Parise warm up.
Where oh where has the power play gone? 
I don't think many would argue that the biggest problem for the Wild this season is the power play. Quite often, it's actually been a momentum killer for them, which is the opposite of what you want. Just how bad are they with the man advantage? Ranked 29th in the league at 7-for-73. That's less than 10 percent.

It didn't seem like that big a deal when the season started and it got off to such a slow start. I mean, the Wild were winning and scoring goals 5-on-5. Plus, we all thought the power play would pick up eventually. Different aspects of the game go through hot and cold streaks in a long 82-game season, after all.

But after a couple months, this is getting ridiculous. Something has to be done to change it up. The Wild needs to adopt a shoot-first mentality, drive the net and stop worrying about making 14 passes for a highlight-reel goal. Sure, this is true of their play all the time, as I always am quick to point out, but it's even more true on the power play.

Also, start changing up who's on the power play units. Mike Yeo, if your leaders aren't getting it done, shake things up. Maybe the only way to light a fire under them is to demote them briefly. Why not bring in Jason Zucker or Nino Niederreiter to the top power play line?

Keeping Zucker on the penalty kill is great, but he needs a shot to shine on offense, too. And after all, Niederreiter has four of the team's PP goals.

Low in the standings
The Wild once again are hovering around that playoff bubble. Too early to talk playoffs? Sure. But every point is valuable in a Western Conference, not to mention Central Division, that is extremely competitive. I also blame the scheduling so far for putting the Wild at a disadvantage. It seems they can't catch up in the games played column after an early six-day break. (Grasping at straws with that one? Probably. But the numbers don't lie.)

Of course, that will all even out, but right now it doesn't put the Wild in a great position in the standings. Plus with the exception of Saturday, the Wild haven't lost in the OT/shootout column either. Regulation losses don't get you any points.

The Wild have shown they can be a great team, no doubt about it. Pointing out some of these flaws might be a little over the top, but in my opinion they are very valid issues that need to be addressed if the Wild will continue to have success.

Wild sing the Blues in a well-played game

Refreshingly, I wasn't too disappointed with the 3-2 shootout loss the Minnesota Wild suffered Saturday at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Of course, I would have been happier with a win, but it was a good game with some excitement. Can't ask for much more than that.

Both teams came into the game on the second night of a back-to-back, with the Wild grabbing an overtime win Friday in Dallas. The division-rival Blues also won that night in OT. Things looked pretty equal in the first period. It was scoreless, but there were some close chances. Let's give credit right now to Niklas Backstrom for some good saves in goal.

It could have been the even play from the two clubs, but I kept thinking "playoff hockey" as I watched the game. The fact that I watched the game live in the lower bowl with my brother may have something to do with that, since you get a faster, you-can-see-the-stickwork version of the game. I can't quite pinpoint it; the game just had a competitive nature that I liked.

The Minnesota during warm ups Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center.

Get the scoring started
So, the Blues struck first in the second period, taking a 1-0 lead after a poor clearing attempt from Wild defenseman Keith Ballard. It was disappointing, because at the time I thought this could be one of those 1-0 final scores.

Mikko Koivu netted a nice top-shelf goal to tie it up, however. As I Tweeted to Judd Zulgad from 1500 ESPN Radio, I guess Koivu heard him on the radio that morning. Zulgad pointed out that both Koivu and Charlie Coyle were on their way to going the month of November without a goal. The tally was only Captain Koivu's third goal this season.

As expected, the Blues weren't afraid to throw the bodies around. Late in the second, Kevin Shattenkirk got a major penalty and a game misconduct for checking Ryan Carter from behind, sending him head first into the boards.

Power play... big deal
On the resulting 5-minute major power play for the Wild, Zach Parise scored to put his team ahead 2-1 at the second intermission. Yes, that would be a power-play goal. I will continue to use sarcasm here and in my Tweets regarding power-play goals until the Wild figures out how to solve the usually-disastrous man advantage play.

The power play is still not clicking, at 7-for-73 and ranked 29th in the NHL about two months into the season. That's a problem. And while it was great the Wild took the lead with a goal on the major penalty Saturday, let's emphasize that the penalty was a 5-minute major. That means that unlike a minor, where the penalized player comes out of the box if the opposing team scores a goal, the team holding the advantage on a major penalty can score an unlimited amount of goals while the player stays in the box for five minutes.

I'll just let that rule hang there for you to ponder.

Stop mouthing off after calls
Anyway, I also wanted to mention that the Blues seemed to take exception to every call against them. I'll admit, there were a few of them. But each time, one of their players (sometimes two) was over jawing with the officials during the TV timeouts and play stoppages after calls were made.

I have no idea what went on or what was said, but it got a little annoying after the first couple times. It'd almost be worth it to see a new penalty in the NHL, some kind of bench minor like two many men on the ice, that the officials could call if teams are getting too lippy. I'm thinking along the lines of baseball when players or managers get thrown out for arguing.

Just a thought, which actually in this instance probably shows my bias as a Wild fan.

Back to the game...
The Wild continued to generate chances (stop me if you've heard that before) in the third period. However, the Blues took control in their offensive zone and put on the pressure. It was one of those situations where you could feel that it was just a matter of time before the tying goal made its way to the back of the net.

However, I didn't get the feeling that the Wild decided to just sit on their 2-1 lead, which was good because I thought they played like that in Dallas.

The tying goal came with about five minutes to go in regulation, off a turnover in the Wild end. Ryan Suter, who had a couple questionable playmaking decisions that night, decided to force a pass along his blue line instead of getting the puck out of the zone with Blues players driving.

Despite some dicey moments, that game didn't end in overtime either. I guess the Wild can't expect Marco Scandella to win it for them all the time. He scored the game winner the night before in Dallas and also had the OT goal against Winnipeg recently, saving the Wild from giving up 3-0 leads in both cases.

Quick sidebar: Scandella inked a five-year, $20 contract extension earlier Saturday. It would've been great to have him earn his money again against the Blues, but again, you can't expect him to do it all.

Same old guys in the shootout
The Wild went scoreless in the shootout, and Vladimir Tarasenko won it for St. Louis. It was the first overtime/shootout loss on the season for the Wild, in front of the season's largest crowd so far at the Xcel Energy Center: 19,124.

Here's what was frustrating about the shootout, other than the loss, obviously: The same old shooters for the Wild. Mike Yeo elected to go with three guys he deems his leaders, Koivu, Parise and Jason Pominville. Koivu shoots so much in the shootout that the goalie read his signature move perfectly. Pommer missed the five-hole. Parise didn't get much of a shot off.

The Wild haven't had many shootout opportunities yet this season, but it still would've been nice to go with guys on recent hot streaks. Who? Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter. They're the ones scoring the goals lately. Yeo wants leaders, and those guys are leaders on the stats sheet.

Niederreiter leads the team with 11 goals, four of those on the power play, and Zucker is tied for second (with Parise) with nine goals.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Crazy game against the Sabres snaps the Wild's losing streak

Cleaning up the hats after the hat trick.
The first period in last Thursday's game between the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres at the Xcel Energy Center certainly wasn't typical.

First of all, the score was 4-2 after 20 minutes. That's four goals for the Wild, a team that struggled to score goals on the recent road trip and rode a four-game losing streak back home to St. Paul.

Then there was the Wild's netminder, Darcy Kuemper. He quickly took the wind out of the sails by giving up a goal on the first shot of the game for the Sabres, just 63 seconds in. When he gave up a soft goal on the next shot, yes, that's two goals on two shots, he got the hook. Head Coach Mike Yeo didn't waste any time pulling the No. 1 goalie and throwing veteran Niklas Backstrom in the cage.

I never heard exactly, but I don't think there was an injury involved. It seemed that for whatever reason, Kuemps just didn't have his stuff together that night.

Goal, goal, goal
Anyway, the real key to the first period was three goals scored in a 17-second span after Buffalo had its 1-0 lead. Ryan Carter, a fourth-liner not necessarily known for his offense, drove the net and punched the puck into the net. I say punched, because that's what the referees thought he did - punched it in with his fist. So they had to go to the tape to find out if it was a good goal. He knew it was, based on his victory skate in front of his bench before the official call was made.

It was a good goal, going in off Carter's stick, not his hands.

Seven seconds later, before the announcer could even finish telling us the time of the goal and who had the assists, Nino Niederreiter put the Wild up 2-1. The place was going kind of crazy at that point.

Then came the second goal from Buffalo, causing the still-standing fans to throw their hands up as if to say, "Are you kidding me?"

A power-play goal. Yes, that actually happened.
Things settled down after that, until near the end of the period. Niederreiter scored his second goal of the game. It wasn't just any goal. It was scored on the power play, something that has been a struggle for the Wild so far this season. And that's an understatement.

As I said to my mom, "We just witnessed history."

Turns out, the Wild weren't done with the man advantage. Seriously, 5-on-4 play for the Wild has been a momentum killer more often than not. Jared Spurgeon, in his first game back from an injury, extended the Wild's lead with the only goal of the second period.

Yes, it was another power-play tally. I couldn't believe it.

When it rains, it pours for Nino
Niederreiter was close to a hat trick a couple times during the game, before he finally got it with an empty-netter to finish off the 6-3 win. Not only was it his first hat trick, but it was also his first multi-goal game in his career. What a crazy game.

Afterward, there were some thoughts that the game really wasn't that big of a deal because it was played against lowly Buffalo. But when you've lost four games in a row on a dismal road trip to bring your team to .500, the old cliche is true: A win's a win.

I guess it was just what the Wild needed. It went from a losing streak to a three-game winning streak, even if they almost blew it against Winnipeg and won in overtime. But that's a different story. Hint: Officials got too involved in that game.

I suppose I can't finish up here without addressing the illness in the locker room. Yes, it seems four Wild players have had the mumps. Other teams in the league, and even an official, have dealt with this as well. The common thread is teams that played in LA and Anaheim around the same time earlier in the year.

The Wild usually have the flu go through parts of the team during the season, but the mumps? Come on.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Time will tell if Molitor can really be 'here to win'

In sports, everybody loves a winner. So it's a good thing Paul Molitor is here to win.

That was the overall message he threw out there during a Tuesday news conference where he was introduced as the 13th manager for the Minnesota Twins. Molitor, who's worked within the Twins organization over the past few years, replaces Ron Gardenhire.

With a few candidate names floating around for the job, hometown-boy Molitor always seemed to be in the center of it all. I would've liked to see Doug Mientkiewicz get a shot, especially since he's had managerial success in the Twins minor league system. But oh well.

All in the Twins family
While Molitor, 58, hasn't been a manager before (which could be a drawback), he's been around baseball and around the Twins club for a long time. This could be good and bad. He knows the players, the so-called "Twins Way" and what's gone well or terribly awry the past four, 90-plus loss seasons.

However, many out there were clamoring for General Manager Terry Ryan and the Pohlads to go in an entirely different direction and make a hire from outside rather than within. I really don't know if I have a great gut feeling either way on this. I think, as cliche as it sounds, time will tell.

The manager change was a necessary one, so I'm glad for that. I also don't think a skipper has sole control over how many wins a team gets during the year, but I'm hoping Molitor might be able to make some changes where he sees improvement could be made.

Finding the right changes
I'm not exactly sure what that would be. Maybe it's throwing baseball's book out the window for the ninth inning when your starter is cruising and you don't yank him in favor of the closer. Maybe it's laying out firmer expectations for players in the clubhouse and attaching consequences to those expectations. Maybe it's shuffling the batting order. Maybe it's working with players to improve the defense so we can get some Gold Glove Awards back to Minnesota.

Molitor said Tuesday that he could find a lot of things he liked about last year's team. That's fine, just make sure to build on those strengths and certainly not ignore the downfalls.

I'm also curious to see who the supporting coaches will be. The past few years, the Twins simply shuffled guys around to different positions rather than go out and find replacements. I am definitely interested to see who's hired as the pitching coach; I really think Rick Anderson needed to go more than Gardy but also recognized they were a package deal.

Molitor had a great career
Though he's a St. Paul lad and Cretin High graduate, just like Joe Mauer, Molitor didn't put on a Twins uniform until the end of his playing career. He spent most of his tenure with the Milwaukee Brewers where he racked up triples, hits and .300 batting averages.

He won a World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993 and took home MVP honors for his performance in the Series. He knocked in his 3,000th hit as a member of the Twins. He's also one of those players who has the honor of getting voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a first-timer.

I just hope he can be as successful with a manager's cap on as he was with a batting helmet.